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Beautiful Dreamer: Brian Wilson and the Story of SMiLE

Rhino // Unrated // May 24, 2005
List Price: $29.98 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Bill Gibron | posted May 18, 2005 | E-mail the Author
Someone had to write the elegy to the 60s. That a decade built on unbridled freedom and an overindulgence in same would need a final funeral song didn't seem quite possible at the time. The future appeared wide open and bright, the shimmering of the senses reflected in every melody drifting from the radio, every word being printed by the alternative press. Yet somehow, music had to open and close the era when the civilizing confrontation finally came crashing to a halt. While books and film, theater and television tried to define and determine the times, it was music that always sculpted the scene. Artists and bands melded seamlessly into the culture, countering the traditional Establishment approach with mind altering and expanding sound. Each new record seemed to signal another shift in the paradigm, another chance to rethink your role as part of the human race and take up arms against those who would harsh the beautiful convergent buzz.

For a long time, Brian Wilson and the Beach Boys had been riding on a high and beautiful wave (to quote the late, great Hunter S. Thompson), a swell of sonic love that threatened to envelop the whole planet in an ethereal endless summer. Their music evoked sand and sun, youth and its accompanying exuberance, matching magnificent harmonies to a melodic sense straight from the Gods. With each single, album and concert, the Boys were building, the tide was rising. The peak came when Brian unveiled his stunning masterpiece, 1966's Pet Sounds. Leading his bandmates into a more mature, introspective arena, the record initially threw off fans hoping for more fun, fun, fun. But upon further review, the greatness of Wilson's aural imagery was slowly revealed and Sounds became a benchmark recording. And showing he had cheek to match his creativity, Wilson declared his next recording would be even better.

Sadly, it never materialized. Reality swept in and drew the wave back. Bickering within the band, as well as long standing insecurities in Wilson derailed the project before it could be properly completed. The "Dumb Angel" sessions, which would later be renamed for the album's new title – SMiLE – fell away into the depths of memory, to be reborn as fable and myth. Wilson's artistic influence and his mental state equally floated into visible valleys of despair. When it was all over, no one ever thought SMiLE would see the legitimate light of day. That was 1967. Fast-forward almost forty years, and Brian Wilson is touring the world promoting the final, finished SMiLE project. How this happened, and the mighty chasms crossed to get there, make up Beautiful Dreamer: Brian Wilson and the Story of SMiLE. Not only is it an amazing documentary about an equally amazing man, but the SMiLE story says something equally elegant about the decade in which this masterwork was wrought, and eventually died.

The DVD:
The Pet Sounds tour had been a rousing success. Brian Wilson, along with support from the LA power pop combo The Wondermints had taken the Beach Boys 1966 magnum opus out on the road in the early part of the new millennium, and fans had provided a rapturous, reassuring response. It had been a long time since Wilson had experienced such an emotionally and psychologically restorative situation. For decades he had been tormented by demons, both personal and professional, all eating away at the fragile, child-like soul of this surf music icon. And while his mental state declined, his cultural worth somehow still increased a mighty million-fold. During his sunny summer decade in the spotlight, Wilson was declared a genius – troubled and tempestuous – but a genius nonetheless. Over the years, as his travails threatened to erase all the greatness from his mythos, critics took up his amazing mantle and declared him a universal treasure. Not bad for a man once written off as a certified eccentric with a huge ability for melody, and an even larger appetite for self-destructive behavior.

That Brian Wilson is an important part of pop music is an understatement. There are basically three sonic scenes that defined the 60s, each more divergent and definitive than the next. In England, four Liverpool lads melded Elvis to Tin Pan Alley and came up with the purest form of pop music the people had ever heard. The Beatles would go on to delineate the entire decade, changing as the times changed, bringing their brilliant way with a song along for each and every elemental experiment. Over in Detroit, a disgruntled factory worker found some like-minded mavericks, built his own "black" version of the Brill Building hit parade, and gave birth to the beauty that was Motown. While other so-called "race" music was being dismissed as divisive to the nations uneasy sense of equality, Barry Gordy and his bands were forging a cool, hip consensus that many can still feel some forty years removed.

