(2021) Music Documentary (Screen Media) Brian Wilson, Jason Fine, Bruce Springsteen, Elton John, Linda Perry, Gustavo Dudamel, Don Was, Steven Page, Nick Jonas, Jakob Dylan, Jim James, Mark Linett, Carl Wilson, Dennis Wilson, Al Jardine, Bob Gaudio, Probyn Gregory, Andy Paley, Taylor Hawkins, Darian Sahanaia, Stephen Kalioich, Melinda Ledbetter. Directed by Brent Wilson
Without a doubt, the musical legacy of Brian Wilson is right up there, as Los Angeles Philharmonic Musical Director Gustavo Dudamel opines, with Schubert and Mahler. He has been described as “Pop’s Mozart” and while the man himself would probably squirm at such descriptions, they aren’t wrong.
Wilson, the man who wrote most of the big hits of the Beach Boys and produced their greatest records, also has struggled with mental illness, exacerbated by his drug abuse in the late Sixties and Seventies. Before that, he was churning out incredible songs extolling Southern California as a kind of paradise of warm sand, sunshine, beautiful girls in bikinis, and clean-cut guys in hot rods. It was a different era – for many, this sounded like heaven on Earth and the Beach Boys sold it like aggressive real estate agents. The Los Angeles chamber of commerce should have pictures of these guys up on their wall; they helped bring a lot of business and industry to California because they brought a lot of people to the Golden State.
He comes off here as a gentle soul, uncomfortable with talking about himself, nervous and anxious about any sort of interview. The fact that his friend and Rolling Stone writer Jason Fine is conducting the interviews probably helps some. Fine drives the former Beach Boy around Los Angeles to points of interest on the Brian Wilson tour; to the site of the house he grew up in Hawthorne – long since demolished to make room for a freeway, although a plaque stands at the site marking it as a California Historic Landmark. He also takes him to Paradise Cove, where the covers to some of the early Beach Boys albums were photographed – there’s a plaque there, too. Fine also takes him to various houses where he lived during the heyday of the band, and to his brother Carl’s home – he generally doesn’t get out of the car, except at the Deli where they have lunch (and run into Vanna White, a former neighbor of Wilsons and their brief chat occurs off-camera; ah, Hollywood).
We listen to a long of the songs that Brian and the Boys made famous (and a few less famous ones), and listen to the expert opinions of fellow greats Springsteen and Sir Elton John, both who admit being mesmerized by the music and inspired by it. John even admits to cribbing a few of Brian’s studio tricks for his own albums. Don Was, the veteran producer who also directed the 1995 documentary Brian Wilson: I Wasn’t Made For These Times, listens to “God Only Knows” from the magnificent Pet Sounds album and shakes his head in wonderment and delight. “I’ve been doing this (producing music) for forty years and I still can’t tell you how he did that,” listening to the intricate instrumentation, some of which he can’t identify – “A flute with reverb, maybe?”
But maybe the most emotional moments, even as director Brent Wilson (no relation) looks at the abusive of Brian’s father Murry, and his psychiatrist Eugene Landy, are reserved for Brian’s relationships with his brothers, both gone. He listens, for the first time he says, to Dennis Wilson’s overlooked gem of a solo album, Pacific Ocean Blue and is impressed. “I wanna hear it ALL,” he says when asked if he wants to hear more. He also is brought to tears talking about his brother Carl (who passed away in 1998 from cancer, and asks Fine to turn off the song on which Carl is singing. “I can’t listen to this anymore,” he says quietly. Dennis drowned in 1983.
This isn’t a documentary that is going to reveal much more about Brian than is already out there – you probably need to go to I Was Not Made For These Times if you want more of that. But this is a sweet and affecting documentary that reminds us that although Brian may not like being identified as a genius, he nevertheless has produced some of the greatest music of his time and we are all the better for it.
REASONS TO SEE: There are some strong and powerful moments here. Lots of really good insights throughout.
REASONS TO AVOID: Nothing really revelatory here.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity and drug references.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Wilson has been diagnosed with schizoactive disorder, and continues to hear voices in his head to this day.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, DirecTV, Google Play, Microsoft, Redbox, Spectrum, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/22/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 91% positive reviews; Metacritic: 78/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Kurt Vonnegut: Unstuck in Time
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: The Feast