The musical biopic may never recover from Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story, as it perfectly satirized the self-seriousness and repetitious nature of the genre. Great artists often come from humble roots and achieve such success that drugs or other things leads to a fall, and often there’s some kind of later day comeback or redemption. It’s a formula. The good news about Bill Pohlad’s Love & Mercy is that it avoids many of those pitfalls by casting Paul Dano as young Brian Wilson, and John Cusack as the older version. One doesn’t see any resemblance between the two, and perhaps one shouldn’t.
The film starts with an overview of The Beach Boys in their heyday as we see that Brian Wilson is troubled and no longer comfortable performing in public as he begins work on his masterpiece: Pet Sounds. In the 1980’s, we see the older Brian as he meets Melissa Ledbetter (Elizabeth Banks) and begins dating her, but Brian has been seeing the therapist Dr. Eugene Landy (Paul Giamatti), who has glommed on to him like a leech and Dr. Landy so controlling that he tries to keep Elizabeth from Brian.
Because of the bifurcated nature of the narrative, it’s hard not to argue that the stuff in the past is the better part of the movie. Watching Brian work with the Wrecking Crew on the making of Pet Sounds is so engaging as you can see the pieces coming into place, while Dano – an actor who’s been good in stuff before – emerges on the next level with this film. His portrayal of Brian in that period, his mannerism… Dano disappears into the part in a way that Cusack can’t even (Cusack also doesn’t resemble the musician as closely). That noted, Cusack – who seems to be working to keep busy these days as he seemingly shows up in a new VOD film every other week – is more engaged here than he’s been in quite some time, and he tries to underplay his version of Wilson, as it would easy to go twitchy and gimmicky for those who know the latter day Wilson (who often sounds like Bill Murray in Caddyshack).
Pohlad’s influences may be on his sleeve (he directly references Jean Luc Godard’s Sympathy for the Devil and Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey), but it’s a smart film that doesn’t hold the audience’s hand when it comes to introducing new players into the mix, as their names (oh, that’s Van Dyke Parks!) only mean something to those who have a working knowledge of what was going on at the time. The important part is that the drama works and is engaging. And you grow to love and feel for Wilson and his tormented soul. In its way, it’s the best version of a film like Shine.
Lionsgate presents the film in widescreen (1.78:1) and in DTS-HD 5.1 master audio. The film also comes with a digital copy. As a recent release shot on film, it looks great on Blu-ray, and the soundtrack is kick ass. The film comes with a commentary track by director Bill Pohlad and co-writer Oren Moverman, and it’s an intelligent track with two people who worked closely with Brian Wilson on the making of the film, and neither are shy about talking about what they stole from Godard and Kubrick. They also point out that everything that seems theatrical or over the top is stuff that actually happened, as to be expected. But as often commentary tracks are people talking about locations, this is definitely one of the better ones.
“A California Story: Creating the Look of Love & Mercy” (11 min.) talks about how the film covers three decades, and about the decision to shoot the movie in California, which was essential for a story about these people, and being able to use many of the same locations the actual events took place. “A-Side/B-Side: Portraying the Life of Brian Wilson” (26 min.) gets not only the cast and crew to talk about Wilson, they get Brian Wilson and Melinda Ledbetter to talk about their reaction to the film and their involvement in making it. This also walks through much of what they wanted to convey in the film, which can get a little redundant, though it’s nice to hear Dano and Cusack talk about Wilson, and – again – Cusack seems really engaged with this project.
Four deleted scenes are included: “Brian Meets His Idol” (1 min.) shows Brian bumping into Phil Spector, only for Spector to act like an ass. “Brian Talks With his Family” (2 min.) has Brian dealing with the band and his family after his breakdown on the plane, and his decision to quit touring. “Brian Looks for a Collaborator” shows him meeting for the first time with Tony Asher (Jeff Meacham) about working together on Pet Sounds. Finally, “Murry Interrupts a Recording Session” (3 min.) shows more of Murry Wilson’s destructive influence on Brian. The disc also comes with bonus trailers.