Love and Mercy (film)

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Love & Mercy
Directed by Bill Pohlad
Produced by
Written by
  • Oren Moverman
  • Michael Alan Lerner
Music by Atticus Ross
Cinematography Robert Yeoman
Edited by Dino Jonsäter
  • River Road Entertainment
  • Battle Mountain Films
Distributed by Roadside Attractions
Release dates
  • September 7, 2014 (2014-09-07) (TIFF)
  • 2015 (2015) (USA)
Running time 120 minutes
Country United States
Language English

Love & Mercy is an American biographical film directed by Bill Pohlad about singer-songwriter Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys. Actors Paul Dano and John Cusack play the young and old Brian Wilson, respectively, with Elizabeth Banks as Wilson's second wife, Melinda, and Paul Giamatti as psychotherapist Dr. Eugene Landy. The film is presented in a parallel narrative covering two specific time periods of Wilson's life: the 1960s and the 1980s.

It was screened in the Special Presentations section of the 2014 Toronto International Film Festival.[1][2] The film will be distributed internationally by Lions Gate Entertainment[3] and in the United States by Roadside Attractions.[4]


In the 1960s, young songwriter and recording savant Brian Wilson (Paul Dano) finds himself in the midst of extraordinary success after scoring numerous hit records with the Beach Boys. Following a panic attack, he resigns from concert touring and ventures into the studio intent on removing the group's associations with surf music by creating the greatest album ever: Pet Sounds. Meanwhile, his grip on reality slowly loosens once his recent psychedelic experiences begin to flourish scattered voices in his head. Later in the 1980s, a now-middle-aged Wilson (John Cusack) is shown to be a broken, confused man under the pharmacological and legal thrall of therapist Dr. Eugene Landy (Paul Giamatti). After meeting Cadillac saleswoman Melinda Ledbetter (Elizabeth Banks), she is determined to save Wilson from Landy's manipulation.[5][6]



A theatrical film adaptation of Brian Wilson's life entitled Love & Mercy was first proposed in 1988, and was planned to star William Hurt as Wilson and Richard Dreyfuss as Landy.[11][12] While the project laid in development hell, The Beach Boys were eventually the subject of two made-for-TV dramatizations: Summer Dreams: The Story of The Beach Boys in 1990 and The Beach Boys: An American Family in 2000.[13] In 2006, the project was briefly revived, and was to have included involvement from producers Mark Gordon, Lawrence Inglee, Jordan Wynn, and David Leaf. Nothing further was reported.[14]

I have no interest in making a biopic. … What's fascinating to me is to look at the different elements in his life, like that super-creative period when he was doing Pet Sounds and the later part when he was redeemed. … You don't have to know the music here in the same way you didn't have to know the math in Beautiful Mind … What we want to do is let you experience the story in a personal way.

Bill Pohlad, June 2011[15]

Love & Mercy was formally announced in June 2011. The title takes its name from Wilson's 1988 single, "Love and Mercy", which also appears on his eponymous debut solo album Brian Wilson. The film is the second feature directed by Bill Pohlad — decades from his previous — and was financed with his own money.[16] As Pohlad cultivated an obsession with the 1997 box set The Pet Sounds Sessions,[6] he became interested in the life of Brian Wilson while eventual Love & Mercy producers John Wells and Claire Rudnick Polstein were attempting to make a Beach Boys film.[16] Details on the film remained relatively scarce until its unveiling in September 2014.[16]

The film's original script that Pohlad received (entitled Heroes and Villains)[6] was deemed unsatisfactory, and so he enlisted writer-director Oren Moverman to pen his own, who had previously found success with the impressionistic Bob Dylan biopic I'm Not There (2007).[17] Rather than having a conventional story, in June 2011 the biopic was reported to focus on specific elements of Wilson's life.[15] In November, Wilson stated that he didn't know when the film would be done, and that he was currently "trying to get the script so it’s accurate."[18] Though Wilson was consulted on the film, Ledbetter was majorly involved in communications.[6] Wilson's veteran collaborator Van Dyke Parks — portrayed by Max Schneider — stated that he bore no involvement in the film, and awaited its historical accuracy in what he called "Mrs. Wilson's biopic".[19] On February 8, 2012, Moverman announced that the script was complete.[20]


