THE BEACH BOYS: AN AMERICAN BAND
****/**** Image C+ Sound B+
directed by Malcolm Leo
BRIAN WILSON: "I JUST WASN'T MADE FOR THESE TIMES"
***½/**** Image B Sound B+
directed by Don Was
by Walter Chaw There are a handful of albums indispensable to a comprehensive understanding of the roots of modern music, and The Beach Boys' "Pet Sounds"--a sort of Apocalypse Now for band-leader Brian Wilson, a mad compendium of musical fragments (Bach's progressions, The Four Horsemen's harmonies) that cohered into a Spector-esque Wall of Sound sparcity/harmony--is irrefutably among them. Intent on making definitive, album-length statements, spurred on by his obsessive competitiveness with The Beatles ("Rubber Soul" predates "Pet Sounds", and though Paul McCartney cited "Pet Sounds" as a primary influence on "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band", the release of that album is often blamed for Brian Wilson's nervous breakdown), and sensing the opportunity in 1966 of being at the vanguard of the psychedelic movement with a follow-up album (the never-completed "Smile"), the story of The Beach Boys and Brian Wilson is as operatic and tinged with ironic destiny as an Aeschylean tragedy.
Brian's increasing mental instability causing The Beach Boys to withdraw from the headlining spot at the Monterey Pop Festival at the last moment, in a flash the musical scene passed the band by, relegating them to oldies collections and weird retrospectives, as well as a 1976 Lorne Michaels-produced television documentary that shows a morbidly obese and rambling Brian Wilson in bed and shirtless for the duration. In 1985, musical documentarian Malcolm Leo released the bittersweet The Beach Boys: An American Band, a picture that poignantly edits amazing archival live footage of over forty vintage Beach Boys performances with scenes from that 1976 documentary in addition to, eventually, a scripted narration that follows the band's European renaissance and renewed stateside popularity on a wave of nostalgic appreciation in the mid-'70s.
The beauty of Leo's approach is his understanding that for all the popularity of the band, their story is essentially about the tragic fall of a genius ("They say I got brains, but they ain't doing me no good"), who self-immolated above the torch of hubris and ambition at the height of his creative power. Leo incorporates images of the changing youth culture, inspired as it was by the Civil Rights Movement, the Vietnam War, and free love--and demonstrates how The Beach Boys tried to fit into the Electric Kool Aid zeitgeist with their primary creative force (Brian) continuing his steady freefall into introspective madness. A brilliant music documentary that takes its place alongside the Maysles brothers' Gimme Shelter, Richard Lester's A Hard Day's Night (and even Sam Jones's I Am Trying to Break Your Heart), The Beach Boys: An American Band has the feeling of delirium and the delirious. The performances stand for themselves as milestones in American pop culture; what endures is the heartbreak offered by what is essentially an editor's film: all intuitive juxtaposition, and brilliant.
Paired with Don Was's intimate Brian Wilson: "I just wasn't made for these times", Artisan reminds that for every few hundred bits of unredeemable trash it chooses to inflict on the DVD market, it's the gems (like Reservoir Dogs) that forge a place for the studio as a vital resource. Was's documentary is focused primarily on Brian's mindset both currently in his diminished capacity and in his recollection of his glory days pre-breakdown in the mid-Sixties. With interview subjects as varied as John Cale and Brian's mother Andrea (Was even gets a few nice tidbits from Wilson's first wife, Marilyn), the picture captures Brian talking about the occasional abuse at the belt of his father plus a series of spare performances of old classics. The piece is haunting: Wilson seems a ghost inhabiting the shell of himself, his emotions forever at an arm's length--making his performances delicate, harrowing, and ineffably sad.
Both films presented on a single, dual-layer platter, An American Band is in its original 1.33:1 full-frame aspect ratio while I just wasn't made for these times appears in an advertised 1.85:1 (non-anamorphic) presentation that seems closer to 1.66:1. The former transferred from the same master used in previous releases, the video quality is wildly varied (the archival footage has not undergone much scrubbing) but generally good. Though Was's film looks better, it's also a decade newer--incidents of grain remind that probably little effort was afforded its move to DVD. The Dolby 2.0 surround audio on both films may initially disappoint fans used to the mastery of recent re-releases from The Beach Boys' library, but each features a pleasing fidelity and fullness that only flags in An American Band during dialogue scenes taken from the 1976 documentary. There are no special features. Originally published: February 27, 2003.