Friday, December 4, 2015

DVD Review: Brian Wilson – Songwriter 1969-1982

Text © Robert Barry Francos / FFanzeen, 2015
Images from the Internet

Brian Wilson: Songwriter 1969-1982 (aka Brian Wilson: The Next Stage­)
Executive Producer: Rob Johnstone
Narrated by Thomas Arnold
Sexy Intellectual Films / Prism Films / Chrome Dreams Media
134 minutes, 2012

One could argue that by 1968, Brian Wilson, the genius behind the Beach Boys, Jan & Dean, and many others, was finished as a driving force., For example, he was in a series of recurring mental distress situations, his masterpiece Smile LP didn’t see the light of day for decades, and the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band had (allegedly) stolen the thunder of the creativity of that album by coming up with their own version of the studio-as-musician technical centerpiece – and that one was while the Beach Boy’s Capitol Records wouldn’t even acknowledge Smile (though bootleg versions were plentiful, especially to other musicians).

This British documentary, put out by the Chrome Dreams organization, focuses its laser beam on some of the darker years of Wilson’s career as a first-wave Beach Boy, which is good because other than a true Wilson devotee, the casual fan (such as myself) is most likely not familiar with this period. The earlier companion documentary to this, Brian Wilson: Songwriter 1962-1968, had previously been reviewed in this blog HERE.

After a very brief introduction to the Beach Boys (BB) to help the viewer catch up, it starts in earnest with the pressures Brian was under in the mid-‘60s, including constant pressure from Capitol to produce hits, and from the BB to not vary much from the formula – especially from co-vocalist/songwriter Mike Love, who was both important and a bit toxic (in my opinion) to the band, and to Brian specifically. His constant demand for the same-old-same-old caused Brian’s mid-1960s writing partner, Van Dyke Parks, to leave. Brian was interested in art; the band, with Love as its spokesperson, wanted them to be an “entertainer,” according to the film. All of it, including some heavy drug use, affected Brian to where he infamously retreated to his bed. For years.

Yet, he still managed to get his feet enough to help after a couple of disastrous LPs without him. “Let’s Do It Again,” as the film points out, is a mixture of the old BB sound and the vibe of “now” with compressed drum sounds and studio work by chief engineer Stephen Desper, who would support them in1968-71.This is a role Brian had done, mostly, and now Desper added some freshness.

Building a studio inside Brian’s house didn’t even bring him to the production table, as it were. Carl became in-charge as far as head of the studio production, which lead to a song which was a hit more in Europe than in the US, and is still one of my faves of the BB in general, “I Can Head Music.” Now, what irked me in the film is that the credit for the song is given to Phil Spector. Scuze me, but that is totally inaccurate. Yes, Spector got his name on the writing credit through his studio work, and greed to make money as co-author (this was a common trick dating back as far as the origins of rock and roll). But I have no doubt in my mind that this is an Ellie Greenwich song, written with her then-hubby, Jeff “Who Put the Bomp” Barry. While they mention Spector here, Barry/Greenwich are left on the roadside. That’s like saying the first issue of Punk magazine was written by Lou Reed.

There are a lot of interesting tidbits (of course I won’t say most of them, so no spoilers, per se, even though it is history rather than fiction), such has their connection with Brother Records after Capitol gave up on them, which is no surprise since they (a) were not selling as much product, and (b) the BB had sued the company for royalties. Twice.

As I said earlier, as a casual fan, there was so much from this period of which I was ignorant, such as Brian’s beautiful collaborations with poet Stephen Kalinich. While these recordings didn’t go anywhere, it did get him reconnected with the BB, when they signed with Reprise. This mix led to both hits and disappointments.

The films digests some of Brian’s songs by breaking down meaning in both lyric and music, sometimes fought against by both the record company and co-BB members.

Almost half way through is when the story really goes into a black hole of information for me, and I found it most refreshing for details, including his collaborations with the likes of the group American Spring and Randy Newman.