Paul Dano and John Cusack, Brian Wilson's portrayers

Paul Dano was cast as the young Brian Wilson and believed, "I don’t think it’s a totally traditional biopic. I think it’s gonna be a fun and accessible film, and I think it’s hopefully going to be interesting, like the man that it’s depicting. I think he [Moverman] did an amazing job cracking this story, and I can’t imagine anyone else having done it, aside from him. I know they tried to make movies about Brian for a long time, and I think music stories are tough to tell in an interesting way."[21] Dano reportedly prepared for the role by "filling up" on Wilson's Pet Sounds while learning how to play piano.[21] When asked how familiar he was with Wilson before getting involved, Dano answered that he knew the Beach Boys' music, but was not aware of the extent of Wilson's troubles. He proceeded to immerse himself in Wilson's life by reading, listening, and watching as much information pertinent to Wilson as he could, purposefully abstaining from meeting him in person until he was sure he had absorbed everything in full.[4] He explained, "Without question, learning to play and sing and listening to the music was the most important, because the most true Brian to me is in Pet Sounds. If you want to know him, you go listen to it."[22] He related to Wilson's character adding, "Some of it is frankly deeply personal. Brian talked about trying to make music that would heal people. Knowing that his life was so hard and that was his attitude I felt like that's somebody I want to spend time with. Whether I needed love and mercy at the time or I wanted to give it I'm not sure."[23] Dano also prepared for the role by gaining weight.[23]

John Cusack, who plays Dano's older counterpart, was chosen for the role after Pohlad watched I Just Wasn't Made for These Times, a 1995 biographical film on Wilson by Don Was. Pohlad found portraying the 1980s Wilson to be problematic, since he believed Wilson's appearance changed rapidly in that era, but Cusack immediately popped into his head after watching the biography.[24] After being selected, Cusack listened to the 2011 release of The Smile Sessions, enthusing, "You get a portrait of the genius at work at the apex of his powers at the time before he kind of went into the ashes,"[22] and, "It’s hard to overestimate his influence on music. Pet Sounds was a year before Sergeant Pepper's Lonely Hearts, and everything you hear in the Beatles is there. And then you listen more. Especially to The Smile Sessions, and you hear all these other connections. Boom, there’s ELO, there’s another band."[6]

Paul Giamatti said of the film's structure, "It’s mostly about Brian Wilson’s nervous breakdown. It falls into two halves with two different actors. … I play Dr. Landy, the crazy psychotherapist. It’s a great character. Brian Wilson had a severe freakout and his family got in touch with a psychotherapist out in L.A. named Eugene Landy who took over. That’s where most of the story comes from, because the doctor was basically insane. He made Brian play in a sandbox, I mean crazy stuff."[25][a]

Speaking to The Daily Mail in November 2013, Elizabeth Banks stated "I play Brian’s second wife, Melinda, who he is still married to, and who essentially saved his life. … Brian suffers from a sort of paranoid schizophrenia, and always has, but for years no one knew quite what to do to help him. … Melinda met Brian, fell in love with him and knew she had to save him from this doctor."[27][b]


Filming began on July 15, 2013 in the Hollywood area and expanded to various locations around Southern California.[29] Shooting wrapped on August 27, 2013. Brian announced the film's wrapping through his Twitter page by posting a photo of himself and his wife along with Cusack.[30] The film's wrapping party featured a special appearance by Wilson, who performed a solo live set.[31] In January 2014, Pohlad reported that he was currently editing the film in New York.[32] In July, a casting call was made for additional filming requiring a depiction of 1980s period cars,.[33]


Love & Mercy
Film score by Atticus Ross
Label Capitol
Atticus Ross chronology
Gone Girl
Love & Mercy

English composer Atticus Ross was commissioned for an original score.[34] On September 19, 2014, Pohlad announced that the film's soundtrack would be released by Capitol Records sometime in the future.[35] Variety observed that Ross's score "reincorporates snatches of the Beach Boys' effervescent melodies into something that sounds intriguingly similar to Animal Collective."[5]

