Record producer Don Was, who had already had his say in directing the near-definitive 1995 documentary Brian Wilson: I’m just not made for these times, likes to keep things mysterious. He knows what goes on in those grooves, but prefers to be surprised. He starts talking about mixing instruments to create authentic and unique tones, but then he stops himself to enjoy what it felt like not to distinguish a banjo. He then explains exactly why the vocal harmonies are inexplicable. He clearly has a completely unfiltered and sincere ball while listening to the music. Elton John just has a natural affinity for piano-playing songwriters he’s encountered throughout his career, including his unadulterated scholastic knowledge of every black key from Leon Russell. Elton also explains how the emotional residue of dichotomy can be felt in Wilson’s song structure, and why the bass note doesn’t dictate the key.
Brian says it best when he says that something comes into his head, moves through his fingers in the piano and comes out as sound. Many of the documentaries show Fine driving around Los Angeles with Brian, listening to the car radio, and stopping occasionally for the biographical geography classes. Brian remembers Paradise Cove, where the band was photographed for their debut LP, fondly, but as a springboard to memories of the sessions and some detours. Brian’s battle with depression is handled with care. Brian comes across as childish, he still has a sense of wonder and optimistic hope.
The documentary gives a sense of how the music came out of Brian’s coping mechanism, even as he jokingly confronted his own fears with Saturday Night LiveJohn Belushi and Dan Aykroyd. Fine gives Wilson space to process his memories, but maybe a little too much space, because he lets the songwriting musician cut himself off. Brian tries his long-standing relationship with psychiatrist/guru/spiritual guide Dr. Downplay Landy, but can’t, and hints of suppressed anger over his nine-year “imprisonment” slip from his mouth. Brian was diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder during The Beach Boys’ peak period, but still hears voices and exhibits some tics. But he also sings, in his new song recorded especially for the documentary, that he is currently “Right Where I Belong”.
The family dynamic is unexpectedly warmer than it sometimes seems. While the Wilson brothers’ father, Murry, was such a great tyrant that they had to fire him, Brian sees nothing but love in his brother Carl, who was forced into the role of family and professional peacekeeper. Brian also experiences an extraordinarily revealing revelation during the interviews about his beat-holding, freewheeling brother. Brian always wanted to be Dennis, but Dennis always wanted to be Brian. This all comes out in interviews, looks and even in the music. Brian sees Dennis as the outgoing rock star who dares to care for who he was too shy to be. Dennis was the one on the surfboard, the one who gave Brian his alternate dip in the sea and sand. But he is also the first to express his own happy jealousy over his brother’s genius. Brian himself is delighted by Carl’s soulful lead vocals that are so soulful on the pop symphony ‘God Only Knows’, which Paul McCartney has called his all-time favorite song.
Brian Wilson: Long Promised Way is structured in the traditional career view and does not reveal much new information. We don’t hear much about The Beach Boys’ collaborations with Jan and Dean, but on Pet Sounds we hear all the animals. The documentary is a loving look at Wilson, focusing on the friendships and rivalries that helped arrange the music. But it’s mainly about how those songs about youth stay young.
Brian Wilson: Long Promised Way hits theaters on November 19 on on-demand platforms.