Another event that the documentary nails right on is the importance of the 1973 George Lucas film American Graffiti. This led to a wave of nostalgia for the early periods of rock and roll, including the play Grease and the television show “Happy Days.” Thanks to the wise move of their record company, the BB’s songs were compiled into an enormous selling two-record set of their hits called Endless Summer. I still remember how big it was when it came out (and yes, I have a copy that I got for a buck at a garage sale about 10 years later). This elevated the Beach Boys from trying to cope with the counterculture to becoming an All American Band and greatest hits live band. As one writer states in the film, the main set list was created at that point and remains to this day, with some exceptions (i.e., newer singles).

Under the care of Dr. Eugene Landy (d. 2006), Brian uncomfortably rejoined the BB on tour in the mid-‘70s. Landy’s influence on Brian is legendary, especially in part due to a cover story in Rolling Stone by David Felton, one of the few writers talking here that actually tells first-person anecdotes about Brian and his Landy relationship. This first time around, Landy didn’t last too long. The Landy Redux was another story.

After Landy I, Brian seemed to get better and put out what was basically a solo LP, The Beach Boys Love You, containing strange songs. While Brian kept up with some writing, his career as the preeminent Beach Boy creator was at an end by the 1980s, when the BB became associated with the Reagan administration due to their playing an infamous concert, and as the documentary points out, they were rebranded as “America’s Band.” The BB members had now reached the descriptor of middle aged white America.

The DVD leaves off with Landy II, when he comes back into the picture in the early ‘80s. As someone says here, “He saved Brian’s life, and then nearly killed him again.” What isn’t said is that the BB, sans Brian, would have a few more hits into the late ‘80s, including “Rock and Roll to the Rescue,” a cover of “California Dreaming” (in which John and Michelle Phillips appear in the song’s video), and the obnoxious (in my opinion) and omnipresent to this day “Kokomo,” all written in part by Mike Love.

The film has quite a few clips of their music (again, nothing longer than 30 seconds or so), but not much live. Sure, they’re shown on television shows, but mostly lip syncing; however, two of Brian’s infamous performances on Saturday Night Live in 1976 are shown (in part). This film is much more into the stills, BB as b-roll, and interviews with friends, co-workers (studio engineers, their manager for the early ‘70s Fred Vail, etc.), fellow musicians (amazing drummer Hal Blaine of the Wrecking Crew, who didn’t do much with the BB by the time period the doc starts) and collaborators (Kalinich), friends (Mark Volman, of the Turtles/Flo & Eddie), and the lone BB who appears, Bruce Johnston, to name a few. There are also the journalists who wrote bios of the band, who conjecture second-hand stories. Some of the people I would have loved to have seen would be Brian’s daughters Carnie and Wendy, Parks Van Dyke, and/or Carol Kaye (bassist for the Wrecking Crew; even though she despise that name, it does help shorthand a particular group)

Speaking of video clips, it’s interesting to watch Mike Love as he slowly turns over time from balding BB to a reaaaaally creepy looking Manson-like almost zombie, staring weirdly at the camera, especially in the early ‘70s segments. Brrrrrr.

The extras are some text about all the contributors (musicians, authors, etc.), and three featurettes (which are essentially interesting outtakes). The first one is the 5:11 “Philip Lambert Behind the Music.” Author / biographer Lambert discusses Brian’s technique via a piano on a couple of songs, such as “Do It Again,” a hit from the 20/20 album. The next is the 6:47 “Out of Bed: The Man Behind the Myth,” where a trio of his producers David Sandler, Earl Mankey and Stephen Desper, discuss how Brian was both creative and had a sense of humor “second only to Dennis.” The last is the 6:12 “Brian Goes Country! The Abandoned Fred Vail Album,” in which their ex-manager, talks about another lost Beach Boy albums, Cows Come Home to Pasture in 1970, before the Sunflower LP.

Part of Brian’s genius was that he was so wounded, which would, in the words of Monk, be a blessing, and a curse. This documentary covers that period pretty well. It could almost be part of their “Under Review” series, as the discussion leans towards not only Brian as a person, but an examinaiton detailing parts of his songs, and what makes them different from everything else; in other words, Brian’s genius.


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