DVD Review: Love & Mercy

By , Contributor
Now available on DVD (and Blu-ray) from Lionsgate Home Entertainment is the critically-acclaimed Brian Wilson biopic Love & Mercy. Director Bill Pohlad, best known as a producer (Brokeback Mountain, 12 Years a Slave), finally followed up his directorial debut (Old Explorers back in 1990) with this doozy of a celebration of the music of The Beach Boys and the enduring artistry of their visionary songwriter, musician, producer Wilson. While no one's life can be easily condensed into two hours, Love & Mercy offers a fascinating, emotionally effective look at Wilson—as both a young man (played by Paul Dano) and in middle age (played by John Cusack).

The non-linear structure works well. There's a well-defined contrast between the over-medicated, man-child Wilson had become in the '80s while under the oppressive control of his therapist, Dr. Eugene Landy (Paul Giamatti), and the wide-eyed youth who crafted indelible hit after hit during the '60s. Though the film greatly downplays the detrimental effects of drug abuse that plagued Wilson, at its best it makes connections between Wilson's overbearing (and abusive) father Murry (Bill Camp) and the artist's future mental problems. What's also handled exceptionally well are the sequences in which Wilson directs the other Beach Boys, not mention a small army of session musicians, in the recording studio. The sessions for Pet Sounds and "Good Vibrations" are primarily what are covered. The other Boys are arguably given short shrift, particularly brothers Dennis (Kenny Wormald) and Carl (Brett Davern), but this is primarily Wilson's story anyway. 

Love and Mercy banks (380x254).jpg For a biopic about one of the greatest hitmakers in pop music history, there's a surprising de-emphasis on musical sequences (the opening credits, with a nonstop rush of snippets from various Beach Boys classics, is thrilling). Nonetheless, I dare you to watch Love & Mercy and not immediately feel like reaching for a Beach Boys album as soon as the credits roll. And that's regardless of age, as I think everyone from nostalgic boomers to the more open-minded millennials still embrace their timeless hits. If director Pohlad seems to skimp a bit on the music itself (though we hear quite a lot), it's because he needs to devote ample time to the older, deeply-troubled Wilson. These sequences are not quite as successful, not the least of reasons being it's hard to fully accept Cusack in the role (he still looks and sounds too much like Cusack, whereas Dano seems to have been born to play Brian Wilson).

The love story that develops between Wilson and Cadillac saleswoman Melinda Ledbetter (Elizabeth Banks)—the relationship that eventually leads to Wilson breaking free from the confines of Dr. Landy's "treatment"—is understated and believable. I only wish we had learned just a bit more about Melinda because, given the extraordinary circumstances (Wilson is depicted as being under near-constant surveillance by Landy and a team of cronies), it's remarkable that she had the fortitude to stick with the relationship.

Special features on the DVD include director’s commentary, deleted scenes, and the featurettes “A California Story: Creating the Look of Love & Mercy” (ten minutes) and “A Side/B Side: Portraying the Life of Brian Wilson” (at 25 minutes, the more substantial of the two). While the extras may not be as extensive as they could’ve been (given the richness of the subject), Love & Mercy is well worth seeking out.

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Chaz Lipp writes for The Morton Report.

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