It's no secret that life as a Beach Boy wasn't exactly fun-fun-fun for Brian Wilson.
After suffering through a harsh childhood at the hands of an abusive father, he achieved fame and fortune as the musical genius behind the most popular and American band of its time -- only to lose both his artistic drive and emotional balance to drugs and emotional difficulties. Wilson's unhappy story has been so widely reported that even staunch fans have difficulty thinking of him as anything more than a tragic and pathetic figure.
As a result, some viewers will look at the title of Don Was' Brian Wilson documentary, "I Just Wasn't Made for These Times," and assume it's one more look at the same old troubles. It's not, though. In fact, the film (which airs at 9 p.m. tomorrow on the Disney Channel) not only keeps Wilson's creative side as its primary focus, but makes him seem far better balanced than he's usually portrayed.
Granted, he does occasionally seem slightly "off." One scene early on in the film finds him showing his current wife, Melinda, around the neighborhood where he grew up. When they discover that it has been torn down to make way for a highway, Wilson reacts with an unsettling mixture of sadness and giddy laughter.
Even more disturbing is his description of the beatings his father, Murray Wilson, used to administer. After explaining how his dad would double his belt as the boys dropped their pants, Wilson does a quick impression of how his father meted out punishment, and the look of rage on his face is positively chilling. "Pretty tough business," he says afterward.
But all that is quickly forgotten as Wilson turns to the piano and begins to talk music. One of the most amazing segments has him explaining how he'd retreat into his bedroom every day after school, and sit at his piano dissecting the harmony arrangements on Four Freshmen records until "what was on my piano was exactly on their record. I knew it, because I could hear it."
For hardcore Beach Boys fans, that kind of insight is pure gold, and Was doesn't stint in getting Wilson and his admirers to talk music. In fact, he probably goes a little too far in that direction for general audiences, most of whom will be lost when musicologist Daniel Harrison gets into chord roots or Linda Ronstadt talks about tone clusters. But anyone with a modicum of interest and TTC training will be fascinated at these tales of Wilson's musical prowess.
After all, one of the things that comes through most strongly in these interviews is the absolute awe with which other musicians view Wilson and his work. Sure, there are some funny stories about how eccentric he could be, but there are many more remembrances of hearing the Beach Boys music and being blown away by its brilliance.
There's David Crosby and Graham Nash recalling how the harmonies on those early Beach Boys records seemed infinitely more advanced than anything else in rock; John Cale describing the fan letter he wrote to Wilson; Lindsay Buckingham rhapsodizing over the way Wilson would layer sounds in the studio; Randy Newman and producer Lenny Waronker explaining how stunned they and their peers were upon hearing "Good Vibrations" for the first time.
"The word genius is used a lot with Brian," says Tom Petty at one point. "I don't know if he's a genius or not. But I know that ['Pet Sounds'] is probably as good a music as you can make, as you can write."
Had things gone the way Brian Wilson planned, "Pet Sounds" was to be followed by "Smile," an album many people believe would have pushed the Beach Boys ahead of even the Beatles. But Wilson wound up abandoning the album in its final stages, and the documentary offers a fascinating "Rashamon"-style look why.
"As he was approaching the apex of his creative arc, he abandoned the project, I think in the interest of social harmony," says Van Dyke Parks, Wilson's lyricist for the album. Parks believes that Brian caved in to the wishes of the other Beach Boys, but Carl Wilson offers a different view.
"I think Brian was not able to finish the 'Smile' project due to the seriousness of his emotional problems, which was I think very much irritated and brought forward by the drug-taking," he said.
"It wasn't done mainly because he had to put their voices on it," says David Anderle, president of the Beach Boys' label, Brother Records. "He had to get them to sing those Van Dyke Parks lyrics. And it was not easy for Carl and Mike [Love] and the boys to sing some of those strange lyrics."
Whatever the reason, the collapse of "Smile" was a shattering blow to Brian Wilson. "He was just torn down, he really was," says his ex-wife, Marilyn. But "I Just Wasn't Made for These Times" comes across with a surprise happy ending, as it suggests that Wilson has finally built himself back up.
"He's sort of like he used to be," says his mother, Audree Wilson, and if the interview segments don't bear that out, the musical performances -- all of which were recorded specially for the film and for its soundtrack album -- certainly do.