Showtime Documentary by David Leaf premiering on October 5, 2004
This is truly a good time to be a Brian Wilson/SMiLE fan! Not only did we recently see the official release of SMiLE after 37 years, but also there is an upcoming SMiLE documentary devoted entirely to this mysterious, mystical and almost mythical album. "Beautiful Dreamer: Brian Wilson and the Story of SMiLE" will please both the die-hard SMiLE fanatics and the curious that wonder what the buzz is all about. Plus, the film is by David Leaf, who wrote the best book on the Beach Boys. I'll give a little synopsis of the film and point out a few things that the fans will really dig. However, I won't give away all the scenes, as I want you to be surprised by what you see (especially the "resurrection of SMiLE").
While the original press release for this film promised "rare archival material", this is a little misleading as there is no new archival film material from the actual SMiLE sessions that hasn't been released before (and in longer versions/edits). The only addition filmwise, is the Leonard Bernstein introduction to "Surf's Up" for the 1966 TV special "Inside Pop". Brian's actual performance of "Surf's Up" from "Inside Pop" and the video for "Mrs. O'Leary's Cow" (this was actually the video for "Good Vibrations" originally) is shorter than the edit shown on "The Beach Boys: An American Band" video. However, there are some very cool archival pictures from the 'golden age of SMiLE' that will have those SMiLE-fanatics going, 'ooh' and 'ahh'.
But the true mother lode of this film is the interview segments, especially when Brian talks about SMiLE. He seems totally at ease, not like some of his previous TV spots where he is asked about the project. Additional interviews include: Van Dyke Parks, 'wrecking crew" musicians Carol Kaye and Hal Blaine, songwriter Burt Bacharach, Beatles producer Sir George Martin, the members of Brian's new band and Brian's wife, Melinda Wilson.
With a running time of around an hour and 49 minutes, this film is divided into three segments: a condensed Brian bio and background leading up to PET SOUNDS; the "classic" SMiLE era 66-67; the "rebirth" of SMiLE and its live performance. Interesting enough, there is a little segment in which Brian is explaining, "Until I die". Then there is a jump to (almost) present day. I'm sort of glad they skipped the '70s and '80s because it gave more time to talk about Smile!
The film starts with Brian playing "Beautiful Dreamer" at the piano (hence the title) and then jumps into a condensed bio of Brian, which includes his background in Hawthorne, California. Brian explains that he was born deaf in his right ear, contradicting earlier stories in which he says that Murray hit him and caused this deafness. Murray's hostility is talked about, which even caused Brian to walk all 'bunched up' at school. Brian explains describes when he first realized his talent for music - he was 8 years old and when his dad taught him "Boogie Woogie" on the piano he realized his talent and the ease at which he could play.
The early Beach Boys story is briefly covered, showing a "Surfer Girl" appearance. The film moves along quickly with the arrival of the Beatles mentioned, as well as Brian's breakdown in 1964. This breakdown was a turning point, as it allowed him to stay at home writing music while the band was on tour. During these biographical scenes, there are various pictures of the band and the band's album covers.
Brian's use of drugs is then covered. Friend Loren Darg described smoking pot with Brian: "He described waving staffs of music through the air, like Walt Disney, with notes on the staffs". Brian elaborated, "Yeah, I used to see notes, I used to visualize notes on paper in my mind and after I visualized it I wrote it down as I saw it in my mind." But Brian's drug use was not just recreational - as for LSD, Brian says, "I heard that it was a way to open doors to creativity." He was determined to beat the Beatles. In fact, the opening riff for "California Girls" was created on one of his first LSD trips. Brian says, "And I wrote it in a half hour! And after I visualized it, I'd write it down."
