Sunday, November 30, 2014

Beautiful Dreamer: Brian Wilson and the Story of 'Smile' - 2004

"Beautiful Dreamer: Brian Wilson and the Story of 'Smile'" - 2004
Dir. by David Leaf - 1 hr. 49 min.

"Beautiful Dreamer Smile" by David Leaf

by Clayton Hollifield

In the history of rock and roll, there are a handful of mythic albums that have never arrived, arrived after a ridiculous span of time, or never showed up intact at all.  We're talking about works like Guns 'n' Roses' "Chinese Democracy," Dr. Dre's "Detox," or whatever Lauryn Hill comes up with next, now that we're closing in on nearly two decades having passed since her lone solo masterpiece.  Or Bob Dylan's "Basement Tapes," which is finally seeing release.  But before all of that, there was the Beach Boys' "Smile," which was not only an uncompleted masterpiece rumored to be on par with "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band," but also sent principal songwriter Brian Wilson insane and dependent on drugs (depending on which version of the story you believe), not to release even a single note of music for upwards of thirty-five years.  An album that was so heavy it literally broke one of the greatest American songwriters of all time?  You'd want to hear that, wouldn't you?

What "Beautiful Dreamer" is is a film documenting Wilson coming out of the fog, and playing his first concerts in three decades (he retired from touring in the 1960s, preferring to stay in the studio to craft the Beach Boys albums, while the rest of the band toured his songs).  And then, someone gets the bright idea of him playing "Smile" as a concert, even though the album was never completed (songs like "Good Vibrations" came out of those sessions, but the album was never sequenced and completed as a full album).  So in order to play these highly-anticipated, very sold-out shows, Wilson and his band would need to confront the beast that broke Wilson decades prior.

There are two ways to look at this film.  First is the way I ordinarily approach music docs: the "Behind the Music" test.  In that regard, there are a lot of ways that "Beautiful Dreamer" comes up short.  There's no actual footage or music used from the original era, just lots of slow zooms on photographs; all the performance footage is from the contemporary sessions.  Secondly, the interviews aren't particularly interested in being even-handed: Wilson is presented as a misunderstood genius, and the people who are presented as being the boogeymen of the story (chiefly Mike Love) are completely unrepresented in the film.  So there's not even the satisfaction of seeing the parties come to any kind of understanding.  This presents the biggest problem: yes, fans wanted to see what "Smile" would be like in a complete form, but the project that people wanted was not a Brian Wilson solo project, but a Beach Boys album, complete with harmonies by the voices that Beach Boys fans knew and loved.  What ended up happening is vastly superior to nothing at all, but it's not quite the same thing as "The Beach Boys' 'Smile'."

The other way to look at this film is that it's a Christmas miracle that it exists at all.  If this film had been made in 1999 instead of 2004, it would have been a vastly different narrative, chiefly about the cost of flying too close to the sun.  The notion that Brian Wilson would emerge from his lengthy hiatus from performing (much less composing) to slay the dragon that left him laying thirty-five years prior sounds like Hollywood shinola.  And I don't think it's much of a spoiler to say that he was successful in the endeavor; it would be supremely messed up to make a film about watching a creative mind getting broken by the same batch of work twice.  The fact that Wilson is coherent, somewhat open about his lost time and what happened in the attempt to finish "Smile" in the first place gives "Beautiful Dreamer" value.

Yes, there are things that I wish were included (or even available to be included - as I suspect that the other Beach Boys who don't come off favorably here would be much inclined to lend okay to the use of any contemporary footage), and there are voices that I'd love to hear from in regards to the original recording sessions.  I wish there had been a good explanation of what happened to the tracks that Wilson finished, and how they were parcelled out for next couple of Beach Boys albums, and how bootleggers tried to cobble together what the project might have looked like from whatever sources they could.  But the fact that the resulting product is pretty damned good goes a long way to justifying this film's existence.  It feels good to watch Wilson finally get the love that his music generated, and in a way that he couldn't have without performing for a live audience.  The length of time it took is pretty much hard to explain, but ask yourself if "Chinese Democracy" lived up to it's expectations in the same way that Wilson's "Smile" has.

3 / 5 - TV (HD)

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