Brian Wilson Presents SMiLE (2004)
"It just takes a lot of moxie, a lot of courage, for Brian Wilson to be willing to do this." - Van Dyke Parks, on Wilson's decision to return to their abandoned collaboration, SMiLE
Stars: Brian Wilson
Other Stars: Melinda Wilson, George Martin, Paul McCartney, Elvis Costello
Director: David Leaf
MPAA Rating: Not RatedRun Time: 01h:48m:35s
Release Date: 2005-05-24
DVD ReviewOne of my writing teachers liked to repeat the old adage that no work of art is ever completed, it's only given up despairingly—for most of us, though, that despair doesn't fester for thirty-seven years. Then again, most of us aren't operating on the level of Brian Wilson; the term "genius" gets bandied about a whole lot these days, and Wilson isn't a conventional egghead, but he's responsible for some music that's absolutely angelic and transcendent. This documentary is a portrait of the man, though its principal focus is on his resurrecting SMiLE, the album that just about everybody took for one of the great might have beens in popular music.
The title on the front of the DVD case is a bit of a misnomer, or doesn't tell the whole story, anyway. On Disc One of this set is David Leaf's feature-length documentary, Beautiful Dreamer: Brian Wilson and the Story of SMiLE, which starts with a brief biographical overview of Wilson—if you've seen I Just Wasn't Made For These Times, or any Beach Boys documentary, actually, you probably know the broad strokes of this already. The Beach Boys were a family undertaking, started in the Wilson family garage in Hawthorne, CA; we get a quick look at Brian's struggles with and firing of his producer father, Murry, and his issues with the other members of the band. Made uneasy by public performances, Brian and the rest worked out their thing: they would take the band on the road, while he would remain in the studio, writing the songs and preparing the tracks for their next album. Such innocuous song titles as Be True To Your School didn't indicate the musical and lyrical sophistication of the Beach Boys' music; universally celebrated as their masterpiece was their album Pet Sounds, with production elements and harmonies that were (and remain) simply astonishing.
SMiLE was supposed to top even that, to be Brian Wilson's Sergeant Pepper—as Brian's brother Dennis said when the album was in production, "SMiLE is so good it makes Pet Sounds stink." But something, or a constellation of things, went horribly awry—it may have been too musically ambitious, or too far out of the mainstream; Wilson may have overestimated the effort the project would take, or underestimated the effects of his newfound appetite for pot and LSD; pressures from the band and the record label to crank out more of the same didn't sit right with Brian's artistic temperament. Whatever the case, after months and months of work, the project was abandoned, and Brian Wilson had what he characterizes as a nervous breakdown—all that came out was one extraordinary single, Good Vibrations, and stories of what a great and groundbreaking album this would have been.
Jump ahead nearly four decades: Wilson is now an aging lion of popular music, and for reasons that aren't entirely clear, even to him, he decides it's time to return to SMiLE. No doubt there's a therapeutic element to it for him, a chance to wrestle with the demons he couldn't conquer; you almost get the sense that Wilson needs to slay this particular dragon to be at peace with himself. So he gets back to collaborating with Van Dyke Parks, the lyricist on the project, and Wilson and The Brian Wilson Band put this legendarily unheard music through its paces. Wilson seems like he's in all sorts of pain when these rehearsals begin, but he seems to move pretty quickly past the psychological scar tissue; what emerges is at times challenging, at times beautiful, and you can't help but wonder the sort of influence that SMiLE would have exerted had it been released back in the day. Director David Leaf gets extraordinary candor from Wilson and those closest to him, in interview footage; he also seems to have been granted unfettered access to the process, and you get a strong sense of the music taking shape. The feature leans heavily on Good Vibrations, the closing number, and for Wilson it seems purgative, glorious, a relief.
Perhaps you already own the CD, but if you don't, you'll immediately want to go on over to Disc Two, the focal point of which is essentially a concert film, The Brian Wilson Band performing SMiLE live (51m:51s). A lot of the angst seems to have been drained away by this point, and Wilson and his band seem to be having a spectacularly good time playing this music straight through. Can you blame them?
Rating for Style: A-
Rating for Substance: A-
|Aspect Ratio||1.85:1 - Widescreen|
|Original Aspect Ratio||yes|
Image Transfer Review: It's all been shot on high-end video, so it's transferred reasonably well, though on occasion there's a bit too much contrast.
Image Transfer Grade: B
|DS 2.0||English, isolated soundtrack||yes|
Audio Transfer Review: Solid and clean transfer—a bit of static in some of the interviews, but what matters is that the music sounds crisp and clear.
Audio Transfer Grade: B+
Disc ExtrasAnimated menu with music
Scene Access with 15 cues and remote access
1 Original Trailer(s)
Packaging: Gladiator style 2-pack
Extras Review: The first disc includes an original trailer; a clip (02m:28s) from the first public performance of SMiLE, in London, of Mrs. O'Leary's Cow, Wilson's tribute to fire; and post-concert reactions (13m:42s) from the audience on opening night. There are also four additional interviews with Wilson, one conducted by Parks, all of them free-ranging and pretty interesting, though he's not always the most articulate or succinct interview subject.
Aside from the full album in concert, Disc Two features a Brian Wilson photo gallery (09m:04s), snapshots starting from childhood set to the music from the album; eight clips of him at the piano, playing Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue, along with a couple of his own compositions, most notably Good Vibrations and the infectious Heroes and Villains; a look (19m:39s) at the recording of the album, which is sort of like a Monarch Notes version of the feature documentary; and a Heroes and Villains music video (04m:57s), fan-produced, the winner of a contest. Also notable is the groovy foldout insert that comes with, no doubt suitable for framing.
Extras Grade: B
Final CommentsBrian Wilson is unquestionably one of the titans of American popular music—I don't know if SMiLE eclipses Pet Sounds as his masterpiece, but after all the years of rumors, innuendo and speculation, it's great to be able to listen to this terrific album, and this documentary set smartly provides context for and perspective on Wilson's journey.
Jon Danziger 2005-05-23