Brian Wilson is a fathomless ocean. His is an incredible life in which trauma has gone hand in hand with sunshine, wild times with grief, addiction with adulation, riches with estrangement and exploitation, musical wonderment with psychological torment. Yet it’s all clammed up in a man who, at 79, is often rendered scared, unsettled and reticent in interviews due to a variety of long-standing mental illnesses. Schizoaffective Disorder has given him auditory hallucinations of voices in his head since his early twenties.
Getting a tell-all documentary out of the great man, then, is a challenge and a half. Rolling Stone editor and long-term friend of Wilson, Jason Fine, sets about the task as if excavating Pompeii with a feather. He sets Brian at ease by driving him around LA to memory-jog old haunts, homes and landmarks. He makes comforting small talk and plays old tracks, Wilson’s reactions captured via dashcam. For 40 minutes or so it resembles the world’s least successful Carpool Karaoke; the nut barely cracks. Much of the heavy lifting is done by archive interviews and notable talking heads such as Bruce Springsteen, Elton John, Taylor Hawkins and Linda Perry. Or by long shots of Brian gazing silently into space, the viewer left to reflect on the turbulence at work beneath his stoic surface.
Gradually, Fine’s sensitive, softly-softly approach works small wonders. Brian begins to open up – as far as a revealing sentence or fraction of an anecdote – beyond the bare factual minimum required of him. He touches fleetingly on his relationship with his overbearing father, his major breakdowns and reclusive periods, his introduction to LSD and his troubles kicking coke and alcohol. The surface is scraped on the nine-year period he spent under the control of a manipulative and controlling doctor in Malibu, kept from contacting his family and subject to practices such as being made to eat food off the floor. There’s even the hint of what’s probably a great story about Sly Stone going on a cocaine bender at Brian’s house, which sadly starts and ends with Sly falling asleep on the couch.
When it comes to unravelling who Brian Wilson is today, though, the guard stays resolutely up. A conversation in a diner, wherein Brian admits that his “simple, modest” life means he hasn’t had a friend to “shoot the shit” with in years, is as candid and soul-baring as he gets. His grief over losing his brothers Dennis and Carl goes unspoken, deeply buried. We’re left to empathise with him sitting alone in the car outside Carl’s old house, wiping a tear from his eye.
The music, in fact, speaks loudest here. Brian’s face brightens, unburdened at last, whenever he’s at a piano playing his music to reverent, thankful crowds. At one point producer Don Was, sitting at a studio mixing desk, brings up the faders on the vocal harmonies of ‘God Only Knows’, playing back a cappella. Producer and viewer alike sit and listen to it, utterly awestruck. Because, in the end, Brian Wilson’s is a genius that doesn’t need words.
- Director: Brent Wilson
- Featuring: Brian Wilson, Jason Fine, Bruce Springsteen
- Release date: January 21