Even if you think that Brian Wilson is God — and yes, I do — you could easily say that we don’t need another documentary about him. There have been some good, rich, and deep ones, like “Brian Wilson: I Just Wasn’t Made for These Times,” the 1995 musicological meditation directed by record producer Don Was, or “Brian Wilson and the Story of ‘SMiLE’,” which chronicled the history of that most fabled of all unfinished albums as well as the remarkable story of how, in 2004, Wilson and Darian Sahanaja put its majesty back together again. “Love & Mercy” (2014) wasn’t a documentary, but it had the true-life power of one; it’s one of the great music biopics, with an insight into the perfect storm of forces that made Brian Wilson tick. Beyond that, so many of the tales of Wilson’s life and art — his creation of, and withdrawal from, the Beach Boys; the mythology of “Pet Sounds”; the inextricable vines of his genius and mental illness; the lost years he spent in recovery with the charlatan shrink Eugene Landy — have been repeated so often that they’re now part of our cultural lore.
“Brian Wilson: Long Promised Road,” directed by Brent Wilson (no relation), takes the form of yet another classically structured overview of Brian Wilson’s career. Only this one cuts back and forth between the saga of Wilson and the Beach Boys and a “Carpool Karaoke”-style conversation between Brian, still hale and hanging in there with his tentative, blunted, anxiety-ridden, doggedly sincere approach to everyday experience, and Jason Fine, an editor at Rolling Stone magazine, who met Wilson during the course of doing a feature on him in the mid-’90s. The two began to hang out and became friends, and in “Long Promised Road” they cruise around L.A., talking and listening to Brian’s music and stopping at key locales: Paradise Cove, the home of “Surfin’ Safari”; the site of Wilson’s now-demolished childhood home in Hawthorne; the houses he lived in during the ’60s and ’70s; the home of his late brother Carl; and the Beverly Glen Deli, where the two chat over Cobb salads and ice-cream sundaes.
Brian Wilson did more than write great pop music. He turned pop songs into hymns, soaring chorales, sublimely delicate and jaunty effusions of sweet-souled sound laced with an underlying sadness so divine that, as Bruce Springsteen says in the movie of “Pet Sounds,” “The beauty of it carries a sense of joyfulness even in the pain of living. The joyfulness of an emotional life.” So yes, maybe we don’t need another documentary about Brian Wilson, but even if you think you know it all, “Long Promised Road” is an affectionate and satisfying movie, sentimental at times but often stirringly insightful, a collection of pinpoint testimonials to Wilson’s artistry by such authoritative fans as Springsteen and Elton John, and a movie that lets the enchanting qualities of Wilson’s music cascade over you.
As for Brian himself, he seems in pretty good shape for a man pushing 80 who still hears voices, but the truth is that he doesn’t say all that much about anything. Jason Fine asks him if it was weird writing all those songs about surfing even though he didn’t surf himself — a fabled fact about Brian. His response? “Yeah, Dennis surfed. I never learned how to surf.” Okay, thanks for sharing! When Fine asks him what he now thinks about the mid-’60s implosion of “SMiLE” and why he felt like he had to shelve it, Brian says, “We thought it was a little ahead of its time. We waited for, like, 30 years. And we finally finished it.” And so it goes. Brian Wilson, apart from his thin-shell-encasing-a-damaged-mollusk quality of blitzed hypersensitivity, doesn’t appear to have the impulse toward introspection.
Yet as the film goes on, you feel like you kind of get to know him. Jason Fine is the easygoing friend who inquires about stuff, fields Brian’s one-sentence answers, never pushes too hard, absorbs Brian’s thoughts and feelings with sympathetic understanding, and talks music with him. He brings Brian out — at least as much as one can. And the thing about Brian is that even when he doesn’t reveal much, there’s something disarmingly honest and tender about him. He says just enough to get you in tune with his heart.
In the clips we see of the Beach Boys, and there some great ones, when we watch Brian singing, trying to play the part of a happy pop star along with his two brothers and Al Jardine and Mike Love, the truth is that there’s something off about him, and always was. He’s frozen, not fully there. Though it took decades for him to be diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder, he heard voices in his head (and still does), aggressive and judgmental voices, and in the old footage he looks like someone who heard voices.
Yet part of what’s haunting about his story is that the Brian Wilson who heard voices in his head is also the Brian Wilson who heard the most gorgeous four-minute pop symphonies in his head; and those two things cannot be separated. He was touched by a higher spirit, and sometimes he was just…touched.
At one point, Don Was sits in the studio, separating out the tracks of “God Only Knows” the way they used to do on episodes of VH1’s “Classic Albums.” He gets to the part at the end where Brian layers Carl Wilson singing “God only knows what I’d be without you” into a kind of contrapuntal acid-head loop, and it’s even more amazing to hear with the instruments stripped away. “God Only Knows” might, along with “Penny Lane,” be the greatest pop song ever written, but talk about the sound of voices in your head! And the film’s analysis of the song is itself a thing of beauty. Elton John talks about how Wilson used the fifth of a chord as a bass note (the way Elton would later do in “Someone Saved My Life Tonight”), and Don Was picks out the instruments, almost shaking his head in disbelief as he identifies…a banjo! Which along with a piano and a harmonica fused into one sound. “Brian had to sit at home and dream up these textures that no one had ever, ever used.”
But there was another side to Brian. Linda Perry, the producer and songwriter, say that she hears Brian’s competitive nature in the DNA of those songs. He was trying to be better than the Beatles. And that pushed him to come up with an airy density of form that transcended what he’d heard on “Rubber Soul” (the album that inspired him to make “Pet Sounds”). People in the film also testify to what a leader he was. When you hear stories about him in the ’60s, especially when he was cracking up during the “SMiLE” sessions, you get a sense of someone who was fragile, vulnerable, a genius on the verge of a nervous breakdown. But if you listen to the hours of outtakes that were part of the box-set reissue of “SMiLE” released in 2011, you hear Wilson rehearsing the other Beach Boys with a martinet discipline that makes him sound like a fusion of Phil Spector, Stanley Kubrick, and Johann Sebastian Bach.
“Brian Wilson: Long Promised Road” is finally a love letter to Brian Wilson — to all the beauty he has given the world, but also to the fact that he made it through his crack-ups and came out the other side. He’s now a confident live performer, filling a place like the Hollywood Bowl as he and his band perform “Pet Sounds” or “SMiLE.” He also continues to record simply because the songs won’t stop coming to him. His voice is a frail shadow of what it once was, but he’s there, he’s relaxed, he’s delivering his music to an audience enraptured to be in his presence, and he’s sharing their energy. When you listen to him perform “Caroline No,” his singing back on the album sounds more than ever like a dream, but his singing here tells a different story: that he still feels this song, and can still channel it, the way he channeled the cosmic winds that allowed him to write it. The movie shows you that Brian Wilson’s genius is not something that should ever be taken for granted. God only knows what we’d be without him.