"The word genius is used a lot about Brian Wilson, which I don't know if he's a genius or not. But I know that that music is probably as good a music as you can make…as you can write."—Tom Petty
It's easy to underestimate The Beach Boys' music, to take it for granted, because it's become such an integral part of American popular culture. For those of us born after the 1960s, it's always been there, piping away in the background of our lives. The band's canon is such a seminal piece of art, it's impossible to calculate what popular music since the 1960s would sound like if one were able to expunge The Beach Boys' recordings from history. Like Citizen Kane in the medium of film, or Picasso's cubism in the visual arts, Brian Wilson's songs so altered the landscape of popular music they are the cornerstone of much of what came later; remove them, and the whole house crumbles. Consider this: one of my favorite bands, The Ramones—perhaps the most influential punk band ever—wouldn't be The Ramones as we know them if they hadn't had Brian Wilson there, showing them the way, teaching them that pop music's punch comes from its surface simplicity, a simplicity capable of containing much beauty and, unexpectedly, much complexity. If punk rock would be forever altered in the absence of The Beach Boys, what form of popular music wouldn't?
Facts of the Case
An American Band—Documentary filmmaker Malcolm Leo's (This is Elvis, It Came from Hollywood) examination of one of America's most famous and influential pop bands takes us from the Wilson brothers' childhood harmonizing in the back seat of the car during family road trips to drummer Dennis Wilson's death by drowning in 1983. Just as the Beach Boys themselves did, Leo manages to pack in a lot of music along the way.
"I Just Wasn't Made for These Times"—Record producer Don Was' serious examination of the enormous talent of The Beach Boys' leader Brian Wilson, and the demons that chased him through a career of highs and lows.
This DVD double feature is a nice little package precisely because of how diametrically opposed in tone and focus the two pieces are. Combined, they manage to celebrate the beauty of the band's music, the joy it elicits in us, while also examining the often dark and difficult journey that produced such beauty.
Director Malcolm Leo's The Beach Boys: An American Band is mainly fluffy and fun, likely produced because of The Beach Boys' brief career renaissance in the 1980s because of their annual headlining slot at Washington D.C.'s Fourth of July celebration, and a controversy surrounding the Reagan administration's perpetually out of touch James Watt declaring the band was a hard rock group unfit to play at such a high profile national event. While the film covers the band's career up to the time it was made, it blows through the career slumps, in-fighting, drug abuse problems, and Brian Wilson's nervous breakdown and retreat into madness that necessitated his replacement with Bruce Johnston for the band's live performances, as quickly as it can without pretending they didn't happen.
The rosier-than-reality picture the film presents is a by-product of its real intent: allowing us to listen to The Beach Boys' music…a lot. The songs are the star of the show, and Leo gives us complete performances of classics like "Surfin' USA," "I Get Around," "In My Room," "Wouldn't It Be Nice?," "God Only Knows," and "Good Vibrations" to name just a few. To archive these performances, from the likes of The Ed Sullivan Show, the band's celebrated 1968 European tour when they'd fallen out of favor in the U.S., and the renowned The T.A.M.I. Show (a revue-style concert put on by Teenage Music International in 1964, featuring diverse acts like Jan & Dean, The Supremes, Chuck Berry, The Rolling Stones, James Brown, Glen Campbell, Marvin Gaye, and, of course, The Beach Boys), seems to be Leo's real intent here. The documentary's narrative serves mainly to provide the briefest explanation of the emotional and psychological landscape from which the songs were born.
I don't want to give the impression the non-musical material in the film is weak, though. With the exception of some scripted and highly stilted narrative segments with Carl Wilson, Mike Love, Al Jardine, and Bruce Johnston, there is some very interesting and archive-worthy interview material here. Of particular interest are segments of a bearded Brian Wilson talking about his career and the central role music has played in his life, all the while tucked to his chin in his massive bed, as well as warm and engaging home movies of friends and family at Brian's 34th birthday party in 1976, a time when he was reconnecting with the band after a long absence.
