In some cases, the first images on a DVD can make or break it for me. Such was the case with Brian Wilson: Songwriter 1962-1969. The documentary opens up with the legendary 1967 TV footage of Wilson performing “Surf’s Up” on a CBS special report called Inside Pop: The Rock Revolution.
That gorgeous song was to be the centerpiece of Smile, supposedly Wilson’s lost masterpiece. “Surf’s Up” always suggested the end of innocence to me, and a bittersweet teaser of what else would be on Smile. Decades later Brian Wilson finally finished Smile, which he should be congratulated for. But as far as it having any cultural impact, the moment had long passed.
Wilson’s time was the sixties, and this new DVD presents an exhaustive study of his music during that turbulent time. At three hours in length, I must admit to a bit of initial apprehension, until the “Surf’s Up” footage rolled that is. The time just flew by for me, for this is the best Brian Wilson documentary I have ever seen.
The title is a little misleading, as they actually begin in 1959 discussing the roots of surf music. It is an important preface, setting the scene of America at the peak of its power. And nobody was more privileged than Los Angeles area teenagers. Guitarist David Marks played with the Beach Boys from 1961-63, and explains that instrumentals by The Ventures, Dick Dale, and Duane Eddy were played as background to homemade surf films shown in high school auditoriums back then.
So many of the Brian Wilson documentaries I have seen pay cursory attention to the early years. There seems to be an assumption that nobody cares until Pet Sounds. Songwriter takes its time and fully explains how and where Wilson’s unique sound came from. When The Four Freshman’s vintage video of “Charmaine” is played you suddenly realize that their style was the template for Wilson masterpieces such as “In My Room” and “Surfer Girl.”
The other major early influence was Phil Spector, especially his production of The Ronettes’ “Be My Baby.” Sitting at a piano, Professor Philip Lambert illustrates how Wilson’s “Don’t Worry Baby,” is a sort of follow-up to “Be My Baby.” This attention to detail is what sets Songwriter apart from any other Brian Wilson DVDs out there. The footage of the Ronettes performing “Be My Baby” on TV is brilliant, as is the drag racing scene from American Graffiti that George Lucas scored to “Don’t Worry Baby.”
The first DVD ends with another scene from American Graffiti, the closing one, which is set to “All Summer Long.” Part two begins in 1964, with Brian making the decision to stop performing live and to focus on studio work exclusively.
Brian was attending Phil Spector sessions regularly, and got to know “The Wrecking Crew,” which is what a group L.A.’s top studio musicians called themselves. He basically poached them, and now had a group of players who could handle his increasingly complex arrangements.
An incredibly strange video for “Wouldn’t It Be Nice” introduces the Pet Sounds chapter. Often cited as one of the greatest rock albums of all time, it is Brian Wilson’s acknowledged work of genius. It was his response to The Beatles equally impressive Revolver, although it initially sold only a fraction of what his British label mates did.
Wilson’s “pocket symphony” “Good Vibrations” was next. And from there he was on to Smile. But something went wrong, and Wilson abandoned the project, and pretty much his music career for decades to come. Songwriter details the step by step loss of interest in recording on Brian’s part, and it is depressing to watch. The band petered along with minimal input from him for the rest of the decade, and became increasingly irrelevant. The DVD ends with a brief mention of Wilson’s “recovery” in the early 2000’s with the completion of Smile.
There are two short extra features included. The first is an interview with Beach Boy Bruce Johnston, who relates the story of playing an advance copy of Pet Sounds for John Lennon and Paul McCartney. The second is a long-winded account from a former manager who was trying to secure some airplay for the group in the early seventies.
Especially in the case of an unauthorized DVD like this, the people who are interviewed make a huge difference. The folks interviewed for Songwriter all add to the overall excellence of the program. Bruce Johnston is the main contributor, which lends a hint of “authorization” to it. Rolling Stone editor Anthony DeCurtis has many salient observations, as does author Dominic Priore. For musical analysis, a couple members of The Wrecking Crew are present, as is the previously mentioned Professor Lambert.
For Brian Wilson fans, I cannot recommend this DVD high enough. They really got it right this time.