Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (June 7, 2005)
Sad but true admission time: back in my late teens and early twenties, I thought of the Beach Boys, the Grateful Dead and Led Zeppelin as my three most hated bands. Why? Led Zep was on my list because they so strongly influenced the origins of heavy metal. Remember that this was in the second half of the Eighties when atrocious hair metal bands dominated, and I mistakenly blamed Zeppelin for that. As I noted in my review of their DVD, I changed my mind; Led Zep aren’t my favorite band, but I definitely enjoy and respect them now.
I hated the Dead simply because they sucked. All those long, pointless songs that sounded like the band made them up on the spot - I couldn’t take it. Unlike Led Zep, I never changed my mind on this one. I hated the Dead 20 years ago and I can’t stand them now.
The Beach Boys fall somewhere between those two. I disliked them largely because they seemed so pathetic. The Beach Boys toured as a lame nostalgia act and couldn’t possibly have appeared less relevant. This wasn’t a disdain of older music; at the time, most of my faves were Sixties acts. However, they at least tried to maintain a presence as something other than a blast from the past, whereas the Beach Boys coasted solely on their old material. Even when they put out a new hit, it was atrocious; 1988’s “Kokomo” was and remains a disgrace.
However, back then I didn’t understand the band’s history. I didn’t know much about the rise and fall of creative force Brian Wilson. I had some vague notion about Wilson as the nutbag who never left his house, got obese and played in a sandbox. I didn’t know that the band’s musical fortunes lived and died with Wilson. Without him in control - and in the right frame of mind - the band wouldn’t be able to develop.
So eventually I decided I didn’t really hate the Beach Boys. (Mike Love seems to be one of the business’s biggest jerks, but that has nothing to do with their music.) However, unlike my eventual affection for Led Zep, I can’t say I ever came to care much for them. I’ve tried to get into their tunes but it’s just not happened.
Still, I try to remain open, and I know that Wilson’s 2004 album Smile was regarded as a major piece of work. Originally intended as the Beach Boys’ follow-up to the landmark Pet Sounds, Wilson shelved Smile due to various issues. The Beach Boys would never recover.
On this two-DVD release called Brian Wilson Presents Smile, the first disc offers a documentary called Beautiful Dreamer: Brian Wilson and the Story of Smile. Most of the content comes from interviews. The show features remarks from Wilson, singer/songwriter Elvis Costello, record producer Sir George Martin, Wilson’s boyhood friend Rich Sloan, musician Hal Blaine, original Rolling Stones manager/producer Andrew Loog Oldham, friend Lorren Daro, songwriter Tony Asher, singer/songwriter Jimmy Webb, composer Burt Bacharach, writer/director Rob Reiner, record producer/friend Lou Adler, record producer Lenny Waronker, friend/record producer David Anderle, friend/musician Danny Hutton, musician Mike Melvoin, actor Jeff Bridges, lyricist Van Dyke Parks, author Tom Nolan, friend/journalist Michael Vosse, Parks’ former wife Durrie, session musicians Carol Kaye and Don Randi, singer Roger Daltrey, Brian Wilson bandmembers Probyn Gregory, Jimmy Hines, Paul Mertens, Darian Sahanaja, Taylor Mills, Jeffrey Foskett, Nick Walusko, Bob Lizik and Scott Bennett, journalists Sylvie Simmons and Richard Williams, and wife Melinda.
Dreamer looks at the genesis of Smile. We start with Brian Wilson’s childhood and early musical experiences, teenage ambitions and move into making music, Wilson’s domineering father Murry, the formation and development of the Beach Boys, success, stress, and Wilson’s emotional status, his growing creativity and drug use, competition with the Beatles and the creation of Pet Sounds, and Wilson’s style of “modular” recording and the long genesis of “Good Vibrations”.
