Brian Wilson: Long Promised Road review – good vibrations in kindly portrait

This documentary sets out on a noble but foolhardy mission: to examine the history of Brian Wilson with the man himself. Wilson turns 80 this summer, and he is showing his age. His recent singing on stage can be faltering, almost conversational at times, and the mental health problems he has weathered during his life make interviews difficult: he is often nervous to the point of monosyllables.

And yet director Brent Wilson (no relation), working with Rolling Stone journalist Jason Fine, creates an evocative piece under the circumstances: kindly film-making that puts Wilson at ease, and allows for some rare, unusual portraiture of the Beach Boys mastermind.

It centres on a May-September bromance between Fine and Wilson. The former, who has interviewed Wilson a number of times and befriended him, drives him around the various houses he’s lived in across the Los Angeles area. “When you get scared, what do you do, take a deep breath?”, Wilson asks Fine early on. “When I’m scared, I listen to you talk.” Wilson seems deep in a second childhood, with Fine his patient and loving father.

Supported by archive footage, Fine drives him through the chronology of the Beach Boys and Wilson’s life: surfing-mad early hits building the ambition of Pet Sounds and Smile, before drug misuse, overeating, mental breakdowns, and exploitation at the hands of psychologist Eugene Landy. Despite Fine’s conversational interviewing, Wilson is still not enormously articulate or forthcoming, though it’s nice to see him reminisce, however simply, and there are plenty of powerful, telling moments. Filmed in the passenger seat, emotion passes across Wilson’s face like weather, and he frequently asks Fine to play the Beach Boys song It’s OK on the car stereo (“Good or bad, glad or sad / It’s all gonna pass, so it’s OK”).

The analysis instead comes from some starry talking heads. Half the time, these tend towards the broad statements of awe that populate documentaries of this sort; a more radical film would have avoided this very standard framework altogether. But Elton John is typically articulate, My Morning Jacket’s Jim James (who contributes a new song with Wilson to the soundtrack, Right Where I Belong) is interesting on the architecture of Wilson’s songcraft, Nick Jonas is evocative on the cruelty of expectation, and Don Was movingly boggles at the isolated vocal parts of God Only Knows, hammering home the heavenly, near-aggressive beauty of Wilson’s arrangement. Bruce Springsteen is a pithy and clever interrogator of Wilson’s work throughout, for instance when he discusses Caroline No and Pet Sounds: “Reckoning with the adult world and the terrible heartache that comes along with it … joyfulness even in the pain of living; joyfulness of an emotional life.”

But there’s a grave misstep when the voice of Wilson’s abusive father is laid over Wilson looking silently panicked as he’s filmed in a new studio session. Wilson has auditory hallucinations as a symptom of his schizoaffective disorder, and so to suggest what those voices in his head are, in order to advance the documentary narrative, is crass and deeply unethical.

However this is offset by the sensitivity elsewhere, including the time spent exploring his relationships with Wilson’s late beloved brothers and bandmates Dennis and Carl. This results in an unmissable moment: it turns out Wilson has never heard Dennis’s solo album masterpiece Pacific Ocean Blue, so Fine plays it to him, and once again, it’s enough to just watch the waves of feelings swell and break across Wilson’s face as he listens.

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