DVD Review: Brian Wilson, Songwriter 1969-1982

A few years back, a British based concern called Sexy Intellectual released a 2DVD set, Brian Wilson, Songwriter 1962-1969. This three-hour-plus(!) documentary took an in-depth critical look at the work of the Beach Boys leader. Focusing less on the pop culture angle and more on serious analysis of his songwriting, its influences (and influence) and the milieu in which it was created, the documentary filled an important niche. Though it was made without the involvement (or approval) of anyone from the Brian Wilson or Beach Boys camps, it was a highly effective and insightful work.

It’s taken more than two years, but a followup is here. Brian Wilson: Songwriter 1969-1982 picks up (naturally) where the previous documentary left off. With just a bit of backing up for historical context, this latest volume lays out the whole Pet Sounds and SMiLE-era material (the two best things Wilson ever produced) and explains how their various failures contributed to his incipient mental problems. From that point in history onward, Wilson flitted in and out of the Beach Boys’ story.

As those who’ve followed that band’s history will know, Brian was often treated like a cash cow, repeatedly forced (at worst) or cajoled (at best) into participation in Beach Boys projects. The results were often dire, but – as this documentary rightly points out – pretty much every time Brain put his mind (or what of it he could access) to a project, he’d turn out at least one gem. How else to explain such masterworks as “Surf’s Up” (from the SMiLE sessions), “Breakaway (cowritten with Brian’s father/tormentor Murry Wilson), “This Whole World” and the sublime and heartbreaking “Till I Die.”

The usual suspects weigh in with their opinions, but in Sexy Intellectual’s case, the usual suspects know their stuff. Wilson biographer Peter Ames Carlin, esteemed music journalist Barney Hoskins, Turtles/Flo & Eddie vocalist Mark Volman, recording engineers Stephen Desper and Earl Mankey…these are people who were either there or know enough abut the story to speak authoritatively.

And there’s also the insight of Beach Boys/Wilson historian Domenic Priore, and – my favorite among several contributors – musicologist Phillip Lambert. “Genius” is a too-often used word, but Professor Lambert’s deconstruction of Wilson’s music shows us that Brian’s songs were often groundbreaking and without precedent in pop music. For balance, Lambert shows how some of the material from later projects (The Beach Boys Love You, for example) was quite weak; that contrast serves to point out the true genius in Brian’s best material, though.

The DVD takes on the whole Eugene Landy Svengali story in perhaps the most even-handed manner I’ve yet seen. No, thank goodness, they don’t try to paint Landy as a force for good, but they make it clear that his influence on Brian did have some upside.

At a comparatively brief 134 minutes, Brian Wilson, Songwriter 1969-1982 never drags even for a second. The producers have set such a high standard in their analysis (and their production values have improved in recent years, too), so one can only hope that a third volume – covering Brian’s solo works (released and unreleased) up through current days – will be out soon. This DVD is essential viewing for anyone interested in deepening their understanding of the great 20th century composer and his music.

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