For his portrait of Beach Boys founder Brian Wilson, filmmaker Brent Wilson (no relation) gathers the usual tools of the trade: informed and impassioned talking-head testimonials and a rich selection of stills and clips from public and personal archives. What sets the documentary apart is the new vérité footage of day-trip excursions to the musical great’s former homes and stomping grounds. In a moment that encapsulates the unforced intimacy of this two-guys-in-a-car setup, Wilson, riding shotgun, glances at his watch and poses a question to journalist Jason Fine, his friend behind the wheel: “What’re you going to have at the deli?”
Brian Wilson: Long Promised Road could be considered the third piece in an accidental trilogy, after Don Was’ concise and soulful 1995 doc, Brian Wilson: I Just Wasn’t Made for These Times, and Bill Pohlad’s exquisitely nuanced 2014 biopic, Love & Mercy. Both those films push deeper than the new one and are more emotionally satisfying — the latter because it’s a sculpted drama, the former because it gives us a more verbal and expansive Wilson than the septuagenarian version. The composer-musician, who has long been forthcoming about his mental illness (the auditory hallucinations that began when he was 21 persist to this day, and he’s been diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder), is now given to long silences punctuated by blunt declarative sentences.
Brian Wilson: Long Promised Road
But the way the film honors those silences is its boldest stroke. It might seem that Rolling Stone editor Fine isn’t asking tough questions as he drives Wilson around Los Angeles and environs, and in conventional terms, he isn’t. There’s a gentle, therapeutic calm to Fine’s voice — no small thing for Wilson, an against-the-odds survivor and an artist with an uncommon connection to the auditory world. At one point he commends Fine’s “consistent way of talking.”
The car they travel in is equipped with cameras but no privacy-invading cameraperson and, crucially, is loaded with MP3s of Wilson’s music; his selections on their outings form the film’s score (which also includes concert footage through the years and a new song, “Right Where I Belong,” recorded for the doc). The tracks unwind, and the emotions play upon Wilson’s face. Sometimes the memories are painful, or simply too much — the abusive showbiz father; the deaths of his two bandmate brothers; the Svengali psychotherapist, Eugene Landy, who was hired to help him overcome his addictions and took over his life. (Landy was played by Paul Giamatti in Love & Mercy, and, on the basis of one brief memory of him that Wilson shares here, his monstrousness wasn’t exaggerated.)
Working with 70 hours of these driving sequences — and, no doubt, long stretches without a word of conversation — the director and editors Hector Lopez and Kevin Klauber have crafted something compelling, ever attentive to Wilson’s moods, anxieties and joys, to the way he listens to the songs and to the way he answers Fine’s questions with a childlike (or sage-like?) simplicity. The locations themselves are anticlimactic, and in most cases Wilson chooses not to get out of the car. At the site of his childhood home in Hawthorne, long since demolished to make way for a freeway, a plaque announces California Registered Historical Landmark No. 1041. Behind high hedges in one of L.A.’s tonier precincts lies a house he bought after becoming rich and famous while barely out of his teens.
A terrific 1964 clip of a backstage interview in Oklahoma captures the flush of that early success: Wilson is just 22, the Beach Boys already have seven top-10 hits to their name, and younger brother Dennis, the band’s heartthrob, flirts charmingly with the TV reporter. Brian’s bond with Dennis and youngest sibling Carl, both of whom died young, is one of the film’s elemental themes. Of the other band members, Al Jardine appears briefly and cousin Mike Love is seen in vintage clips but goes unmentioned, as do the band’s various legal and personal disputes — not surprising given that Brian Wilson and his wife are executive producers of the doc.
As that 57-year-old clip makes clear, the idea of Southern California that Beach Boys songs celebrated, a place of youth and cars and surfing, was exotic to the rest of the midcentury world. But pulsing beneath the sunshine, as producer Linda Perry puts it in a potent phrase, was the “haunting harmony” of Wilson’s compositions. This is the beautiful dichotomy of the Beach Boys: Their looks were clean-cut and square, and their melodies, chord progressions and arrangements were revolutionary. In one of the film’s loveliest moments, Don Was sits at a mixing board, beaming with delight to be stumped by the layers of vocals and instrumentation in “God Only Knows.”
Passionate and eloquent, the musicians and producers interviewed for the film don’t merely explain why Wilson’s music matters; they reveal the life-changing feelings of discovery that it stirred in them. Notable among the heavy hitters who spoke with the filmmakers about the records’ innovative orchestral complexity and emotional depth are Elton John and Bruce Springsteen. Other admirers cover a range of generations and genres, among them Jim James, Nick Jonas, the Four Seasons’ Bob Gaudio and the Foo Fighters’ Taylor Hawkins. No less a fan is Los Angeles Philharmonic music director Gustavo Dudamel, who compares Wilson’s songs to those of Mahler and Schubert.
Wilson himself may not be interested in explaining his peerless talent as a songwriter, arranger and master of the studio, but he’s still making music — and touring more than ever. Long Promised Road finds him and his ace band at the Hollywood Bowl, Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium and the Odeon in London. It also touches on Wilson’s 2004 resurrection of his legendarily delayed project Smile, begun nearly 40 years earlier with the Beach Boys and Van Dyke Parks.
In his interactions with his band, with Fine, with his family (eldest daughter Carnie Wilson appears in the film but isn’t interviewed), the documentary is a portrait of friendship and love as much as it’s about music. And beneath it all, the essential aloneness of the artist resounds: It’s the ache of the greatest forms of pop music, the intensity contained in the smoothest, most polished and seductive melodies. It’s the way Wilson’s songs of teenage angst can resonate for a lifetime. And the way two guys in a car can communicate plenty without saying a word.