Of Wilson's music being incorporated in the film, Pohlad initially clarified, "We're not thinking about this as the hit parade—that would be the biopic thing."[15] The film's distinct studio scenes strove to recapture Wilson's elaborate recording processes during the sessions for Beach Boys albums Pet Sounds and the unfinished Smile. To this end, the scenes were shot "documentary style," and real musicians were hired to act as the session musicians Wilson used.[6] Dano performs a few portions of Wilson compositions on piano, as he recalls, "There are a few scenes where you hear me start a line of a song and by the end of the session, you're hearing Brian's vocals. I have to give credit to the sound people, the transitions are really smooth; you can't tell that one half of it is the real thing and one half is me faking it, so I thank those guys a lot."[4] Pohlad commented on the film's use of original unreleased Beach Boys multitrack session tapes, "[S]o much of what developed out of it was based on the ability to get into tracks. From a music perspective, certainly, the ability of Atticus and I to get into the tracks and play with them was important. Also to have the music in the film was important. It was not ever going to be a Mamma Mia! kind of movie. We didn't want that."[35][c]

In June 2014, touring Beach Boy co-founder Mike Love reported that Wilson had been in the studio recording music which would be used in the film.[37]


In July 2014, a premier screening was announced in the Special Presentations section of the September 2014 Toronto International Film Festival.[1] It was shown on September 7, 8, and 11.[2] Wilson was in attendance at the first screening.[38] Lions Gate Entertainment will distribute the film for an international release.[3] North American rights were purchased for $3 million.[39]



Brian Wilson performing in 2012

In October 2013, Wilson enthused, "We've seen some of the film. So far, so good. The guy who plays me, John Cusack, he's really good. And he sings well,"[40] and that "It's quite a thrill to have a movie made of my life. … I'm very sentimental about it, and it's very, very good. It was a trip to see. The actors and actresses portrayed everybody really well."[41]

Ioncinema ranked Love & Mercy #153 in its list of "Top 200 Most Anticipated Films for 2014" and wrote: "you can be sure that programmers from Cannes to Toronto have already found time to grab a first look. This will receive a red carpet showing wherever it premieres and should at that point be picked up for distribution."[42] The Huffington Post speculated the film to be one of eighteen most-talked-about at the 2014 Toronto Film Festival.[43] The Hollywood Reporter revealed that it was in the festival's top 15 in ticket sales.[44]

Festival co-director Cameron Bailey profiled the film, "Dispensing with staid biopic conventions, director Bill Pohlad nimbly intercuts between two key periods in Wilson's life, shining a double spotlight on his rise to stardom with the Beach Boys in the sixties and his remarkable eighties solo resurgence. As the younger Wilson, Paul Dano gives a superb performance that conveys the artist's prodigious gifts as well as his increasingly precarious mental state; the scenes of creative exploration during the Pet Sounds sessions are exhilarating. John Cusack is equally compelling, burrowing into himself as Dano's middle-aged counterpart."[2]


The film was well-received at the 2014 Toronto Film Festival screening. Audiences rose for a standing ovation, while early reviews unanimously lauded the film.[45][46] Dano worried that the film's highly personal content would trouble Wilson,[35] but he reported that Wilson loved the film, saying "he's a little unfiltered, so you would know if he didn't."[22] Among many music-related films shown at the Toronto Festival,[d] The Wrap named Love & Mercy the "boldest" of the crop,[17] while The Washington Post proclaimed that it had "stolen the show," comparing to its other films as "an unexpected, undisputed triumph."[47]

The BBC awarded the film a perfect score and exclaimed, "[Y]ou feel like you're right there in the studio with him as he creates Pet Sounds. And it's a little like sitting next to Beethoven: the film is tender and moving, but also awe-inspiring. … [Paul Dano] seems to transform into Wilson's very being. The pale, cute moon face, the smile with a hint of a grimace, the disarming spaciness – this isn't just acting, it's channeling of a very high order."[48] The Hollywood Reporter reviewed it favorably, calling it "a deeply satisfying pop biopic whose subject's bifurcated creative life lends itself to an unconventional structure … John Cusack gives one of the best performances of his career, its effectiveness limited only by his lack of a physical resemblance to the songwriter. That will be a stumbling block for some fans, but those who can get beyond it will find a very fine film about a singular artist."[49] Biff Bam Pop! expressed admiration of Dano's portrayal of Wilson and scenes which recreate Pet Sounds and Smile album sessions, naming the film "a gift to Beach Boys fans and Brian Wilson obsessives," and adding that "both Brian, his wife and his fans can sleep easy knowing that the man’s remarkable story has been told with reverence."[38] Variety called the biopic distinctive within its genre, highlighting its cinematography, the actor's performances, and "haunting score".[5]