But it was the madcap genius of Brian Wilson and the vocal instrument for his melodies, the Beach Boys, that provided the divine harmony that would wrap the 60s in a blanket of good vibrations. From their early surf and turf sonnets, to the cool car and sure school sentiments, California's answer to forced agitprop was borne on wings of whimsy and the sheer delight derived from pure reverberation. As the years passed, the Boys graduated from simple rock and roll riffs to complicated song construction as Wilson pushed the boundaries of both composition and orchestration. By the mid-60s, only The Beatles could hold a torch to Brian's belief in experimentation and expressionism – and the Fab Four were taking more hints from him than the other way around. It all seemed to culminate in Pet Sounds, a melancholy song cycle celebrating the possibilities ("Wouldn't It Be Nice") and the pitfalls ("Caroline, No") of growing up in the ever-changing face of an America unstuck in time. While the rest of the band didn't quite cotton to Brian's brainstorms, they couldn't argue with either the critical or commercial success.

But for Wilson, Pet Sounds was just the beginning. Having used a modular approach to music for the band's next single – the seminal "Good Vibrations" – the eager auteur wanted to take the puzzle piece ideal to its next logical extreme. Instead of a single song built out of complimentary and contentious parts, why not an ENTIRE album? Thus the great SMiLE sessions began. And as they trudged along, Wilson and new collaborator Van Dyke Parks (as adept as he was, Wilson always needed a lyrical accomplice for his work) began to shape a nostalgic suite of ephemeral, ethereal tone poems. Placed side by side, into and around each other, they would represent all the ideas in both of these young men's heads (Wilson was 24 years old - !!! – while Parks was 23) and together form the greatest single musical expression pop could ever create.

We know the rest. Spurned by the band (who thought SMiLE was "weird" and untenable), his own self-doubts and the brazen aural blast of "Strawberry Fields Forever" from Lennon/McCartney, Wilson simply abandoned SMiLE, relegating it to the status of legend before it was ever released. Several songs from the sessions were metered out on future Beach Boys releases ("Heroes and Villains", "Cabinessence", etc.) but bootlegs became the only way to get the true, complete spirit of what Wilson was striving for. Almost always incomplete, with running order, song titles and actual tunes far from completion, SMiLE was sonic bliss smothered by history and histrionics. And it seemed like we'd never hear the real final product – that is, until his backing band, and his second wife Melinda, compelled him to face the never completed artistic albatross once and for all.

Though occasionally so superficial as to feel forged from a trance, Beautiful Dreamer: Brian Wilson and the Story of SMiLE is one of the best factual documents of a man and his music ever created. What it lacks in depth and content, it more than makes up for in the force of visualization. Brian Wilson is now in his 60s, a man ravaged by time and his own psychological storms. His voice is old and lacks the full force fury of the falsetto that sent "I Get Around" and "California Girls" into the stratosphere. In its place are decades of dementia covered over by a veil of pleasantness that always seems on the verge of cracking. Director David Leaf (The Unknown Marx Brothers, Jack Parr: Smart Television) understands that he can't cover the entire Wilson/Beach Boys/SMiLE story in a single documentary. So what he does instead is give us the back story and the set-up. He then lets the man, his music, and the effect that both have on each other dictate the drama. What results is something both sentimental and celebratory, a vision of a muse recaptured, and an artist literally reborn.

In several significant ways – many of which this movie highlights - the completion of SMiLE appears to be the final leg in the long, arduous recovery from the mental and physical breakdown that Wilson suffered as a young and very troubled musical troubadour. Leaf and the several supporters out to sing Wilson's praises make a very cogent case for SMiLE being the missing link in Brian's healing from psychological loss, noting that it was around the time of the album's making when Wilson himself became a broken and beaten man. And as the years rolled by, and the music moved from public to critical acceptance, the musician sunk deeper inside himself. While such armchair analysis may appear trivial or pat, one need look no further than the way in which Wilson's face lights up when he realizes a SMiLE revival may actually work. And when Van Dyke Parks arrives to talk about updating and polish, you can almost see the years of doubt and denial drifting away.

But Beautiful Dreamer is not just a tale of imaginative triumph over individual misfortune. It is also about the struggle itself, about revisiting your past and seeing if the magic created back then indeed stands the test of time. For many, SMiLE stood as a demonstration to Wilson's genius because it remained unheard, kept back from consumption by acknowledged words of non-acceptance and commercial incompatibility. Only Wilson and his aesthetic aura could configure such thoughts into praise, not panic. Indeed, in several sensational bits of archival footage, SMiLE is shown to be that most elusive of concepts – a work in progress that feels both simultaneously complete and in desperate need of further polishing. Perhaps the best snippet comes from a Leonard Bernstein special in which the famed composer and conductor likens modern popular music to the conventions of the old masters. We then see Wilson in badly aged footage, the darkened room barely illuminating his tortured visage as he sings, eyes slammed shut, a graceful and emotional solo version of SMiLE's "Surf's Up". Indeed, after hearing and seeing Wilson's version of this lovely lament, it's hard not to view the long lost album as some manner of misplaced masterwork.