From there the show finally gets to Wilson’s work on the aborted album Smile. We find out that Wilson decided to work with lyricist Parks to abet his work and follow their collaboration, the composition of various songs, expectations for the album and aspects of its recording, the album’s theme and goals, Wilson’s increasingly odd behavior, the musicians who worked with Wilson, further business arrangements, Wilson’s growing paranoia and self-imposed pressures, the Beach Boys’ negative reaction to the new material and problems integrating them into the songs, the lengthy recording process and Parks’ exit, Wilson’s growing disenchantment and emotional problems, and the album’s collapse and Wilson’s nervous breakdown.
The remainder of the program deals with Wilson’s life after the apparent demise of Smile and his slow recovery. We hear of his 1995 marriage, Wilson’s return to the concert stage after decades away from that forum, and the resurrection of Smile. Those elements trace Wilson’s surprising revival of the material and the collaborative processes that allowed Wilson to complete the project. These go through good times and bad. The latter include Wilson’s early nervousness about the tour and connected issues. All of these continue until we finally end up at a Smile concert.
In addition to the interviews, we get a mix of musical snippets. We find segments from the Sixties - mostly stills with old recordings laid over them - but we also hear bits of recent performances. Those mostly include songs from Smile that we’ll see more fully when we get to the DVD’s extras.
Go ahead and accuse me of sacrilege right now, but here’s my feeling: Pet Sounds is overrated. I recognize some of the album’s qualities, but I must admit that I don’t comprehend the incredibly high regard in which so many hold it. Good album? Sure. One of the best albums ever made? I can’t agree with that, though like many, I’ve tried. Oh Lord, how I’ve tried to get into Pet Sounds, but the magic continues to elude me.
Because of that, I doubted that I’d dig Smile. I know many regard it as brilliant and the best album of 2004, but given my feelings toward the Beach Boys, it seemed unlikely I’d embrace it, especially not to that degree.
That’s probably a subject best left to the extras when I discuss the Smile concert. (Note that the concert segments of this DVD might be considered part of the main program, but for simplicity, I decided to look at Beautiful Dreamer as the meat and the concert as the dessert.) For now, I’ll restrict my thoughts to Dreamer as a documentary.
As I alluded earlier, I knew something of the Smile debacle that took place in the Sixties, but I didn’t have the full story. For all the strengths of Dreamer, I still feel like I don’t have the full story. Make no mistake - the documentary offers a good history of the project. It digs into a nice basic look at the rise of the Beach Boys and how Wilson came to Smile before it digs into the many issues that affected that album. It doesn’t pull too many punches as it addresses Wilson’s mental problems and the demons that haunted him.
Nonetheless, Dreamer often feels like the authorized history that it is. The absence of any comments from Beach Boys members is a disappointment, though to be fair, two original members - Brian’s brothers Carl and Dennis - are no longer with us. Mike Love still is, but who trusts anything that nutbag has to say?
I still feel like some parts are missing. We don’t hear what happened to the Smile tapes. I was under the impression Wilson destroyed them but the show doesn’t tell us that. I also think that some pieces materialized elsewhere, but again, the program doesn’t follow up to let us know much about the years between 1967 and 1999 or so.
Despite these complaints, I find a lot to like about Dreamer. Yeah, it omits some things, but it digs into matters with reasonable depth. In truth, it feels like two separate documentaries. The segments that look at the Beach Boys and Smile in the Sixties don’t connect that well to the parts about Wilson today. Actually, the show flows just fine even though it rushes through most of a 30-year period, but the much greater availability of behind the scenes footage for the modern Smile segments gives those parts a very different feel. We see Wilson at work instead of hearing soundbites and looking at photos.
Interestingly, these don’t do much to sugarcoat his status. We hear a lot about his continued fragile mental state. Indeed, all his hired musicians treat him with kid gloves as they seem to fear they’ll accidentally cause another mental collapse. I like the fact the show talks about Wilson’s depression and its effects as well as other problems. While it attempts to make the Smile concerts a triumph, it never pretends that Wilson’s all better now.
Beautiful Dreamer remains a slightly incomplete history of what was once the world’s most famous incomplete album, but it’s a good one nonetheless. It provides fairly good detail about the project while it remains coherent and moves through the years. I’d still like something with more about the events in the Sixties, but Dreamer works for me anyway.