Brian Wilson: Songwriter 1962-1969 Dir. Sexy Intellectual

[Sexy Intellectual; 2010]

Styles: musical, biography
Others: Leonard Cohen: I’m Your Man; Scott Walker: 30 Century Man; You’re Gonna Miss Me

Brian Wilson: Songwriter 1962-1969 is undoubtedly the most comprehensive portrait of Brian Wilson’s work as a songwriter and producer ever released. I specifically mention the whole ‘as a songwriter and producer’ part because, thankfully, the commentators and experts interviewed don’t attempt to explain the sensational mental problems with which this dean of American pop music famously suffered after producing some of the most iconic/influential pieces in modern music.

Clocking in at just over three hours, Brian Wilson features pretty comprehensive analysis of the process and theory behind virtually all of Wilson’s more culturally significant musical output. Luminaries from both academia (Philip Lambert, professor of Music at CUNY) and rock journalism (Rolling Stone’s Anthony DeCurtis), as well as authors of books about Wilson’s albums and a couple of The Beach Boys themselves, weigh in on what it was that made this man such a unique and virtually unparalleled talent. The only problem is that their insights really aren’t all that astonishing. The experts don’t cover any new ground — or at least not any ground that someone willing to pay good money for a DVD about Brian Wilson won’t already know. Also, the film could definitely benefit from some honest counter-arguments to the grandiose praise lavished on its subject, as the interviews often approach dangerously close to the realm of hagiography.

The documentary consists of two parts, broken up between Wilson’s work pre- and post-1964. The second part is much more interesting than the first, with interviewees focusing as much attention on Wilson’s prowess in the studio as on his burgeoning skill at employing polychords and relatively avant theory to turn simple melodies into what he liked to call his “pocket symphonies.” Bruce Johnston supplies the brunt of the commentary about Pet Sounds and the disaster following the evaporation of the SMiLE project. Picked as his replacement for the tours that Wilson eventually refused to play, preferring instead to stay in the studio, Johnston has a vantage point from which to make some fairly keen observations about Wilson’s behavior in the studio. In his interviews, however, we find him behaving almost too civilly and deferentially toward Wilson. Behind Johnston’s tanned and somewhat wrinkled smile lies the truth of what it must’ve been like to work with a genius in the middle of a long, slow, and almost total professional collapse. Or not. If it does, we certainly never find out.

It is the film’s reluctance to overtly critique one of pop music’s most venerated sacred cows that will invariably cause distress in its more astute viewers. People who have any frame of reference concerning the music of the Western Hemisphere in the 20th century realize how much of a pop genius Brian Wilson is, and while it’s all fine and good to reinforce this Eternal Truth of music history, I was left yearning for a bit more transparency — especially on the part of those close enough to Wilson during those tumultuous years, who I hoped would offer insights into his creativity that went beyond rehashing something along the lines of “Golly, he was so brilliant… and crazy!”

Sexy Intellectual has been producing quite a few high-quality music documentaries over the last few years, and while this film is not an exception, it’s also far from being their best piece of work. Frank Zappa: The Freak-Out List comes to mind as an example of an impeccably researched and uncompromising musical exegesis. We know it’s something of which they’re capable, so why the undeniably sugarcoated treatment for Wilson? It’s my guess that the legal issues involved with making a biography (unauthorized at that) about someone still living are what leaves this doc a little light and superficial. However, even taking into account its irksome one-sidedness, Brian Wilson: Songwriter 1962-1969 is still the best and most exhaustive film about the most fecund period of Wilson’s career.

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