And still the documentary digs deeper. It finds insight in those who were Wilson's friends at the time, and attempts to debunk the mythos of drug abuse and acid flashbacks that have plagued the musician for years. The legacy of Brian Wilson as narcotic casualty has been so readily embraced that when we hear about his ongoing battles with depression and tormenting inner voices, we start to wonder where the 60s stop and the new millennium mindset begins. But Beautiful Dreamer makes it clear that Wilson's anguish has more to do with brain chemistry than counter culture alchemy, and like other tortured artists before or since, the drugs were just a way of coping with the stresses and strains of a career in creativity. Certainly the abuse he's put his body through is evident – Wilson sometimes reminds the viewer of a sun-drenched, happy go lucky version of Ozzy Osbourne. But when he opens his mouth to sing, or focuses intently on a particular passage in his music, the eyes come back to life and the voice resonates with a power unperceivable to mere mortals.

There are a couple of other players that deserve mention for their part in the SMiLE saga. Van Dykes Parks, an eccentric musician and artist in his own right, looks even more impish and ingenious some three decades removed from the piece. No longer needing to bear the brunt of jokes about his obtuse lyrics (Mike Love once challenged him on the meaning of "Surf's Up's" line "Columnated ruins domino") and fully in his own as a part of SMiLE's sensational myth, Parks is like a cherub of good cheer throughout Beautiful Dreamer, just devastatingly happy that this project might finally see the light of day. Equally ecstatic in a far more workmanlike manner is Wondermints founder and keyboardist Darian Sahanaja. In many ways, he is the mastermind behind SMiLE's resurrection.

Taking the vaulted tapes and loading them into his laptop, the performer gave Wilson the freedom to figure out how all the pieces in his compositional puzzle finally fit together. Sahanaja's methodology, along with his own expert musicianship (if you love pop, you'll adore the Wondermints) gave Wilson the muse the songwriter thought he'd lost. Watching Sahanaja move across the background of this story, a true fan with hair as high as his aspirations for the project, gives the viewer a clear indication of SMiLE's effect on people. That individuals with their own careers to consider would make Wilson and his forgotten unfinished canvas their primary concern illustrates that, when it came to making timeless music, no one could compete with big bad Brian.

As a factual testament to the rise, fall and reincarnation of SMiLE, Beautiful Dreamer is unexpectedly moving. As you watch Wilson convert from wunderkind to waste, and then return to some manner of form, you can't help but be touched. This is the man, after all, who crafted some of the most beautiful and poignant music of all time (songs like "Don't Worry, Baby" and ""God Only Knows" are pop perfection) and to see him fight, to see the past come back to haunt and harrow him every step of the way makes the final triumphant SMiLE concert in London a true epic event. Again, it's as if the last 38 years have been a build up to that performance catharsis. And with the embrace of the audience comes a sense of closure for Wilson as well. He is able to live out and substantiate his myth, proving that all the accolades heaped on SMiLE, as well as his talent in general, were truthful and sincere.

For a long time, SMiLE was an incomplete facet to Brian Wilson and the Beach Boys career. No matter how many fake formations of the band that now play the nostalgia circuit (without the three founding Wilsons – sadly, both Carl and Dennis have long passed on), it's hard to see how anything functioning under the 'Surf City' moniker can mean very much. SMiLE slammed the door on questions of Wilson's viability as a visionary and a sage. His music stands because it evokes the kind of classicism that comes from other great American composers like Cole Porter, George Gershwin (an early Wilson influence) and Irving Berlin. Beach Boys songs are not just about harmony and hot summer nights. They exist with a melodic purity and perfection all their own. SMiLE signifies the final stone in the monolithic shrine to the Gods of sound. It closes the book on one part of Wilson's life as it opens the doorway to another. If anyone deserves the title of King of Pop, it's the beloved Beach Boy. But since another perverted pretender to the throne has already stolen it, lets reconfigure the title. Brian Wilson is the Elder Statesmen of Sonic Bliss. And SMiLE is his last living testament.

The Video:
Shot on digital for Showtime and offered in a 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen presentation, Beautiful Dreamer is captured in a kind of hazy, scrapbook style with talking heads seated in front of still and artwork from the original, aborted SMiLE sessions. The colors are deeply saturated during the interview footage, while the archival and on set material has a nice, pigment correct clarity. This is really a mixed media presentation, with photos and clips combined with modern segments to paint SMiLE's history in as many divergent narrative hues as possible. The end result is fabulously atmospheric, allowing mood and emotion to flow freely between the sequences. This is a gorgeous, near reference quality offering that stands head and shoulders above other music documentary films.