Leo walks a fine line here, wanting mostly for us to experience the joy the music was designed to elicit, while also giving us some sense of how that music came to be. That he soft sells the band's dark history a bit, and stretches to create an upbeat ending despite Dennis Wilson's death so near the film's production, can be forgiven if only because of how vividly the infectious, foot-tapping joy shines through.
Director Don Was' Brian Wilson: I Just Wasn't Made for These Times is an animal altogether different than the previous film, and this is a good thing. It's more staid and intellectual. If Leo's film is a celebration of the Beach Boys' music, Was' is an apologia for its greatness. While examining Wilson's highs and lows, the film explores the nature of his genius and affirms his integral place in the shaping of modern popular music through testimonials from likes of musicians as varied as David Crosby and Graham Nash, Tom Petty, Sonic Youth's Thurston Moore, John Cale from The Velvet Underground, Fleetwood Mac's Lindsey Buckingham, Linda Ronstadt, and Randy Newman.
The film is one part personal, one part academic. We hear from Beach Boys' mom Audree Wilson, from Brian's ex-wife Marilyn, his brother Carl, his daughters Wendy and Carnie, and from Brian himself. Through these interviews we get a glimpse (if only tiny) of how large periods of Wilson's life were haunted and desolate and just plain weird, as well as the sort of emotional wreckage these periods created in the major relationships in his life. The documentary avoids being morose only because it finds Wilson on the mend, drug-free and attempting to jump start a solo career, while making a concerted effort to reconnect with family and friends (particularly his daughters). These explorations of the very personal are set against dissection of Wilson's music by the famous and influential I listed above, as well as music historian David Leaf and Daniel Harrison, professor of music at Eastman School of Music. Still, the best moments of the entire show are when Wilson himself sits at a piano and recalls how he wrote particular songs. The interesting thing is that he describes the mechanics of the songwriting act, and is often able to remember what he was thinking and what music he'd been listening to that helped provoke the composition, but he's ultimately no more capable of unveiling the act of inspiration itself than his fellow musicians or the academics…it is a thing beyond words.
Was' film was made for television, but was shot in classy black and white at an aspect ratio of 1.85:1. The film's look is in line with the reverence in which it holds its subject. The DVD maintains the widescreen aspect ratio, but the transfer is not anamorphically enhanced. The sources from which the transfer was struck exhibit a fair amount of dirt, nicks, and other flaws, and the image is soft with blacks sometimes over-saturated and muddy. Grain is consistently present, but more prevalent in some shots than others. So much so, it appears different film stocks were used in shooting the documentary (some of the Brian Wilson interview material has the coursed grain appearance of 16mm).
An American Band is presented in full screen, which appears to be its original aspect ratio, and has a video-like quality to it, with some artifacting here and there. Because so much of the film is excerpts of the band performing on various television shows and concert films, the picture quality varies significantly based on the source material. Overall, the quality isn't out of line with what one would expect from a documentary of this sort.
On the audio front, both pieces are presented in Dolby Digital 2.0 stereo. The mixes are clean and leave little to complain about. While a 5.1 surround mix might've been nice on I Just Wasn't Made for These Times, there aren't as many musical segments in that film and the talking heads would've benefited little from the more elaborate treatment. It's doubtful An American Band would've been at all improved by a surround mix, as its many musical numbers come from either mono or stereo sources. The important thing here is that clips from, say, The Ed Sullivan Show, with their limited dynamic range, a preserved well enough that they're actually enjoyable to listen to.
The disc has no extras whatsoever.
A must-own for fervent fans of The Beach Boys, this is really no more than a rental for the casual fan. While I think both filmmakers did an admirable job, my advice is this: if you want to experience the joy and humanity of The Beach Boys' music, go buy Pet Sounds for goodness' sake.
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