The Guardian awarded the film three stars out of five, praising Cusack and Dano's performances, but criticizing the film's "neat" portrayal of Wilson's mental illness and other aspects of his life.[50] IndieWire gave the film a B+ and wrote that while Landy's character lacked depth, "It's fascinating to watch the songwriter dash frantically around the studio, orchestrating a dozen sounds into auditory unity that only he understands. No matter what else happens in the plot, Love & Mercy excels at placing the music front and center. … before all else, Love & Mercy is an engrossing portrait of Wilson's specific artistic inclinations, which draw from no real precedent. Cinematographer Robert Yeoman (best known for his credits on Wes Anderson films) conveys the lively California setting in bright colors that strike a recurring contrast to Wilson's troubled subjectivity."[51] An additional review by the publication wrote: "[T]he film has plenty of love and mercy for its subject, but also some edginess, in what is a fascinating look at one of popular music's most important and influential songwriters."[52] Maclean's took issue with the film's glorification of Wilson, claiming that it reduced from "biography" into "hagiography", yet maintains "the soundtrack is unimpeachable, and Pohlad offers a riveting look at how Wilson crafted such aural wonders as 'God Only Knows' and 'Good Vibrations'. Cusack, too, is captivating, and offers one of his best performances in years as the sheltered and lonely Wilson, stuck under the watchful eye of a shady Dr. Eugene Landy (Paul Giamatti, practically twirling an evil moustache)."[53]

The publication Biography felt that the film's source material "inadvertently" reiterates plot devices used by typical biopics, and that, "For better or worse, Brian Wilson is suitably charismatic when he’s absolutely bonkers and hearing voices, and relatively boring after he’s supposedly cured by a new drug regimen and his wife’s benevolence."[54] Grantland was less enthusiastic, writing that the film's characters were treated too graciously in contrast to Giamatti's Landy in order for the 1980s scenes to remain interesting; however, assures that "the 1960s sequences work because they use the musician’s damaged psyche as a creative spark," something which Dano excelled in during his performance.[55]


