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Case Number 20260: Small Claims Court

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Brian Wilson: Songwriter 1962-1969

MVD Visual // 2010 // 190 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge David Ryan (Retired) // December 6th, 2010

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All Rise...

Judge Dave Ryan is lying in bed, just like Brian Wilson did.

The Charge

And if you want to find me I'll be out in the sandbox
Wondering where the hell all the love has gone
Playing my guitar and building castles in the sun
And singing "Fun Fun Fun"

-- Barenaked Ladies, "Brian Wilson"

The Case

Some people write songs. They tap out a melody on a piano, or pluck it on an acoustic guitar, and gradually build that melody out into a verse-chorus-verse rock song. Three chords and a hook, and you're good.

Brian Wilson didn't do that. Brian Wilson heard rock symphonies in his head; complete works of harmonic pop perfection, and just translated them from mind to paper to tape. There's never been a rock/pop songwriter quite like Brian Wilson, and there arguably will never be one quite like him ever again. If anyone deserves a two-disc, three-hour documentary devoted solely to his songwriting, it's the eldest son of Murray and Audree Wilson of Hawthorne, Calif.

Wilson, in case you've been under a rock for the last half century, is one of the founders of, and was originally the chief songwriter for, the Beach Boys. Breaking out of the Southern California surf culture in 1962, the Beach Boys quickly established themselves as a force to be reckoned with on the Top 40 charts. Their tight harmonies and intricately-crafted melodies led to hit after hit. Odds are high that no matter which country you hail from, you know at least one or two Beach Boys hits. They're America's version of the Beatles, more or less.

The full story of the Beach Boys, much like the full story of the Beatles, is filled with highs and lows, both of the emotional and drug-induced varieties, and can't be fully told in a normal feature-length documentary. This disc doesn't bite off more than it can chew: it takes a long look at one aspect of the Beach Boys experience, and does a very good job at being thorough with respect to that aspect. In this case, it's Wilson's songwriting—his style, technique, influences, and achievements—during the between the group's formation in the early '60s and the group's break with Capitol Records in 1969. (After the Sunflower album, released in 1970, Wilson became more and more withdrawn from both his songwriting and from society, eventually falling under the influence of Eugene Landy, a controversial psychotherapist who…well, that's a whole 'nother story for another time.) In doing so, it leaves a LOT of material out—the increasingly strained relationship between Wilson and his brothers and cousin, Dennis Wilson's alcoholism, the always stormy relationship between the Wilsons and their father/manager Murray, and most of the details of Wilson's personal life. But that's just fine—it's discussed to the extent it affected Wilson's songwriting, and anything beyond that is left for other documentarians to analyze.

The only flaw here is the absence of Brian Wilson himself. This is not an "authorized" documentary, and as such, none of the Beach Boys appear in it. The information on hand comes from friends, associates, and academics only. Sometimes, this hearsay technique of documentary filmmaking leads to a product of questionable veracity. That's not the case here, though—the sources used have a good deal of credibility, and (given the non-gossipy subject matter), there's no reason to believe that anyone here is exaggerating or working under some sort of agenda. But the only person who really knows Wilson's mind is Wilson, and therefore you ultimately have to consider some of the analysis (e.g. what Wilson was feeling at the time he wrote certain songs) as just quality speculation, not absolute fact.

Despite what the box says, this documentary is presented in a 1.85:1 anamorphic format. It's a quality picture, but nothing to write home about. It looks like some minor clean-up work has been done on some of the early Beach Boys footage, but by no means would any of it be considered "restored"—and most of the footage consists of early TV appearances and promo films (the precursors to music videos that were occasionally made in the '60s) that Beach Boys fans have probably already seen many times. The Dolby stereo track is similarly competent but unspectacular. The extra features consist of some additional interview footage and text biographies of the people interviewed in the feature. They're okay, but nothing special.

Brian Wilson Songwriter 1962-1969 isn't a groundbreaking documentary or something that brings all-new Beach Boys information to light. It is, however, a well-constructed, well-focused feature that does justice to Wilson and his songs. Brian Wilson's music is like solid, well-built furniture—while the pieces may look simple on the outside, that simplicity masks a great deal of superior craftsmanship, and the piece itself remains functional even as styles change around it. If you're a really hard-core Beach Boys fan, (a) you already know that, and (b) you're probably not going to find anything new here. But for everyone else, this disc is a great way to learn why you really should care about Brian Wilson.

The Verdict

Totally guilty of having fun prior to daddy's T-bird taking-away, and of keeping those good vibrations happening for you.

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Scales of Justice

Judgment: 90

Perp Profile

Studio: MVD Visual
Video Formats:
• 1.85:1 Anamorphic
Audio Formats:
• Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
• None
Running Time: 190 Minutes
Release Year: 2010
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
• Concerts and Musicals
• Documentary
• Foreign

Distinguishing Marks

• Biographies
• Extended Interviews


• Brian Wilson
• Official DVD Site

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