Review: Brian Wilson: Long Promised Road

Over the past several decades there’s been an illogical inversion with regard to movies about famous musicians from the so-called Golden Age of Pop. We’ve mostly gotten cookie cutter biopics which were then followed by dedicated artist documentaries. By rights, the documentaries should have come first in order to take advantage of artists who were still alive and could comment directly on their own legacies. As it stands, many are now dead and thus documentarians rely on third person recollections or observations that cut their own cookies. Director Brent Wilson’s doc about Brian Wilson, the leader of the Beach Boys, gives off a certain whiff of desperation as it centers on Wilson’s life as told by the man himself, whose reliability as a source of information has always been questioned due to mental health issues that have been apparent since the late 60s. Of course, the third person observations are also here, but what makes the movie special is those scenes where Brian is confronted with the full force of his genius and how it manifested itself. As it turns out, he’s a more reliable witness than he’d previously been given credit for.

The main reason for this clarity is the participation of journalist Jason Fine, who has known Wilson for many years and with whom he has formed a bond of trust and true friendship. Wilson’s main problem in dealing with things like interviews and talking about his past is a crippling fear that can arise without warning, and over the years Fine has learned how to adjust his interactions in such a way as to keep him at ease. He not only knows how to stimulate Wilson’s joy at his own accomplishments, but how to get him to open up about those periods in his life when drugs and bad decisions derailed his artistic ambitions. Much of the movie takes place in Fine’s car, with Wilson sitting shotgun and pointing out places in Southern California where he has lived and worked. It’s a perfect means of giving Wilson the reason he needs to speak frankly and as clearly as possible about his development as both an artist and a person. As often happens with these kinds of documentaries, the subject has trouble articulating just what made him so successful—Wilson has an offhand relationship to his talent, which he simply attributes to an abiding love of pop—and that’s when outsiders Bruce Springsteen, Elton John, Don Was, and others provide thematic integrity by relating not only how the Beach Boys fit into world culture, but how Wilson’s uncanny gift for melody and harmonic arrangements is, essentially, unexplainable. In fact, the best description of this ability is provided by the Venezuelan conductor Gustavo Dudamel, who compares Wilson to Schubert, the classical composer who most critics consider the greatest Western melodicist of all time, but one whose methods were so opaque as to be unknowable. 

As for Wilson’s own biography, I probably learned more from the uneven Love and Mercy. Wilson’s memory is good, but not much running time is given over to periods in his career that I am most interested in, like the early 70s, which is once again described as that time when Wilson planted his piano in a sandbox and survived on pot and PB&J sandwiches. Perhaps more input from talking heads about the Beach Boys’ history, and not just their impact, would have been helpful. And while it’s clear he misses his brothers greatly, Wilson doesn’t really talk about them that much, which, of course, could mean that it’s too painful for him. But when Fine plays Dennis’s solo album, Pacific Ocean Blue, and you learn that Brian has never heard it before, the look on his face as he listens, intently, says more about the Beach Boys as a unit than anything else in the movie. 

Opens Aug. 12 in Tokyo at Toho Cinemas Chanter Hibiya (050-6868-5001), Cinemart Shinjuku (03-5369-2831), Shibuya Parco White Cine Quinto (03-6712-7225).

Brian Wilson: Long Promised Road home page in Japanese

photo (c) 2021 Texas Pet Sounds Productions LLC

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