  1. ^ Giamatti may have been referring to Wilson's 1976 guest appearance on Saturday Night Live in which he nervously performed a solo piano rendition of "Good Vibrations" while stationed in a sandbox,[26] which was in itself a nod to lore pertaining to the Smile sessions.
  2. ^ This statement somewhat clashes with documentations of Wilson's life, as it had been previously reported that Landy's custody over Wilson was ended by a civil suit launched by Wilson's immediate family members including Stan Love and Carl Wilson, not Ledbetter.[28]
  3. ^ In 2010, John Stamos announced that he was to co-produce a non-biographical film of the Beach Boys modeled after the 2008 musical film Mamma Mia!.[36]
  4. ^ Including Roger Waters: The Wall, The Last 5 Years, and Eden.[17]
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  2. ^ a b c "Love & Mercy". Toronto International Film Festival. Retrieved August 10, 2014. 
  3. ^ a b Fessier, Bruce (August 28, 2014). "Beach Boys' Brian Wilson talks Robin Williams". The Desert Sun. Retrieved August 28, 2014. 
  4. ^ a b c Fear, David (September 13, 2014). "Heroes and Villains: 'Love & Mercys Paul Dano on Playing Brian Wilson". Rolling Stone. Retrieved September 13, 2014. 
  5. ^ a b c Barker, Andrew (September 8, 2014). "Toronto Film Review: ‘Love & Mercy’". Variety. Retrieved September 9, 2014. 
  6. ^ a b c d e f Zeitchik, Steven (September 8, 2014). "TIFF 2014: John Cusack and Paul Dano channel a Brian Wilson melody". The Los Angeles Times. Retrieved September 11, 2014. 
  7. ^ Siegel, Tatiana (June 26, 2013). "Elizabeth Banks to Star in Pair of Indies, Including Beach Boys Biopic 'Love & Mercy' (Exclusive)". The Hollywood Reporter. Retrieved 12 August 2013. 
  8. ^ a b "Graham Rogers, Brett Davern Join Brian Wilson Movie (EXCLUSIVE)". June 30, 2013. Retrieved 2013-06-30. 
  9. ^ a b "Kenny Wormald, Jake Abel to Play Beach Boys in 'Love & Mercy' (Exclusive)". The Wrap. July 12, 2013. Retrieved 13 July 2013. 
  10. ^ Takeda-Morrison, Marsha. "Max Schneider Lands Role In Beach Boys Movie". 
  11. ^ "Brian Wilson Movie News 1988" on YouTube
  12. ^ "Brian Wilson on "Crook & Chase"" on YouTube
  13. ^ Bocanegra, Henry. "Rock N' Roll Dream: A Conversation with Brian Wilson". House of Shred. Archived from the original on 30 January 2008. Retrieved 29 July 2013. 
  14. ^ Fleming, Michael (November 14, 2006). "Surf’s up for Wilson bio". Variety. Retrieved July 19, 2014. 
  15. ^ a b c "Beach Boy Brian Wilson's story will come to the screen, courtesy of the screenwriter of 'I'm Not There'". Los Angeles Times. June 23, 2011. 
  16. ^ a b c Cieply, Michael (September 7, 2014). "Filmmaker Pins Hopes on a Beach Boy". New York Times. Retrieved September 8, 2014. 
  17. ^ a b c Pond, Steve (September 10, 2014). "Bold Brian Wilson Biopic ‘Love & Mercy’ Takes Two Actors, Paul Dano and John Cusak, to Play One Troubled Genius". The Wrap. Retrieved September 10, 2014. 
  18. ^ "Brian Wilson on the Beach Boys, Gershwin and his upcoming biopic". IFC. November 16, 2011. Retrieved 28 August 2013. 
  19. ^ @MikeOk: Any contact with "Love & Mercy?"-VDP:Nope. Let's see what's in a name, in Mrs. Wilson's bio-pic. Hang on! on Twitter.
  20. ^ "Oren Moverman Says His Brian Wilson Biopic Script Is Done, Takes "Unconventional Storytelling" Approach". Indie Wire. February 8, 2012. Retrieved 28 August 2013. 
  21. ^ a b "Paul Dano Talks 12 YEARS A SLAVE, PRISONERS, Playing Brian Wilson in LOVE & MERCY, WARCRAFT Rumors, His Punchable Face, and More". Collider. October 2013. Retrieved 26 November 2013. 
  22. ^ a b c Hodgson, Jeffrey (September 9, 2014). "For Beach Boy biopic, actors tap Wilson's good musical vibrations". Retrieved September 10, 2014. 
  23. ^ a b Sharkey, Betsy (September 20, 2014). "Paul Dano finds sunnier side of Brian Wilson in 'Love & Mercy'". The Los Angeles Times. 
  24. ^ "Variety interview" on YouTube
  25. ^ Olds, Dorru (October 4, 2013). "Paul Giamatti Talks Hair and Movies With TheBlot". The Blot Magazine. Retrieved 26 November 2013. 
  26. ^ "Wilson performing Good Vibrations, 1976" on YouTube
  27. ^ Mulkerrins, Jane (November 16, 2013). "Meet Elizabeth Banks, The Hunger Games: Catching Fire star whose career is burning brightly". The Daily Mail. Retrieved 26 November 2013. 