The Audio:
If it's about anything, Beautiful Dreamer is centered around music, and Rhino again delivers a reference quality presentation of the various aural elements that make up this movie. The conversations are clear and concise, perfectly modulated between voices and vibrancy. But it's the sounds that come out of your home theater that will astound you. The DVD gives us both a Dolby Digital Stereo option, as well as a much deeper and richer 5.1 alternative. Be brave and take the multi-channel path. It really captures the brilliance of Wilson, his creative canon, and the SMiLE sessions both past and present in exquisite detail. There's even a "score only" choice that gives you the enigmatic musical backing that washes this film in a wonderful sense of wistfulness.

The Extras:
This is a two disc DVD package from Rhino. On Disc 1, we get Beautiful Dreamer as well as several sensational bonuses. There is a trailer for the film, a version of "Mrs. O'Leary's Cow" from the world premiere London performance (it's amazing), some after-concert comments from Wilson as well as the audience (14 mins of glowing, very personal reviews and recollections) and four separate interviews with Wilson, many of which contain clips used in the documentary. For this material alone, the DVD is a must-have for fans of the songwriter. Wilson has been notoriously elusive the last few decades, and any chance to hear him speak is exciting. Luckily, all the Q&As here (including one helmed by Van Dyke Parks himself) are just terrific.

But Disc 2 is where the real bonanza begins. Recorded during Brian's US tour with SMiLE, the entire SMiLE concert is presented in another faultless video and audio marvel by Rhino. Those expecting a Beach Boys greatest hits package or some manner of loose and lively concert are missing the point of the SMiLE shows. Played note for note, in real time without any stops for audience chatter or onstage banter, the SMiLE concert is the entire album played completely live. And as with any substantial piece of pop art, it really is something to behold. Director John Anderson does a terrific job of capturing the group vibe, while Wilson hasn't looked this healthy – and HAPPY – in years. The show is pitch perfect and incredibly emotional. Just seeing how Wilson drinks in the love of the audience and puts back out his own brand of magnificent mojo is every music lover's dream. At 50 minutes, this is one of the greatest concert experiences ever captured on video, and will be a wonderful souvenir for the year when SMiLE re-dominated the cultural landscape.

Disc 2 also fleshes out the film proper by giving us a collection of Beautiful Dreamer 'outtakes'. They include a 9 minute photo montage of Brian at the start, and eventual height, of Beach Boys popularity, a series of musical selections ("Good Vibrations", "Heroes and Villains") featuring Brian at the piano with occasional instrumental help from superb studio musician, bassist Carol Kaye, and a 20 minute featurette on the actual recording of the SMiLE album. And just for some added fun, there is a fan-made video for "Heroes and Villains". About the only thing missing from either DVD is a commentary, either from Wilson, and his collaborators, or both. Had this material been included, this would be the definite look at SMiLE's cyclical history. As it stands, this is still an amazing digital presentation.

Final Thoughts:
Beginning with a beautiful hymn to the pure power of musical harmony, SMiLE is the definitive utopian view of the United States as filtered through the last fading twilight in the Summer of Love. It's pure Americana mixed with esoteric imagery to show a society the way one dreamer envisioned it, a wonderful world varied with nostalgia and newness. In concept, it's a walk from Plymouth Rock to the California shoreline, stopping momentarily to take in the sensational sobering sights along the way. It's a celebration of children as well as the elderly, a look backward to trace a definitive path forward. And it is, truly, an elegy to the time it was created. Only in the 1960s would such experiment in expression be embraced. Only in that era would the self-indulgent nature of Wilson and his work ethic be celebrated as a formula for success. Only during that time frame could bands battle for creative superiority and have the listener end up as the primary beneficiary.

No wonder SMiLE failed to survive. It was so ahead of its time that scientists still can't determine its exact temporal placement. Recalling ever style and sensation of sound preferred by the peace and love generation fused into a final proclamation of empowerment, SMiLE definitely invokes its title emotion. The same can be said for Beautiful Dreamer. It's a tribute to one man's muse, and a testimony to his talent and his trials. While it may not be the hard-hitting exposé some are looking for, it is a fitting end to a mythical tale. After 38 years, the 60s finally can be put to rest. Brian Wilson has written its requiem, and the results are simply stunning.

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