God (or Judge Mike Pinsky, take your pick) only knows what we'd do without Brian Wilson's long-awaited pop masterpiece.
I—I bet I know what she's like
This is the story of pop music's legendary lost masterpiece by one of America's most elusive composers. It began in the mid-1960s. The music industry was at war. The California surf sound battled the British invasion for chart dominance. The Achilles of the invading army: the Beatles. Our Hector: the Beach Boys, led by babyfaced genius Brian Wilson. For every inspired salvo the invaders threw, Brian fought back with a more melodic and complex composition. "California Girls" was met by Rubber Soul. Rubber Soul was met by Pet Sounds. Pet Sounds was met by "Strawberry Fields Forever." "Strawberry Fields Forever" was met by "Good Vibrations."
Then the word came down: Brian Wilson was at work on a masterpiece. It would be called Smile. The chromatic layering of "Good Vibrations," which stunned everyone who heard it, was only a sample of this impending breakthrough in studio musicianship. Brian's brother Dennis promised that "Smile is so good, it makes Pet Sounds stink." Those who heard the fragments of melody coming from Brian's studio, including the Beatles' producer George Martin, knew this album would change popular music. The Beatles started Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band in response to the coming volley from their surfing rivals.
Then Smile disappeared. Brian Wilson disappeared. For 37 years. And the legend grew…
This is the story of the best album of 2004, which is really the second best album of 1967. Let's be honest up front: Smile is a near-perfect work of pop music, but Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band still reaches just a bit further musically. Granted, Sgt. Pepper had the advantage of four musicians and a strong producer; Smile was a one-man show, in spite of lyrical help from Van Dyke Parks and grudging assistance from the rest of the Beach Boys. That is really the only negative thing I have to say about Smile as a piece of music. Inspired by American popular music from George Gershwin and Cole Porter, Brian Wilson, mostly self-taught and deaf in one ear, deduced a "modular" system of composition in order to break down melodies and take advantage of the new multitrack recording technologies.
This modular style is a sensible evolutionary turn from the standard pop formula that dominated by the 1960s. The verse / chorus / verse / chorus / bridge form that clutters the airwaves even today is broken down horizontally, laying down the elements of a song in a fairly straight line. Listen to "Good Vibrations," which may be one of the finest pop songs of all time. Although it ostensibly follows this horizontal structure, the song is really all about the vertical layering of sound. Wilson piles on delicate keyboards and percussion, strings, theremin, and choirs of voices, building tension with each new harmonic level. For a moment, the song relaxes, leveled out by a church-like organ, as romantic desire, the power of music (the "good vibrations" themselves), and spiritual need (best articulated in Pet Sounds' plaintive "God Only Knows") merge—then a frenzy of joy breaks loose. "Good Vibrations" might be a celebratory gospel standard, if it were not mistaken for mere white-bread surf music.
When "Good Vibrations" was completed in 1966, no one knew that this would spell the end for the Beach Boys in terms of their chart dominance. But looking back now, it seems clearer how the collapse came. The cracks in the Beach Boys' foundation began in the Wilson family home, where brutal father Murry drove his three sons to form a band in order to live out his own frustrated dreams of musical stardom. Young Brian had the talent to run the creative end of things, turning his two brothers Dennis and Carl, along with friend Mike Love, into a touring band dedicated to performing his good-time surfing hits.
But, to hear Brian tell the story, there was too much pressure. Murry, Capitol Records, a perceived rivalry with the Beatles, the press campaign to label Brian a "genius"—these led to anxiety and a creative impasse. Drugs, especially LSD, helped free Brian, allowing him to leave reality behind and dream up new music. Brian isolated himself from his bandmates and family, hiring studio musicians to perform fragments of songs that he would assemble using his new "modular" system. By 1966, Brian dreamed up a concept album to follow up the ambitious and brilliant Pet Sounds, which had satisfied both the public with its radio-friendly hits and critics with its inventive use of multitrack recording. This new album would be an ambitious project: a song cycle about America, from coast to coast, in the midst of social and political upheaval. It would also be what Brian described as a "teenage symphony to God." Clearly, this was no small order.
Brian called on Van Dyke Parks, whose surreal lyrics just touch the borders of a story, but still remain elusive. While the other Beach Boys toured, Brian brought in jazz performers to lay down instrumental tracks. No one knew quite where the new project was headed, since Brian only composed in pieces. When the Beach Boys finally came in to record vocals, they were shocked by what they heard and grew jealous of the focus in the popular press on Brian's new genius status.
Their rejection fueled Brian's lingering anxiety, the feelings stoked by his father that he was only a childish failure. Worse, the new album was long overdue as far as Capitol Records was concerned; all this diddling in the studio was not producing hit singles. Sensing a crash, Brian's artistic collaborators ran, leaving Brian with an unfinished album and little will to continue. Smile was abandoned, with only hastily assembled pieces released to the public.
You will not hear much about the aftermath of the Smile debacle in the well-meaning documentary Beautiful Dreamer: Brian Wilson and the Story of Smile. Even though the doc runs an overlong 109 minutes, the years of isolation after 1967 are glossed over in a couple of sentences. This is not surprising, as Wilson and his wife (whom he credits with drawing him out of his shell after their marriage in 1995) are executive producers. The result is a pretty, if ultimately unfulfilling, look at the history of Smile up through its 2004 public unveiling as Brian Wilson Presents SMiLE. Elvis Costello, Burt Bacharach, Sir George Martin, and even Leonard Bernstein (via footage from 1966) turn up to praise the artistry of Brian Wilson. But no Beach Boys. Not surprising though: Carl and Dennis Wilson are both dead now, and Brian's animosity towards Mike Love (who is portrayed as the clear villain throughout Beautiful Dreamer) will likely never be resolved, so the Beach Boys as a group receive little attention in the doc. Indeed, the doc repeatedly implies that they were merely a touring band for Brian's songs. No mention is made of the string of half-hearted compositions Brian cranked out in the 1970s (as Smile leftovers padded out Beach Boys releases throughout the decade). We hear nothing about Eugene Landy, the Svengali psychologist who controlled Brian's life for the better part of two decades. Passing mention is made of Brian's possible psychosis (including an admission of auditory hallucinations), but drug use is only discussed in a positive light. Beautiful Dreamer is not a companion piece to Shine, with a heroic artist battling his way out of mental illness. The darker, more personal aspects of the Smile story are glossed over in favor of a celebration of the music.
