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'Love & Mercy': A worthy musical biopic ignored

In a summer movie season dominated by dinos and inside voices, one of the year's best hasn't gotten its due

It's in theaters, and only recently in wide release. But up against the monster hits "Jurassic World" and "Inside Out" a modestly scaled winner such as "Love & Mercy" has had a difficult time getting noticed this summer.

It's not fair.

Director Bill Pohlad's film about Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys, his rise and fall and resurrection, is the most interesting musical biopic in years, even decades. Its storytelling offers plenty of dramatic access points, whether you're into "Pet Sounds" or not, yet the script does not recycle the usual formulas in the usual chronological fashion.

In large ways and small, the film explores how music, family, demons of all kinds can consume a vulnerable artist, or nearly. Paul Dano, John Cusack and Elizabeth Banks come through with some of their truest work to date.

And the movie hasn't yet made $7.7 million.

The injustice of this is no shocker. Last September Lionsgate picked up "Love & Mercy" for North American distribution three days into the 2014 Toronto film festival.

But now, in its summer 2015 run, the marketing of the picture has been tentative, ineffective. The title comes from a Wilson song title somewhat less recognizable than "Good Vibrations," and it's pretty flat. I suppose a more conventional movie might've found a larger audience, though of course then we'd have just that: a more conventional movie.

Longtime industry analyst Anne Thompson, who runs the Thompson on Hollywood blog over at indiewire.com, thinks the problem is simple.

"My sense," she emailed Wednesday, "is that the indie side of the summer movie business has been KILLED by 'Jurassic World' and 'Inside Out,' mainly. I was also surprised by how poorly 'Dope' and 'Me and Earl and the Dying Girl' did."

Like "Love & Mercy," both those titles drew major acclaim at Sundance in January. But anyone who has attended a few big festivals knows the truth. Festival buzz is one of the least trustworthy sounds on Earth.

A film as gently, yearningly idiosyncratic as "Love & Mercy" was not destined to make "Walk the Line" money ($186million worldwide, the highest grossing musical biopic according to boxofficemojo.com) or even "Jersey Boys" money ($67 million, despite mass shrugs). Modestly budgeted films in this genre make do with the audience they can scrounge.

Further down the budget spectrum than "Jersey Boys" but infinitely higher up the quality scale, the great Gilbert & Sullivan biopic "Topsy-Turvy" made a mere $6.2 million in the U.S.; the wildly impressionistic Sid Vicious Sex Pistols dynamo, "Sid and Nancy," mustered only $2.6 domestically.

It's hard out there for a biopic, particularly one that doesn't deliver the expected, cliched smiling-through-tears adversities and triumphs.

Along with "Love & Mercy" there's another new music film worth your time and trouble. Opening at the Music Box on Friday, co-writer and director Mia Hansen-Love's "Eden" evokes the '90s electronica scene in Paris and beyond, telling a fictional story of a rising young deejay. It's a mellow, bittersweet triumph of sonic ambience. And like "Love & Mercy," its focus is on music as a siren song, a driving force — a force not without its costs, but eternally lighting fires within.

Michael Phillips is a Tribune critic.

mjphillips@tribpub.com

Twitter @phillipstribune

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