The Beach Boys: An American Family

ABC's mini on Southern California's first significant rock 'n' roll export features promos that emphasize the torturous family life of the Wilson brothers, as if this were a never-told story. The overbearing ads signify that there's more to the saga than "Fun, Fun, Fun." But once the story veers from dad Murry Wilson's demented domination over his boys, "The Beach Boys" becomes cartoonish and bloated -- not unlike the band at its own low points.

ABC’s mini on Southern California’s first significant rock ‘n’ roll export features promos that emphasize the torturous family life of the Wilson brothers, as if this were a never-told story. The overbearing ads signify to the cognoscenti that this is no whitewash and, to those peripherally interested, that there’s more to the saga than “Fun, Fun, Fun.” But once the story veers from dad Murry Wilson’s demented domination over his boys, particularly Brian, “The Beach Boys” becomes cartoonish and bloated — not unlike the band at its own low points.

Under the direction of Jeff Bleckner, Kevin Dunn is spectacular as the menacing Murry; his perf is the lifeblood of the first night. His contentious conduct and drive for perfection shapes these boys; it’s a great study in cause-and-effect behavior.

Murry makes for an easy catalyst for a good vs. evil story, which is far easier to set up than the second night’s journey into personal darkness and demons.

In fact, night two relies more on fiction and historical jockeying, as scripter Kirk Ellis and the producers cherrypick sagas in their depiction of the band in its late-’60s incarnation; it’s a strategy that doesn’t hold together as well as night one.

The mini opens in 1960, taking the Boys from their formative sessions, then to Hollywood studios and the creation of surf music and the Beach Boys.

As they grow in popularity while signed to Capitol Records, Murry asserts himself more and more until an argument during the recording of “I Get Around” forces head Beach Boy Brian (Frederick Weller) to fire his dad.

Story stays focused on Brian and Murry as it hits peripheral issues such as cousin Mike Love’s (Matt Letscher) shotgun marriage. Brian weds Marilynn (Amy Van Horne) in December 1964; ensconced in a palace, he turns to drugs and talks often about working solely in the studio rather than touring. A nervous breakdown on a plane forces him off the road.

Night two picks up with ABC’s telecast in April 1965 of the Beach Boys performing “California Girls” sans Brian, and finds Murry attempting to capitalize on his sons’ fame by producing a Beach Boys sound-alike, the Sunrays.

Brian begins to step away from the act and get more deeply into drugs with new friends such as songwriter Van Dyke Parks (Anthony Rapp) as he works on “Pet Sounds” with the studio aces used by Phil Spector (David Polcyn).

Despite the extraordinary expense of the single “Good Vibrations,” it gives the Beach Boys breathing room to finish the album “Smile,” with sessions fueled by acid and sonic experiments.

But it’s not just Brian who’s reeling: Dennis (Nick Stabile) has become an all-out drunk, Love has turned to transcendental meditation to cool anger, and Carl (Ryan Northcott) is in a tizzy trying to be the friend everyone needs.

The mini closes with the 1973 meeting that led to the release of “Endless Summer” — no mention of Brian forming Brother Records or the band’s years with Warner/Reprise — and the 1974 tour that found Brian rejoining the Boys onstage in Anaheim. (Truth be told, Beach Boys toured with the band Chicago for two weeks in ’74; Brian rejoined the act in Oakland in 1976 after the release of “15 Big Ones.”)

Ellis’ script is splendid when it comes to establishing the hierarchy in the household and the band. Mom Audree (Alley Mills — Mrs. Arnold on “The Wonder Years”) is the backbone of unconditional support for father and sons; Brian is the insecure leader who finds solace only in music; Dennis is the wild child, with pangs of inadequacy; and Carl is the family’s glue.

Cousin Mike Love sees the talent and seizes the day to command the band; buddy Al Jardine (Ned Vaughn) is along for the ride.

Dennis is relegated to the role of family psycho with his Charles Manson connection and his womanizing. For dramatic effect, a self-inflicted hand injury that causes him to drop out of the band is moved up by several years. Dennis’ is the great story in the Beach Boys and this mini barely surfs his character.

Actor Letscher is the most solid of the bunch, getting inside Love’s head as he strives to be the leader of an oldies band onstage and a peace-and-love hippie away from the act.

As Brian, Weller has the tough task of playing a man who is never the same twice. Not chubby enough, Weller needed to show Brian as more awkward in social settings. He, and the telepic, are at their best when Brian is experimenting and leading, whether it be his brothers or the session musicians.

Historical nit-pickers will have a field day with certain touches, such as the notion that anyone would call Brian Wilson a genius before the release of “Pet Sounds” (it was a publicity gimmick) and the “fact” that Dennis and Love were surfing buddies. (Dennis took up the sport to fit the image).

Still, the greatness of the Beach Boys was their music, and mini includes plenty of it. Outfits are perfect, including the striped shirts of their early performances, Mike Love’s caps and Brian’s robes.

The juxtaposition of middle-class and affluent Southern California of the 1960s is superbly captured by d.p. Brian Reynolds and production designer Stephen Hendrickson.

The Beach Boys: An American Family

ABC; Sun. Feb. 27, Mon., Feb. 28; 9 p.m.

  • Production: Filmed in Los Angeles by Storyline Entertainment in association with Columbia TriStar Television. Executive producers, Craig Zadan, Neil Meron, John Stamos; co-executive producer, Jeff Bleckner; producer, John Whitman; co-producers, Allan Boyd, Dave Mace. Director, Jeff Bleckner; writer, Kirk Ellis.
  • Crew: Director of photography, Brian Reynolds; production designer, Stephen Hendrickson; editors, Geoffrey Rowland, Bryan M. Horne; casting, Stacey Rosen. Running time: 4 HOURS.
  • With: Murry Wilson - Kevin Dunn Audree Wilson - Alley Mills Brian Wilson - Frederick Weller Dennis Wilson - Nick Stabile Carl Wilson - Ryan Northcott Mike Love - Matt Letscher Al Jardine - Ned Vaughn Dave Marks - Dublin James Bruce Johnston - Jesse Caron Marilyn Rovell - Amy Van Horne Nik Venet - Jad Mager Chuck Britz - Eric Matheny Voyle Gimore - Harris Laskawy Tommy Schaeffer - Clay Wilcox Van Dyke Parks - Anthony Rapp Charles Manson - Eric Passoja Phil Spector - David Polcyn