Brian's collaboration with Tony Asher on PET SOUNDS is talked about next. Like an omen of things to come with SMiLE, Brian describes Mike as the most critical of PET SOUNDS. The album is huge in England and Brian is on the start of a creative roll, starting his "pocket symphony" at the end of the PET SOUNDS sessions called "Good Vibrations". Brian tells the classic story of his mom telling him about "vibrations". The recording process for the song is talked about with various interviews from Hal Blaine to George Martin. There is a touching segment with Brian on piano and Carol Kaye on bass playing "Good Vibrations". This song is the first step towards SMiLE, as Brian says, "The success of Good Vibrations inspired me to keep moving in that same direction"
During the "classic SMiLE" segments of the film, the background for the various interviews is Frank Holmes artwork for the album and its booklet.
Brian's choice of a lyrical collaborator on SMiLE was Van Dyke Parks. "I met him at Terry Melcher's house in 1965". Brian then asked, "By any chance to you have lyrical ability?" There is then a touching interview segment with Van Dyke Parks and Brian in which Van Dyke asks Brian to play some of "Heroes & Villains". Brian starts right in, singing the first verse while Van Dyke just beams. The "Americana" theme of SMiLE is discussed, described as an American travelogue from Plymouth Rock to Diamond Head as seen from the eyes of a bicycle rider traveling from coast to coast. Then there was the subject of the title for the project. Although the first working title was "Dumb Angel", this is not discussed in the film - "Van Dyke and I wanted a make title that would catch people's ears, so that they would want to hear it...so we said 'smile', which we thought was a very appropriate title so people would say, 'Hey what's this Smile all about?'"
There are various cuts to "modern" time, showing rehearsals for "Barnyard", "Cabinessence" and "Vega-Tables". None of the original SMiLE music is used throughout the film, only recent rehearsals or live takes. This is probably due to the fact of legality of these original records.
Brian's search for fun is then talked about with David Anderle talking about the exercise mats, Michael Vosse talking about the tent, Danny Hutton talks about the swimming pool, and of course there is the legendary sandbox. Brian seems very at-ease when talking about placing his grand piano in the middle of a huge sandbox inside his home. When asked what songs he wrote in the sandbox, he replies, "We wrote "Heroes & Villains", "Cabinessence", "Surf's Up" and "Wonderful" in the sandbox. Yeah, it was a great sandbox!"
In the fall of 1966 Brian finished recording the background for the "sandbox" songs, which were the centerpiece of Smile. The film shows Brian explaining the layout of Studio 3, pointing out where everybody stood or played. Brian's studio method is described by Carol Kaye, "There was something special about him, that's what we noticed. He heard sounds, combination of sounds that were not written before. I think because he didn't have any rules." Studio dialogue from this time period is played.
The 1966 Leonard Bernstein film "Inside Pop" is played, including a spoken part when Bernstein calls Brian part of the "good five percent" of pop music. This little intro is the only "rare and archival" material that most fans haven't seen before. Speaking of the TV special, Van Dyke Parks says, "That gave us some kind of validation."
The "Mrs. O'Leary's Cow" rehearsals are then shown, with Brian relating the familiar tales of fire helmets and buckets of burning wood. Hal Blaine then explains all the whistles used (very funny scene!). Van Dyke intimates that this was the first sign of the mental breakdown of Brian and it coincided with the Beach Boys returning from England.
Of course, the most interesting parts of this documentary are Brian's interviews about the collapse of SMiLE and what the other Beach Boys thought of it. "I'd done the tracks and I needed their voices on the tracks. Even though I could sing all the parts, I still needed them to do it-I needed that blend, that Beach Boys blend. They knew it was good music, but they didn't think it was right for them."
There has always been talk that Brian stopped SMiLE when he heard the Beatles "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band". However, it was another Beatles song that actually started to put doubt into Brian's head (note: Beatles historians will note that "Strawberry Fields" & "Penny Lane" were initially intended for Sgt. Pepper but released by Capitol when the album seemed to be taking too long). Michael Vosse describes being in a car with Brian when "Strawberry Fields Forever" came on the radio: "He just shook his head and he said, 'They did it already'. And I said, 'They did what?' And he said, 'What I wanted to do with Smile - maybe it's too late?'"