  28. ^ Carlin, Peter Ames (25 July 2006). Catch a Wave: The Rise, Fall, and Redemption of the Beach Boys' Brian Wilson. Rodale. pp. 681–682. ISBN 978-1-59486-320-2. 
  29. ^ "Beach Boys biopic from TV's John Wells shooting in Southland". Los Angeles Times. July 16, 2013. 
  30. ^ Brian & Melinda Wilson with John Cusack on Twitter.
  31. ^ "Now that's a wrap party: John Cusack enjoys surprise show from Beach Boy Brian Wilson after he finishes playing legendary musician in new biopic". Daily Mail. August 28, 2013. Retrieved 28 August 2013. 
  32. ^ Jones, Susie (January 20, 2014). "Bill Pohlad On Producing ’12 Years A Slave’". Minneapolis: CBS. Retrieved August 29, 2014. 
  33. ^ ""Love & Mercy" Movie Casting Call for Cars in Los Angeles, California". Project Casting. July 17, 2014. Retrieved July 23, 2014. 
  34. ^ Kit, Borys (January 18, 2013). "Paul Dano to Play Young Brian Wilson in Upcoming Biopic". Retrieved August 2, 2014. 
  35. ^ a b c Bliss, Karen (September 19, 2014). "'Love & Mercy' Stars John Cusack & Paul Dano on How They Became Brian Wilson". Billboard. 
  36. ^ "John Stamos' Beach Boys Movie to Be a 'Celebration'". Rolling Stone. October 14, 2010. 
  37. ^ Wake, Matt (June 30, 2014). "Beach Boys' Mike Love on writing 'Good Vibrations,' Brian Wilson, hanging with Beatles, Huntsville set-list". Retrieved 2 July 2014. 
  38. ^ a b Burns, Andy (September 8, 2014). "TIFF 2014: Love And Mercy Reviewed". Biff Bam Pop!. Retrieved September 8, 2014. 
  39. ^ Siegel, Tatiana (September 10, 2014). "Toronto: Lionsgate Nabs Beach Boys Biopic 'Love & Mercy'". The Hollywood Reporter. Retrieved September 10, 2014. 
  40. ^ Ruggiero, Bob (October 1, 2013). "For Brian Wilson and Al Jardine, Life's a (Busy) Beach". Houston Press. Retrieved 2 October 2013. 
  41. ^ Graff, Gary (October 14, 2013). "Brian Wilson Says Album With Jeff Beck Is 'Different Than Anything I've Ever Done'". Billboard. Detroit. Retrieved 15 October 2013. 
  42. ^ Lavallee, Eric (February 7, 2014). "Top 200 Most Anticipated Films for 2014: #153. Bill Pohlad’s Love and Mercy". Ioncinema. Retrieved July 13, 2014. 
  43. ^ Rosen, Christopher (July 23, 2014). "18 Movies Everyone Will Talk About At TIFF 2014". The Huffington Post. Retrieved August 2, 2014. 
  44. ^ McClintock, Pamela (September 2, 2014). "Toronto: Stars Power 15 Hottest Festival Titles". The Hollywood Reporter. Retrieved September 4, 2014. 
  45. ^ Campbell, Tim (September 9, 2014). "Good Vibrations for Bill Pohlad's Beach Boy biopic". Star Tribune. Retrieved September 9, 2014. 
  46. ^ Lammers, Tim (September 8, 2014). "Minnesota filmmaker Pohlad unveils Brian Wilson biopic". Minnesota. Retrieved September 8, 2014. 
  47. ^ Hornaday, Ann (September 10, 2014). "At film festival, Bill Murray makes a splash, but Brian Wilson biopic steals the show". The Washington Post. Retrieved September 10, 2014. 
  48. ^ Gleiberman, Owen (September 11, 2014). "Toronto review: Brian Wilson film Love & Mercy". BBC. Retrieved September 11, 2014. 
  49. ^ DeFore, John (September 8, 2014). "'Love & Mercy': Toronto Review". The Hollywood Reporter. Retrieved September 8, 2014. 
  50. ^ Barnes, Henry. "Love & Mercy review – a warm tribute to the extraordinary life of Brian Wilson". The Guardian. 
  51. ^ Kohn, Eric (September 9, 2014). "Toronto Review: Brian Wilson Portrait 'Love & Mercy' Isn't Your Average Biopic". IndieWire. Retrieved September 10, 2014. 
  52. ^ Jagernauth, Kevin (September 8, 2014). "TIFF Review: 'Love & Mercy' Starring Paul Dano, John Cusack, Elizabeth Banks & Paul Giamatti". IndieWire. Retrieved September 8, 2014. 
  53. ^ Hertz, Barry (September 9, 2014). "TIFF 2014 Diary: Getting good vibrations with Brian Wilson". Canada: Maclean's. Retrieved September 9, 2014. 
  54. ^ Porton, Richard (September 11, 2014). "TIFF: "Love & Mercy" & The Tortured Genius of Brian Wilson". Biography. Retrieved September 11, 2014. 
  55. ^ Morris, Wesley (September 9, 2014). "Toronto Film Festival Diary: John Cusack As a Beach Boy, Jon Stewart and Chris Rock As Directors, and Naomi Watts ‘Dancing’ to 2Pac". Grantland. Retrieved September 11, 2014. 

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