The answer to the question haunting every Beach Boys fan — Why was “Smile” abandoned in 1967? — comes relatively late in David Leaf’s paean to Brian Wilson, “Beautiful Dreamer.” Wilson, seated at the piano as he is through most of this doc, spells it out four ways: Beach Boys lead singer Mike Love didn’t like it. It was too experimental for the times. The “fire song” was too scary. “People wouldn’t understand that’s where my head was at.” It all feels too pat, especially as the doc begins to chronicle January’s rehearsals for the reconstructed “Smile” in which nightmarish thoughts clearly consume Wilson as he sits motionless listening to his bandmates harmonize: This music was too dark for its composer. “Beautiful Dreamer,” though, is a positive spin on the music-making from Wilson’s mid-1960s breakdown, and how he has made amends with his past and allowed a great work see the light of day as a completed entity.
Docu puts the microscope on what went right for Wilson and the Beach Boys during the making of “Pet Sounds” (failing to note Capitol Records’ distaste for the new direction and the fact that it was the first Beach Boys album not to go gold) and its intended follow-up, “Smile,” which has gone down in history as the greatest record never released.
A new recording of “Smile,” 37 years after the initial effort went south, has just been released by Warner Music’s Nonesuch label and this doc is as interested in helping sell copies as it in detailing “Smile’s” troubled past and cathartic present. (For a complete picture of Wilson, plan a double feature with Don Was’ “I Just Wasn’t Made for These Times.”)
A number of “Smile’s” songs — “Good Vibrations,” “Heroes and Villains,” “Surf’s Up” — have made their own marks as masterpieces in the rock canon, and half the beauty of “Smile” finally existing as a whole is to hear them as intended, parts of what Wilson called a “pocket symphony” or a “teenage symphony to God.” In a fascinating bit of trivia, Wilson traces “Smile’s” conception — and with it a fear of public rejection — to George Gershwin and “Rhapsody in Blue.” On the piano, he demonstrates the Gershwinesque nature of “Smile’s” structure.
“Beautiful Dreamer” skims through the Wilson family history — considering its skimpiness, it’s almost curious as to why this doesn’t start with Wilson’s masterpiece “Pet Sounds” — and ties Wilson’s nervous breakdown during the recording of “Smile” to the nasty treatment he received from his father.
Drugs, which have long been blamed as a source, are downplayed by his associates from the time. And besides, it was on Wilson’s first LSD trip that he created “California Girls,” repeating the opening figure for more than an hour and then penning the tune in 30 minutes. From his friends’ perspective, how could acid be a part of the problem if it generates this sort of creativity?
Friends and musicians supply the anecdotes about his genius and the work, but the dearth of archival footage eventually catches up with the filmmakers. It’s one thing to note that four songs were written in the sandbox in Wilson’s living room; footage or at least a still would have gone far to drive home the point about Wilson’s encroaching madness.
“Beautiful Dreamer” eventually shifts gears and becomes a making-of doc, and it works no differently than any other inside-the-studio piece, showing how a band builds a composition from the ground up in rehearsal and recording studios.
Wilson is seen as remarkably fragile in some settings and perky as all get-out in others, especially when dealing with Van Dyke Parks, who penned the lyrics for “Smile’s” songs and helped with the assemblage of the current version.
Watching Darian Sahanaja guide Wilson, gently prodding him and then treating him like a child deserving of a reward, is a fascinating glimpse at what it takes to get Wilson ready for the stage or a recording.
“Smile,” before it became a record, was performed in its entirety on a U.K. tour that was as well-received as Wilson’s tour featuring “Pet Sounds” played end to end with a symphony behind the band. Tour ostensibly was an extended rehearsal for the album, which is nothing short of stunning.
No matter how familiar anyone may be with this music, from bootlegs and the shards that have appeared on albums such as “Smiley Smile” and “Surf’s Up,” it retains its modernity nearly 40 years after being composed. “Good Vibrations” — one of the top three rock singles ever — is a song that could never be re-created.
Wisely, and this is what “Beautiful Dreamer” is good at bringing out, the Brian Wilson Band has made a 2004 interpretation of a 1967 work, knowing they aren’t the Beach Boys and that the youthful innocence of Wilson’s falsetto is long gone. They’ve made a work that stands on its own, regardless of the legend that precedes it.