Brian Wilson, the singer-songwriter who was the main creative force behind the Beach Boys for the better part of the 1960s, is legendary for being the genius behind such pop masterworks as the single “Good Vibrations” and the album Pet Sounds. He famously, thrillingly reconfigured the three-minute pop song as a canvas for groundbreaking musical experimentation, orchestral beauty, and theretofore unseen sonic complexity. Wilson is also legendary for being a deeply troubled and tortured soul, the debilitating mental illness and drug addiction he battled with for much of his life considered inextricably linked to the core of musical genius. The story of Brian Wilson is a tragic one, but also one of survival and resiliency, since, against all odds, he’s lived to tell the tale and to regale enthusiastic audiences with his vast catalog of beautiful musical creations. Indeed, the scenes of Wilson in action, whether on stage or in the recording studio, or simply in a car listening to music and reminiscing with his good friend, Rolling Stone writer-editor Jason Fine, are the most affecting ones of Brent Wilson’s (no relation) documentary Brian Wilson: Long Promised Road, structured around drives Wilson and Fine take in the area of Los Angeles where the musician lives.
Brian Wilson’s life story is one oft-told on film — most notably in musician/producer Don Was’ 1995 documentary Brian Wilson: I Just Wasn’t Made for These Times and Bill Pohlad’s magnificent 2014 biopic Love & Mercy — so redundancy was an immediate problem this new documentary had to solve. The film does include some standard doc stuff: archival footage, rhapsodic talking heads including Bruce Springsteen, Elton John, Linda Perry, Don Was, and also, for some reason, Nick Jonas — maybe because he’s in a band with two brothers like Brian Wilson was? The familiar beats of Wilson’s narrative are likewise all hit: Wilson wresting control from his overbearing manager father; how competition with the Beatles spurred him to make Pet Sounds; the mental illness that caused him to retreat from onstage performing and into endless obsessive tinkering with sounds in the recording studio; his harrowing years with the controlling and abusive therapist Eugene Landy. However, the contemporary footage of Wilson — now nearing 80, often terse and taciturn, prone to nervousness, and by his own admission a fearful person — gives this well-worn material added heart and dimension.
Watching Wilson revisit the sites of his childhood home and the first Beach Boys album cover shoot, share memories of his long-deceased brothers Dennis and Carl Wilson, and react to hearing his songs again, recalling the experiences attached to them, one can’t help but feel a visceral, deep sympathy for the man, for the pain, sorrow, and trauma permanently etched into his face. But the intended effect isn’t to feel sorry for Brian Wilson; instead, it’s to marvel at the strength it took to survive, persevere, and emerge on the other side, damaged but still intact. It’s these present-day updates that distinguish this latest chronicle of Wilson’s still-ongoing journey, and which add new, resonant beats to an old, beloved tune.
Published as part of Tribeca Film Festival 2021 — Dispatch 6.