Brian Wilson documentary examines his genius and his pain

Director Brent Wilson's terrific film uses archive footage and new material to tell the story of the Beach Boys' legend.
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Brian Wilson’s life and career are examined in Brent Wilson’s terrific documentary "Brian Wilson: Long Promised Road," which premiered at NYC’s Tribeca Festival on Tuesday, June 15th. (Publicity Photo)

Brian Wilson’s life and career are examined in Brent Wilson’s terrific documentary "Brian Wilson: Long Promised Road," which premiered at NYC’s Tribeca Festival on Tuesday, June 15th. (Publicity Photo)

By John Curley

The new documentary about the legendary Beach Boys songwriter, Brian Wilson: Long Promised Road, which was directed by Brent Wilson (no relation) and named for a 1971 song by Wilson’s late brother Carl, premiered on Tuesday, June 15th at New York City’s Tribeca Festival. The film is an outstanding piece of work, yet it still does not have a distribution deal. Hopefully, the publicity surrounding the film’s Tribeca Festival premiere will change that situation.

The film uses archive clips of The Beach Boys and recent interviews with artists including Wilson’s longtime bandmate Al Jardine, Bruce Springsteen, Elton John, Jakob Dylan, Don Was, Jim James of My Morning Jacket, Nick Jonas, Bob Gaudio of The Four Seasons, Foo Fighters drummer Taylor Hawkins and Linda Perry of 4 Non Blondes to tell part of the story. But the heart of the film features Wilson being driven around Los Angeles and surrounding communities by his longtime friend and confidante Jason Fine of Rolling Stone magazine and the conversations between the two of them that happen during those drives. Fine does a good job of reading Wilson’s moods, and he fills in the lulls in conversation when Wilson goes silent by asking Wilson if he would like to hear some music and then asking Wilson his thoughts on that particular song.

Listening to Wilson discuss his late brothers Carl and Dennis is poignant. It is clear that he misses them both terribly. On one drive with Fine, they stop at a home once owned by Carl Wilson. When Fine asks Wilson if he wants to get out of the vehicle to have a look around, Wilson declines and says that it’s too emotional for him. It is also obvious that Wilson has many fond memories of the time he spent with his brothers. At one point in the film, Wilson discusses his admiration for Carl’s vocal on “God Only Knows” and says that when he sings the song now, he always thinks of Carl. Wilson’s comment about Dennis being the “ladies’ man” is accompanied by a 1964 clip of Dennis flirting with a female reporter during a TV interview. Later in the film, Hawkins opines that Dennis was “the guy that Brian wanted to be.”

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Wilson makes some interesting revelations in the film. Among those were his saying how difficult it was for him to give up on the original concept of the Smile album in 1967 and how much it meant to him to get to perform Smile in concert in 2005. Wilson is also very forthcoming about how tough it was for him to quit using alcohol, cocaine and cigarettes. The most heartbreaking tales from Wilson involve those about his abusive father Murry, who he and his brothers had fired as The Beach Boys’ manager, and his discussions about his time spent under the supervision of Dr. Eugene Landy. Wilson states that Landy once made him eat spaghetti off of the floor. While Wilson does give Landy credit for helping him lose over 100 pounds, he states that Landy controlled his life from 1983 to 1992.

Wilson’s second chapter in his life with second wife Melinda Ledbetter is examined in the film. Elton John says that Ledbetter is responsible for Wilson’s continued success. Wilson discusses the children that he and Ledbetter have adopted with great pride.

The portions of the film in which Wilson appears to be most in his element are those in the studio and on the concert stage with his band. Wilson, who will celebrate his 79th birthday next week, tells Fine that he is doing more touring now than he has ever done. It’s wonderful to witness Wilson at work.

In the virtual press conference that followed the virtual press screening of the film last week, director Brent Wilson stated that 70 hours of footage was shot for the film and discussed how tough it was for him to cut good bits to get the film down to the desired running time. He added that some of the cut footage could end up as extras on a DVD release of the film.

Fans of Wilson’s work will surely enjoy the film if the distribution deal that will enable them to see it happens. Brian Wilson: Long Promised Road is a quality film and deserves to be seen. 

A clip from the film can be seen below: