The Beach Boys’ Brian Wilson Bares His Soul at Tribeca
The reclusive musical maestro features in the doc “Brian Wilson: Long Promised Road.” At the Tribeca Film Festival, he dished on the film and how he was “jealous” of The Beatles.
Brian Wilson has lived a renowned life full of joy and heartache, but on Monday night at a virtual press conference to celebrate the upcoming June 15 Tribeca Film Festival premiere of Brian Wilson: Long Promised Road, Brent Wilson’s documentary about the Beach Boys founder’s personal and professional ups and downs, the 78-year-old singer, songwriter and producer was in a cheerful—if less than wholly talkative—mood.
Asked over Zoom why he agreed to participate in Brian Wilson: Long Promised Road, Wilson was succinct: “I don’t know, I just made up my mind.” Nonetheless, sitting alongside director Wilson (no relation), he admitted that it was the participation of Rolling Stone’s Jason Fine that convinced him to take part in the nonfiction affair, which focuses on the artist and writer as they embark on a nostalgic road trip to Wilson’s old SoCal homes and hangouts while listening to some of his favorite tunes. From Wilson’s childhood house to his former Laurel Way and Malibu residences, it’s a wide-ranging journey, and one that often brings them to Wilson’s favorite eatery, the Beverly Glen Deli—a spot where, tonight, Wilson recommended getting “breakfast burritos and hamburgers.”
It hasn’t always been sunshine for Wilson, despite the fact that as the artistic force behind the Beach Boys he crafted some of American music’s most indelible upbeat classics, from “Surfin’ U.S.A.,” “Good Vibrations” and “God Only Knows” to “California Girls,” “Surf City,” and “I Get Around.” Those songs are naturally front and center in the film, although so too are Wilson’s well-documented battles with mental illness and drugs. Following a panic attack in 1964, Wilson halted touring with his group—which included his siblings Dennis and Carl, cousin Mike Love, and pal Al Jardine—and concentrated on writing and producing, which led to the creation of his oft-heralded masterpiece, 1966’s Pet Sounds. Even that triumph, however, couldn’t stave off the tumultuousness of the next few decades, which saw the deaths of both Dennis (in 1983, from drowning) and Carl (in 1998, from lung cancer), a nine-year stint under the prison-like guidance of Dr. Eugene Landy, and struggles with weight, addiction, and persistent and cruel auditory hallucinations (i.e. voices in his head) that began when he was only 21.
All of those topics are covered in intimate detail in Brian Wilson: Long Promised Road, which provides a chronological snapshot of Wilson and the Beach Boys’ stratospheric success through concert and studio clips, home movies, news interviews and photographs, not to mention glowing commentary from the likes of Bruce Springsteen, Elton John, Don Was, Linda Perry, and Jim Jones, the last of whom collaborates with Wilson on a new end-credits song, “Right Where I Belong.” Still, Wilson’s film isn’t meant to be a definitive account of the group’s legendary run (which continues today, in bastardized pro-Trump form, under Mike Love, much to Wilson’s chagrin). Instead, it’s a highly personal trip down memory lane, with Wilson—still a musical genius after all these decades, as well as a man whose outgoing and infectious good cheer coexists with lingering fragility—at its center.
As director Wilson explained at the press conference, his guiding motivation was to commemorate “this incredible third act in [Wilson’s] life that he was having.” Moreover, he felt that he could “bring out some of the intimacy I knew we would need for the film, and that I wanted for the film. I wanted it to feel personal. I wanted it to be really intimate, and see a side of Brian that I hadn’t seen as a fan.” After a couple of underwhelming straightforward-interview attempts, he truly figured out the film’s unique form when he enlisted Fine, who stated that making the movie was, for him, merely an extension of the way in which he and Wilson have hung out for years. “We love driving around and talking, and it’s just something that we’ve done for a long time,” Fine said. “This was very natural in that way.”
In Brian Wilson: Long Promised Road, Wilson comes across as a man damaged, but not wholly diminished, by time, his friendly personality colored by the many traumas he’s suffered throughout his trailblazing life. You can sense his heartache and joy as he listens, eyes closed, to his brother Dennis’ Pacific Ocean Blue for the first time. An even greater air of melancholy overwhelms the proceedings when Fine informs Wilson about the death of Jack Rieley, whom Wilson first met while working at the cash register of his health food store Radian Radish, and who became the Beach Boys’ manager and motivated them to spend six months in the Netherlands recording 1973’s Holland. Wiping tears from his eyes at this heartbreaking news, Wilson is a man in whom the light and the dark are constantly at war, pushing and pulling him about as he navigates a West Coast milieu whose spirit his own music helped define.
Shooting the film over the course of three weekends, the director was faced with an enormous task: cutting down the 70 hours of footage he captured for a 90-minute feature. As he admitted, that was “a tough process. And all joking aside, it hurts, because there are just so many beautiful moments, and so many things you want to keep in, and yet you also want the film—or least I did—to breathe, and wanted those moments when Brian and Jason aren’t talking. They’re sitting there, and Jason’s letting Brian look out the window and watch L.A. pass by, and we just hear the songs play on the radio. I wanted to have those quiet moments as well. When you combine those quiet moments with all the beautiful conversations they were having, and all those funny conversations they were having, it was tough.”
From revelations about the way he simultaneously kicked three addictions (to coke, booze, and cigarettes), to his painful relationship with Smile, the planned follow-up to Pet Sounds that wasn’t completed until 2004 (as Brian Wilson Presents Smile), Brian Wilson: Long Promised Road is a portrait of Wilson as a survivor—of the “genius” label with which he was burdened at an early age; of abuse at the hands of his father; of addiction; and of mental health problems that have never totally abated. More than half a century after the Beach Boys first broke onto the scene, creating a sparkling soundtrack for Southern California and redefining methods of textured and experimental studio production, he remains one of pop music’s enduring greats. And if that isn’t clear from the film’s wealth of instantly recognizable hits, it’s hammered home by admirers’ habit of likening Wilson to a modern-day variation on Mozart, Schubert, and Mahler.
Such lofty comparisons may be apt, but listening to Wilson today, the impression left is one of a humble songwriter and performer still excited by the opportunity to create that perfect song or album—especially one that might match his own lifelong musical benchmark, Rubber Soul, with Wilson even confessing on Monday night that “me and Mike [Love] were a little jealous of the Beatles.”