- by Jeff Beck
Love & Mercy: An Unfocused Biopic with Great Potential (Blu-ray)
Just about everyone has heard of The Beach Boys, the fun, upbeat surfer band that hit the scene in the 60s with multiple hits like “Surf City,” “Little Deuce Coupe,” “Surfin’ U.S.A,” and many more, but what a lot of people might not be aware of is the story of what happened after their initial period of success, a time when leader Brian Wilson wanted to experiment with new sounds and harmonies. Bill Pohlad’s film “Love & Mercy” not only explores this revolutionary time for the group from Wilson’s (Paul Dano) point of view, incorporating his oncoming psychosis and how it affects his work, but also takes a look at a period later in Wilson’s (John Cusack) life, where he falls in love with a young woman, Melinda (Elizabeth Banks), while under the tyrannical control of a doctor (Paul Giamatti), who is about as overprotective as a doctor could be. As the film jumps back and forth between the 60s and 80s, we delve deeper and deeper into this passionate man’s life, exploring the music that would help define an era and the relationship that would help make him whole again, in this bizarre, but true story.
“Love & Mercy” is meant to play as one complete film, giving us a look at two important parts of Brian Wilson’s life, and while it seems like a rather fascinating idea, it ends up feeling like two distinctly different films. The film that focuses on young Brian as he experiments with different instruments and melodies (mainly for what would eventually become the album “Pet Sounds”) is rather fascinating, dealing not only with the creation of what would go on to become one of the greatest albums of all time ("Rolling Stone" named it the 2nd greatest album ever made), but also with how Brian’s impending sickness affects his music and his relationships with his friends and family.
It becomes a compelling dissection of his genius and his perfectionist approach at trying to get every little element of the album right in an attempt to move the group forward. Meanwhile, his fellow bandmembers just don’t see what he’s trying to do, with one outright telling him that he should go back to the surfer style that they’re known for. It’s not a particularly thorough analysis of this period in his life, but it does make for an engaging look at how a genius can be misunderstood during their most creative period (critics loved the album, but it was not a best seller at first).
Then you have the other film that focuses on Brian in the 80s during a time when he was misdiagnosed by a doctor who keeps a tight leash on him. He meets a woman he really likes at a car dealership, falls in love with her, and starts seeing her as often as he can, or at least as often as his doctor will allow. This is the part of the film that is not particularly compelling, mainly because, while it may be another part of the story that many don’t know about, it’s just not nearly as interesting as the other half of the film. In fact, whenever it switches over to this section, it’s likely you’ll simply be waiting around, wishing it would go back to the more creative and engaging part of Brian’s life. This is not to demean any of the performers in this section. Cusack, Banks, and Giamatti all do fine work here, but they just aren’t given that much to work with.
At about the halfway point, you’ll have probably already reached the conclusion that the film would’ve been far better off if it had just focused on the 60s instead of trying to roll both stories into one, for when one part of the story delves into the character much more, and in a far more captivating manner, it should’ve been clear that that section would overshadow the other pretty easily. “Love & Mercy” is certainly not a bad film, it just needed a little more focus on its stronger elements, for then we would’ve been left with a biopic that was entertaining, compelling, and informative through and through, instead of one that felt like it was merely half done.
“Love & Mercy” comes to Blu-ray in a 1.78:1, 1080p High Definition transfer of excellent quality. Throughout the presentation, the picture remains clear and sharp, without a hint of fuzziness to be found. However, it’s the 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio that’s the star of the show, presenting the incredible soundtrack filled with Beach Boys hits in perfect clarity. Overall, the film has received great treatment, leaving little room for complaint.
Commentary with Director/Producer Bill Pohlad and Co-Writer/Executive Producer Oren Moveman: An informative commentary track that has the director and co-writer discussing such topics as the story and its structure, in addition to other behind the scenes tidbits.
A California Story: Creating the Look of Love & Mercy (11 Minutes): A featurette in which the cast and crew discuss bringing the look of these two periods to life via the costumes and the locations (many of which were the real places where these events happened).
A-Side/B-Side: Portraying the Life of Brian Wilson (25 Minutes): A featurette that has the cast and crew discussing bringing Brian Wilson’s story to life, including finding the best way to tell it and choosing the right actors to portray him.
Deleted Scenes (7 Minutes): A collection of four deleted scenes, two of which are actually worth watching, including one in which Brian discusses his desire to stop touring and work more at the studio (presumably an alternate scene to the one in the film) and another in which the Wilson brothers’ father interrupts a recording session for “I Get Around.”
“Love & Mercy” is a very well-intentioned film, attempting to explore two important times in the life of singer/songwriter Brian Wilson, but unfortunately it plays as two distinctly separate films that are on two different levels of quality. The portion of the film that explores Wilson’s musical genius and the impact of his mental illness is by far the more compelling of the two, giving us a fascinating glimpse into his creative process, while the other half of the story involving how he met and fell in love with his current wife almost seems as though it belongs in an entirely different film. You can’t help the feeling that a film focusing on just the earlier part of his life would’ve been far more successful, for without the distraction of the latter portion, the film would’ve felt more like a cohesive whole, rather than a story that gets continually interrupted. Brian Wilson is indeed one of the most important musicians of his era, very much deserving of a great biopic, but sadly what we’re left with is one that merely gets it half right.
Available on Blu-ray and DVD starting tomorrow.
Follow me on Twitter @BeckFilmCritic and be sure to subscribe for the latest updates.