And the music is worth it. While the documentary on the two-disc DVD Brian Wilson Presents SMiLE is a bit shallow, the music itself --
The truth is that I think Smile, or SMiLE, or whatever the hell Brian Wilson is calling it these days, is better for having waited 37 years to reach completion. There is a weight to Brian's vocals now, a frayed innocence that comes from the years of madness that America itself has suffered in the years since 1967. Reshaped into coherence with the help of Van Dyke Parks and Darian Sahanaja (whose band the Wondermints has backed Wilson for several years), Smile now seems to reflect a lost wonder—a bittersweet "wanting to smile," in Sahanaja's words. The songs are organized into a trio of suites about trying to hold the threads of beauty as the apocalypse laps at your feet. Together they catalog the strengths and weaknesses of the American character, how the pioneering spirit ("Cabin Essence") can easily slide into the excesses of colonialism ("Heroes and Villains," "Roll Plymouth Rock"), or how the cult of self-reliance ("I'm in Great Shape," "Vega-Tables") hides deep insecurity (a hauntingly brief cover of "You Are My Sunshine").
But if Smile is about the end of the American century, it is also a summation of the American popular imagination. Ghosts of musical styles—ragtime, Tin Pan Alley, and even hard rock—drift in among a collection of traditional instruments (guitars, orchestral strings), electronic sounds from the future (theremin), angelic voices, and cultural detritus (slide whistles, bicycle horns, animal noises). And about those angelic voices: For all its historical anxiety, connecting the invading Pilgrims with the conquest of Hawaii to create a portrait of America on a colonizing roll, Smile is a hopeful, often spiritual album. It begins with a choir of voices, turns its center section over to a suite dedicated to an almost mystical view of nature and childhood ("Wonderful" through "Surf's Up"), and closes with a reconfigured "Good Vibrations" as a redemptive release after an apocalyptic nightmare ("Mrs. O'Leary's Cow," "Blue Hawaii").
This has really steered more into a music review than a movie review, so I will get us back on course. Disc One of the DVD release of Brian Wilson Presents SMiLE offers the Beautiful Dreamer documentary, some outtakes (a live performance from the London premiere, interviews with Brian and Van Dyke Parks, and an indulgent collection of post-concert audience gushing), and a trailer. Disc Two is the good stuff: a complete Los Angeles concert performance of SMiLE with Brian fronting a 19-piece band. He clearly looks more relaxed and focused than at the London premiere, as if he has awakened from a pleasant reverie to discover a huge audience singing along with him. The concert film is smoothly directed by John Anderson, who compensates for the lack of spontaneity (after all, this music has to be rehearsed like crazy because of its complexity) by focusing on the visible love these musicians have for Brian's music. Of course, the audio mix (offered in 5.1 and 2.0) is excellent, but given that this is a live concert, do not expect the mix to be as immersive as your SMiLE CD. You have gone out and gotten the CD, haven't you?
In fact, there is a brief (20-minute) featurette on the recording of the CD release of Brian Wilson Presents SMiLE on Disc Two. Although the actual recording sessions only took three days (sort of an anticlimax after 37 years), the featurette seems to take forever, since it is really just a collection of outtakes that were probably intended for Beautiful Dreamer and cut when documentary director David Leaf though the London live premiere made a more effective climax. Indeed, Disc Two is also padded with still more outtakes from that doc, consisting of a photo gallery of Brian and the Beach Boys up through 1967 (remember, the years 1968-2003 do not exist as far as the documentary is concerned) and some footage of Brian at the piano. We are also treated to a contest-winning fan video for "Heroes and Villains," a badly pixelated Claymation affair.
I may have sounded harsh earlier criticizing Beautiful Dreamer for its shiny vision of Brian Wilson's struggles over the years to straighten out his life and art, but in truth, most of what we have heard over the years about his isolation were stories spread by scandal-hungry outsiders who wanted to see Brian's failures as cautionary lessons about the excesses of the 1960s. I was born the same year that Smile fell apart, and I grew up hearing that Brian Wilson was an acid casualty, a mumbling psychotic under the control of an evil shrink, an artist who, like Van Gogh or Poe, was brilliant to the point of madness. Artistic ambition was a dangerous trap, the rumors all hinted. Don't be a genius, or you will flame out too quickly. So, if Beautiful Dreamer works too hard to rehabilitate the image of Brian Wilson, it is only because trying to make Brian Wilson even look simply normal is an uphill battle.
Well, crazy genius or normal creative guy with some anxiety issues, Brian Wilson is still one of the white-hot lights of American popular music. Ever since I picked up the CD months ago, I get bits of his songs stuck in my head. And now with this DVD concert, it is happening worse than ever. Whatever other new albums you might have heard in 2004, remember that 37 years from now, nobody will be listening to any of them. We will all still be listening to "Good Vibrations." And simply for that accomplishment alone, you should give the rest of Brian Wilson Presents SMiLE a chance.
Case dismissed. Let's all go on a surfing safari!
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