The problem of how to sequence the music is also addressed with Brian describing, "I knew I needed at least a year more to work on it and I figured no one would give me a year to complete it". Brian also tells of the resistance of the band to his SMiLE music, "Mike did not like Smile at all, he hated it. I got tired of it...I just got tired of the direction we were going in. I didn't like it."
Brian's drug use is another myth in the collapse of SMiLE. Van Dyke Parks defends, "Don't let the marijuana confuse the issue here. If you look at the amount of work that was done in the amount of time it took to almost finish it. It's amazing. It was a very athletic situation, very focused."
Brian gives his take on why the original SMiLE project failed: "I'll tell you from my heart. In 1967, the reasons why I didn't finish Smile was: Mike didn't like it...I thought it was too experimental. I thought that the "fire" tape was too scary. I thought that people wouldn't understand where my head was at the time. Those were the reasons. It's just that I felt personally beaten up by it, cause I didn't complete it."
After a short segment on how he wrote the song, "Until I Die", there is a jump of 30+ years to (almost) modern times. The turning point for Brian's return to SMiLE occurred in 2001 at the Brian Wilson Tribute at Radio City Music Hall. Brian was blown away by the audience's reaction to his live version of "Heroes & Villains", saying, "It gave me the confidence that the world was ready for this music."
During the "resurrection of SMiLE" segment of the film, there are interviews with his band members as well as his wife Melinda. And the background of the interviews switches to the "new" artwork for SMiLE 2004 by Mark London. The rehearsals and sequencing of SMiLE are shown, leading up to the first live performance on February 20th, 2004 in London.
Diehard SMiLE fans are going to love the scenes of Darian and Brian working on the sequencing of the songs. Brian explains, "We touched up the first two movements and we created a third movement. Now we have a rock opera - a three movement rock opera." Then there are tapes of Van Dyke Parks rejoining the project and working with Brian again. Finally, there are the vocal rehearsals at Brian's house. Brian seems very uninterested in the beginning, just sitting in his chair listening. At one point he just gets up, leaves the room and ends up in the hospital! However, these are just nerves and he quickly comes out of his funk. When rehearsals continue, you can see in his face that he is more interested in the rehearsals at the end of the first week. Brian's sense of humor even shows itself as he jokingly talks about a prostate exam! Live rehearsals are shown and a funny little incident occurs during the "Fire" run through when the power goes down. Luckily, Brian hadn't arrived yet, so he can't interpret it as a bad omen! As Brian and the band are getting ready for the debut show, Brian seems more animated as each day nears.
Finally, it is the day of the debut of SMiLE at the Royal Festival Hall in London. Various people are interviewed entering the venue, telling where they are from. Among these various people from around the world are Rasmus Skotte (Dumb Angel Fairy Tale) and Domenic Priore (author of LOOK! LISTEN! LIBRATE! SMiLE!). There is also a scene of Paul McCartney meeting with Brian prior to the show.
When the music starts it is truly magical! I had only heard audio bootlegs of this historic show, but it is phenomenal to get to see it too. Although only a few segments of songs are shown, I hear that there is a full-length DVD coming - and if this segment is any indication, the DVD will be well worth the search. As the last notes of "Good Vibrations" echo through the hall, there is a shot of Van Dyke Parks, who is so overwhelmed that he is crying. Brian invites him up on stage. What an ending, Van Dyke and Brian reveling in the triumph of SMiLE finished at long last!
There is one final poignant word from Brian at the end of the film, "When we finished Smile, it felt like the demons had left me. It healed my soul very much. I felt healed by it. I felt very healed."
Overall, this is a phenomenal film that succeeds in telling of the initial failure and the ultimate triumph of the spirit of Brian Wilson and SMiLE. While there is very little previously unseen archival footage, the interviews with Brian Wilson regarding SMiLE more than make up for this. And, the scenes of Brian working on the new SMiLE with Darian and Van Dyke are simply amazing. I can't wait for the DVD version of this film to come out and the (hopefully) obligatory bonus material! Kudos to Mr. Leaf for giving SMiLE fans such a won, won, wonderful gift!