Beach Boys founder Brian Wilson appeared at the Grammy Museum to talk about the new documentary film Long Promised Road, along with a panel that included director Brent Wilson, journalist Jason Fine, who has a prominent appearance in the film as Brian’s primary interviewer, and Jim James of the band My Morning Jacket, who became one of Wilson’s many celebrity collaborators during filming.
Wilson himself is a man of few words, and anyone hoping for deep, revealing answers during the ensuing Q&A could only chuckle at his minimalistic responses. How did he come up with the idea for this or that? “I dunno?!” seemed like an honest answer – who can say from whence the genius’ inspiration springs? Nevertheless, the panelists managed to expand on some of the movie’s themes and methods, and we got to spend some time in the presence of Brian, who seemed in a genial mood.
Experienced rock-doc watchers could be forgiven for asking themselves, “Haven’t we been here before?” The key events in the life and career of Brian Wilson have been given the documentary treatment so many times, it’s difficult to recollect them all by name. (The number of fictionalized portrayals of these same events is more like something you can count, albeit on the fingers of both hands.) This is a particular kind of deliberately sympathetic and affectionate film that includes current studio footage with his daughters behind the mic, and lots of famous people talking about what a genius he is, not at all unlike the award-winning I Just Wasn’t Made For These Times, over twenty years ago.
This film doesn’t so much pick up where that one leaves off, as tell the same story again from a somewhat different angle, while extending the historic view to the present day. It’s not until the end credits roll and we see Brian and Melinda Wilson named as the exec producers that it sinks in, this is really the “Brian’s side” movie as affirmatively as it can possibly be affirmed.
Viewed in this lens, a lot of choices that seem odd at first glance come into focus. Mike Love, in this film’s account, is not the villain who belittled Brian and caused the death of the Smile album, neither was he much of a creative partner in the Beach Boys. He was just there, singing bass. Other things said about ex-wife Marilyn and the roles of Carl and Dennis during Brian’s down years are a bit divergent from the story that has been told before, of course depending who you’re listening to at any given time. The “Mike Love’s side” movie has a lot more of Mike being there the save the day at crucial moments, not to mention 100% more Stamos in it. One can only wonder what Marilyn’s movie would be like.
Those who have seen the credits and are wondering what the likes of Nick Jonas and Taylor Hawkins have to add to our understanding of Brian, well, their appearances are brief. Bruce Springsteen has some cool things to say, and it’s nice to see him acknowledge the love and care displayed by Brian’s current band toward his compositions. That’s surely a success story that doesn’t get talked about enough.
Ultimately, despite a shelf groaning with other films on the same subject, this particular ocean is deep enough to warrant continuous exploration, and Wilson’s fans surely won’t regret the time spent with it. If the tone seems a little fawning, we shouldn’t have expected it any other way. If it provides any illumination we didn’t already have, it is into the way he wants history – that is, us – to perceive him. If I had as much mythos surrounding people’ ideas about me as Brian Wilson, I would surely have some desire to put my own version of the story out there too.