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Brian Wilson and Director Brent Wilson Take a ‘Long Promised Road’ Inside a Genius’ Guarded Mind and Music

Beyond probing the Beach Boys maestro's psyche, the filmmakers also got a soundtrack out of the deal, including a best original song contender co-written by My Morning Jacket's Jim James.

long promised road film documentary
Jeff McEvoy

“He’s a talker” is a phrase that has never been used to describe Brian Wilson, then — in the Beach Boys’ original 1960s heyday — or especially now. So director Brent Wilson might have been taking on one of the more quixotic filmmaking quests of all time when he set out to make a documentary that would consist primarily of pulling thoughts and memories out of one of the great musical geniuses of the past century, whose shyness with interviews and mental health struggles are well known. That such a movie — “Brian Wilson: Long Promised Road” — not only exists but provides real windows into its subject’s inner world seems almost incalculable.

Today, Brent Wilson (no relation) is in Brian Wilson’s upstairs music room in a house overlooking the San Fernando Valley, holding court to talk about the doc and some new music therein. The singer, who has had multiple surgeries for extremely painful back issues, is seated at his piano after coming into the room with the aid of a walker… but at about 190 mph. “That’s the fastest I’ve seen you move!” marvels the producer, thrilled to be seeing his subject move so speedily. Brian, for his part, is content to let Brent do virtually all the talking, unsurprisingly, and to gamely play a few bars of “California Girls” for our benefit.

When a visiting journalist asks Brian what he thought of the movie, he responds: “I felt happy.” This apparent news sends Brent over the moon: “I was never going to ask that question!”

Brent asks Brian, “Do you remember when I did the first interview?” This was some years back, and by anyone’s account, it went famously… not well well. At that point, Brent was figuring he would conduct all the on-camera interviews for the film, a notion he was disabused of after a few sessions. “The very first time I interviewed you,” Brent says to Brian, “I sat over there [across the room] and you sat here at the piano. And it was rough,” Wilson laughs. “I was like, this isn’t going to work. We’re not going to get a movie out of this. And that was when the idea was born to have Jason.”

“In My Room” may be a great Beach Boys song, but it is not a good instruction for where to conduct a feature-length interview, as it turned out. So Brent Wilson, knowing of the rapport that Brian Wilson had developed in the past with journalist Jason Fine (then a top editor at Rolling Stone), thought about trying to film the musician and the reporter have conversations while they drove around the greater Los Angeles area, visiting spots that had meaning to Wilson or the Beach Boys. There was also a notion to situate Wilson and Fine in a booth at his favorite deli for some non-mobile conversations. This worked, miraculously (although a lot of miles were put on that car) in loosening up doors to a great artistic mind that have come unstuck in interview situations.

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Brian Wilson and interviewer Jason Fine

“Long Promised Road” includes a lot of testimonial talking heads, too; among those who sat for tribute interviews were Bruce Springsteen, Elton John, Don Was (who made a previous Brian Wilson documentary) and Gustavo Dudamel. But if you’re a hardcore fan, these starry moments pass the time as you wait in suspense for the film to get back to its real driving force, so to speak: Fine’s often successful attempts to gently nudge the subject into divulging key memories or just what’s going on in his head now, be it tender nostalgia or deep anxiety.

“What I discovered when I was watching the footage is that it’s not an interview. It’s just two buddies talking,” the director says. That was a relief. “It was a gamble — we didn’t know if it was going to work or not. Was this a crazy idea? Are we wasting our time? And then we saw Brian relaxed and talking to his buddy and maybe even kind of forgetting the cameras were there for a while, which was the hope.”

Brian has always let the music do almost all the talking, and so for the purposes of the film, he went into a studio with his band and re-recorded several old songs for the film just prior to his most recent back surgery in 2019. He also did a new, original song, “Right Where I Belong,” co-written and performed with My Morning Jacket’s Jim James. “I was talking to Jim and said, ‘Brian wrote this beautiful melody specifically for the movie, and I was going to use it as score, but what do you think about putting lyrics for it?’ I sent it at 9 p.m. and my phone dinged at 2 in the morning, and I played it with my wife and had a tear in my eye. Jim really tapped into Brian’s spirit.” (That included starting right off addressing his well-known issues: “I get anxious. I get scared a lot,” James wrote into the lyrics.) “And when Brian said, ‘That’s cool,’ that’s the stamp of approval.”

