The long-lost Beach Boys album SMiLE, begun in the 1960s by Brian Wilson before his infamous nervous breakdown but only completed some 35 years later, is the LP I enjoyed the most in the last year. Furthermore, when Wilson’s SMiLE tour stops in Montreal next August, it’s bound to be one of the best shows I’ll ever see. I can’t wait, but at least for now I can bide my time by watching this extraordinary new 2-DVD set, which includes a full live performance of SMiLE plus a feature-length documentary about Brian Wilson and the making of this rock & roll classic.
“Beautiful Dreamer”, directed by award-winning writer/producer David Leaf, recounts the 37 year history of SMiLE, from Wilson’s first exposure to music as a child to the completion of his masterwork in 2004. It’s amazing to learn that he’s actually deaf in one ear – that other ear must really be something else! His otherwise hostile father caught on to Brian’s gift and got him playing piano early on. Gershwin was his first love, but he soon discovered an affinity with the nascent rhythm & blues. With his two brothers, a cousin and a high school friend, Brian formed the Beach Boys. Barely out of his teens, Wilson co-wrote, arranged, produced and song on 28 Top 40 hits and 9 consecutive gold albums.
Influenced by the Beatles and drugs, Wilson gradually evolved away from surf music and came up with “Pet Sounds”, a work of genius if I’ve ever heard one. Where do you go once you’ve made arguably the greatest pop album of all time? For Wilson, the next step was composing a “pocket symphony”. First there was Good Vibrations, a revolutionary record that took months to perfect, but that was just the beginning.
Teaming up with lyricist Van Dyke Parks, Wilson started work on the rest of his “teenage symphony to God”, what was to become SMiLE. Part spiritual, part goofy, the album would also be an American travelogue, a journey from Plymouth Rock to Hawaii. The sessions were anything but conventional. Using vegetables or work tools as musical instruments, putting his piano in a sandbox or putting on firemen hats to make “fire music”, everything was going well… until it didn’t.
The rest of the Beach Boys weren’t supportive, the label was putting pressure, the long hours were taking their toll on Brian and he was becoming more and more paranoid and insecure. He scrapped the “inappropriate” SMiLE and checked out – for 30 years. He sank into drugs and depression, and no one expected him to be a significant part of pop culture again, let alone finish SMiLE, but here we are!
“Beautiful Dreamer” is driven by Brian Wilson’s own recollections, which are completed by insights from his various collaborators over the years and by external observers such as Elvis Costello, Sir George Martin and the Dude himself, Jeff Bridges. It’s a thorough piece, probably the definitive history of this unlikely, generation-spanning project. It’s also an entertaining watch, filled with music (natch), colourful illustrations and amusing anecdotes.
Still, the coolest thing about this DVD set is the second disc, on which the Brian Wilson Band perform SMiLE live. These are breathtakingly brilliant songs and they sound better than ever. It’s especially fun to watch Brian and the other musicians grab all kinds of thingies to recreate the complex, unpredictable soundscapes of the album. And knowing all the rejection Wilson associates with this music, all the demons he’s had to come to terms with, it’s even more of a miracle to be able to listen to it now. Good times, man. Good times.
BRIAN WILSON PRESENTS SMiLE: THE DVD track listing:
Documentary: Beautiful Dreamer: Brian Wilson And The Story Of SMiLE
* Theatrical trailer
* “Mrs. O’Leary’s Cow,” from the world premiere of SMiLE, Royal Festival Hall, London, February 2004.
* After The Show featurette (postconcert reactions)
* Interview Highlights
Van Dyke Parks interviews Brian Wilson 2/22/04
Interview with Brian Wilson 3/16/04
Interview with Brian Wilson 5/01/04
Interview with Brian Wilson 8/16/04
SMiLE Live Concert
01. Our Prayer/Gee
02. Heroes And Villains
03. Roll Plymouth Rock
05. Old Master Painter/You Are My Sunshine
06. Cabin Essence
08. Song For Children
09. Child Is The Father Of Man
10. Surf’s Up
11. I’m In Great Shape/I Wanna Be Around/Workshop
13. On A Holiday
14. Wind Chimes
15. Mrs. O’Leary’s Cow
16. In Blue Hawaii
17. Good Vibrations
* Outtakes from the making of Beautiful Dreamer: Brian Wilson And The Story Of SMiLE
* Brian Wilson photo gallery
* Brian Wilson at the piano:
“Rhapsody In Blue” (solo)
“Good Vibrations” (solo instrumental)
“Good Vibrations” with Carol Kaye (instrumental)
“Heroes And Villains” (solo instrumental)
“Heroes And Villains” (instrumental with Carol Kaye)
“Heroes And Villains” (vocal version with Carol Kaye)
“Wonderful” (solo instrumental)
“Cabin Essence” (vocal version with Darian Sahanaja on piano)
* The recording of Brian Wilson Presents SMiLE featurette
* “Heroes And Villains” contest-winning video