Reviews

The Beach Boys

STREAMING REVIEW:

Disney+;
Documentary;
Rated ‘PG-13’ for drug material, brief strong language and smoking.

Featuring Lindsey Buckingham, Blondie Chaplin, Al Jardine, Bruce Johnston, Mike Love, Dave Marks, Janelle Monáe, Ryan Tedder, Don Was, Brian Wilson, and others.

Without meaning to sound crass, the money shot in The Beach Boys, director Frank Marshall’s excellent new Disney+ documentary on the most popular American rock band of all time, comes near the end of the nearly two-hour long film. Surviving original Beach Boys Brian Wilson, Mike Love and Al Jardine are reunited at Paradise Cove, a tiny beach tucked under the cliffs at Malibu, 62 years after they first gathered on that spot to shoot the cover photo for the Beach Boys’ first album.

It’s a bittersweet moment, watching these three legends  — joined by early band members Bruce Johnston and David Marks — raise a glass to their shared memories and collective legacy of enshrining Southern California beach culture in a series of delightful pop songs that battled it out with the Beatles on the early and mid-1960s top 40 charts.

We all know them — and we know them, all. “Surfin’ USA.” “California Girls.” “Little Deuce Coup.” “Fun, Fun, Fun.” “Surfer Girl.” “I Get Around.” Odes to surfing, cars, girls but, most of all, being young and living in the paradise that was and still is coastal Southern California — at least, the dream.

But it wasn’t all “Good Vibrations.” The reality of the Beach Boys, of course, was not a smooth, sunshiny path, but, rather, a bumpy road that meandered through more than 60 years of ups and downs, triumphs and tragedies. There was the sudden, meteoric rise to fame, followed by a decades-long struggle to hold on to that fame. There was the contentious relationship with Murry Wilson, the domineering and abusive father of Brian, Dennis and Carl Wilson, the three brothers from blue-collar Hawthorne, Calif., who, with cousin Mike Love and neighbor Al Jardine, were the nucleus of the band. There was the late-1960s fall from grace, triggered by both the changing times and Brian Wilson’s increasingly fragile mental state. And there was the band members’ struggles to find themselves, both personally and creatively, in the early 1970s, when they were pretty much written off as a nostalgic afterthought. The film ends with the group’s mid-1970s rebirth, ignited by the release of the phenomenally successful Endless Summer greatest hits package and Brian Wilson’s return to touring after a decade-long absence.

It’s a story that’s been told many times over, both in books and on film, but the filmmakers nevertheless found new material, new twists, and new ways of telling that story and deep-diving into many of its nuances. We all know Murry Wilson was an asshole, but we’ve never actually heard him berate Brian in the studio, humiliating his already mentally unstable son in front of everyone. We know the Beach Boys’ sound evolved, even during the early and mid-1960s glory years, but we never pinpointed the influence of the Four Freshman on a young Brian Wilson, nor the impact of Phil Specter’s iconic “wall of sound” on Wilson’s own production style, which resulted in such symphonic masterpieces as “Don’t Worry Baby” and “God Only Knows.” And while we’ve heard all about the vitriol between Mike Love and Brian Wilson, we see a very real and very powerful human side to the normally stoic Love when he breaks down near the end of the film as he talks about his deep-rooted affection for his troubled cousin, now suffering from an undefined neurocognitive disorder and recently placed under a conservatorship.

Marshall and his team also unearthed a veritable treasure trove of archival photos and video footage, much of it unseen until now.

The documentary wisely does not attempt to chronicle the Beach Boys’ entire career. It ends about 15 years in, when the band appears to be rejuvenated. But within months of the 15 Big Ones anniversary album and tour, things quickly went downhill again. Brian Wilson again went off the deep end and stopped touring; Dennis got addicted to drugs and, in 1983, died in a drowning accident; and Carl took over leadership of the group, but their albums barely cracked the charts, despite a one-off hit in 1988 with “Kokomo.”

But then, as the nostalgia craze kicked in, the Beach Boys again found success on the road. After Carl Wilson’s death of cancer in 1998, Love took over leadership of the band, booted Jardine out and brought back Bruce Johnston, who had initially joined the group in 1965 when Brian Wilson stopped touring. The Love- and Johnston-led Beach Boys have been touring ever since, and as far as many fans are concerned, including me, sound better than ever, with Love’s son Christian filling in on lead vocals for the late Carl Wilson on songs such as “God Only Knows.”

The day after watching the premiere of The Beach Boys documentary at the TCL Chinese Theater in Hollywood, I bought tickets for the band’s upcoming San Diego performance and have been listening to their old albums — on vinyl, no less —non-stop.

 

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