James and Wilson recorded it with former Beach Boy Blondie Chaplin. At Brian’s own behest, that trio also recorded a new version of the 1971 Beach Boys classic that ended up being the title song. Says the director, “I knew if we even considered ‘Long Promised Road’ for a title, I was gonna catch hell from diehard fans going, ‘That’s a Carl song!'” He recounts some of the dismissive comments that did come from aficionados when it was announced as being named after a song by Brian’s late brother: “‘Here’s another gun for hire, brought in to do a doc.’ They always say, don’t engage! ‘These people don’t know what they’re doing. This film is going to be terrible.’ And I saw, you know, 500 comments on Brian’s Instagram and I thought, ‘I’ve got to say something.’ And so I jumped in and I said, just do me a favor and just watch the film and I promise you it’ll make sense why ‘Long Promised Road’ is there.

“Because Brian kept asking to hear it during filming, it dawned on me that this represents Brian’s life and his connection to Carl and Dennis in a way that hadn’t really been expressed before.”

Brian confirms that and, and is his way, succinctly boils it down. What was it in Carl’s song “Long Promised Road” that was so meaningful to him? He answers: “Love.”

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Director Brent Wilson watches Brian Wilson in the recording studio

For the recording sessions and the soundtrack, “I didn’t want to make any suggestions,” Brent Wilson says, “but I remember you saying, ‘Let’s make a rock n’ roll album. And I remember Jason even asked him, ‘I don’t know what that is — what is a rock ‘n’ roll album to Brian Wilson?'”

Right now, the answer couldn’t be more obvious to Brian: “Rock ‘n’ roll!” But they got a more specific answer as the sessions approached, in the form of his songs picks, which included the Beach Boys song “It’s OK,” from 1976’s “15 Big Ones,” and a cover of a Jimmy Rogers song, “Honeycomb.” “I called Paul Martins, his musical director, and I was like, ‘Do you know what song this is? What is he talking about? I don’t even know what “Honeycomb” is.’ And fortunately Paul knew and was able to do some charts that night.” Other songs that weren’t recorded anew but did come up repeatedly in conversation as being meaningful to Brian included “The Night Was So Young” and “Ten Little Indians.” The director is as intrigued as anyone by what these picks mean about his subject’s psyche. “‘It’s OK’ is a fun song, but when Brian asks to hear it two or three times, you go back and listen to it, and now I hear it differently.”

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“Brian Wilson: Long Promised Road” key art

Brent Wilson is delighted that Brian Wilson is back out on the road again, pointing out that the musician has been taking vocal lessons every couple of days to go along with the physical therapy for his back to make sure he’s in shape for touring. Beyond the most immediate upcoming dates, Wilson is set to go out on a co-headlining tour with Chicago next summer, echoing the tour that the Beach Boys and Chicago did together back in the mid-1970s.

And there’s a new album, besides the film soundtrack: “At My Piano,” a lovely collection of 15 Beach Boys and solo songs done as purely instrumental piano tracks. It’s the kind of album that will soothe you if you, too, suffer from high anxiety, though there won’t be any loquacious answers coming from the man himself about what the collection means to him.

Says Brent Wilson, “Until we started doing the press, I hadn’t seen him as much, because of course everything was shut down with COVID. And I came to see Brian a couple of months ago and I said, ‘Well, what have you been up to?’ And you said, ‘I’ve been in the studio,’ and I’m like, ‘What do you mean you’ve been in the studio? You can’t go in the studio — I’m supposed to be shooting!” For Brent Wilson, even if the movie is over, he’s still not going to miss any filmic opportunity he can get to possibly capture a glimpse inside Wilson’s mind and method.