Greetings again from the darkness. Renowned music producer Don Was sits at a sound board and methodically begins to deconstruct the gorgeous song, “God Only Knows”. As the instruments fade, and he shuffles the isolated vocals, Was shakes his head in amazement all these years later. The man behind the song, Brian Wilson (founder of The Beach Boys), was and remains a musical genius, and in his case, one need not be concerned about applying that overused label.
If director Brent Wilson’s film has a structure, it comes in the form of multiple car rides and diner lunches featuring Brian and his friend, “Rolling Stone” editor Jason Fine. Due to Brian’s anxiety during sit-down interviews, car rides and chats with his friend provide more comfort and free him up to reminisce and discuss his life and music. On the drives, Brian chooses the songs he wants Jason to play, depending on the mood and the topic of conversation.
Mental Health is now treated much differently than in years past. At age 21, Brian suffered from ‘auditory hallucinations’ – he was hearing voices in his head. Over the course of 6 decades, he has attempted to deal with the voices in various ways: food, drugs, alcohol, therapy, etc. But his only real escape has been through music. Even today, Brian never really looks at ease unless he’s performing his songs. He rides along offering commentary as his friend Jason tenderly guides him through the past, including stops at his childhood home in Hawthorne, Paradise Cove where an album cover was shot, his home on Laurel Way that featured his piano in a sandbox, and the Bellagio Road mansion in Beverly Hills. Brian is not one to dwell on the past, but he has tremendous recall for different phases of life.
As you might expect, many musicians are eager to discuss how Brian’s music with The Beach Boys influenced their own songwriting. Included here are Jakob Dylan (The Wallflowers and son of Bob), Jim James (My Morning Jacket), Taylor Hawkins, Linda Perry, Elton John, Bruce Springsteen, and even Nick Jonas. We presume the latter was included to represent the younger generation’s appreciation of music past. Elton may offer the most profound comment when he states Brian deserves accolades for his music AND his life. Each phase of Brian’s life is touched on, though we never dive too deeply. His demanding father (Murray Wilson) is heard through audio recordings, and the infamous “Landy years” where Dr. Eugene Landy literally controlled Brian’s life (right down to a sad story of spaghetti) are briefly dealt with, allowing us some insight into Brian’s many challenges over the years – including the death of two brothers, (and Beach Boys) Carl and Dennis.
But it’s the music that means the most to Brian and to us. We get some clips of live performances from the early days of The Beach Boys to the more recent live performances of Brian on stage. There is a terrific montage blending Carl’s and Brian’s separate singing “God Only Knows”, and Brian disclosing that “Good Vibrations” was recorded in pieces at 4 different studios to capture the sound he wanted. He also admits to being inspired by The Beatles and wanting to eclipse their work – which led to his writing the masterpiece Pet Sounds album, in turn inspiring The Beatles to write Sgt Pepper. There is a brief clip of Brian’s cousin, and fellow Beach Boy, Al Jardine commenting on Brian’s immense talent, but as expected, there is nothing from Mike Love; although Brian graciously proclaims Mike Love was “a great singer”.
Brian’s Beach Boys music has brought so much joy to listeners and fans over the years, and it’s truly fascinating to see how he has battled through a life filled with sadness and obstacles. Watching him listen to brother Dennis’s solo album, learning how he re-worked his unfinished Smile album to finally release it in 2004, or seeing clips of his live Pet Sounds performance at The Hollywood Bowl helps us understand the healing power of music. Brian has been compared to Mozart, and his fellow musicians discuss how his genius and vision shines through in song structure and texture. Brian Wilson stands as proof that for a true artist, pain and beauty are often linked and dependent on each other. The film’s closing credits feature footage of Brian and Jim James recording a new song, “Right Where I Belong”, showing that the music (and the man) is still a force.
In theaters and On Demand beginning November 19, 2021