Review: Brian Wilson—A Fragile Genius Revealed

Brian Wilson /The long promised road/ Chicken Soup for Soul / Lay Line
4.5 out of five stars

Flush with both pity and tenderness, The long promised road It is a wonderful documentary that breaks the heart and provokes warmth at the same time. There have been other films about Brian Wilson, the tortured and tormented man/child, and the wonderful saga that took him and the Beach Boys from their all-American ancestry in Hawthorne California to their status as one of the greatest bands of all time, but few offer the shared personal views here. In a sense, it’s a day in Brian’s life, one that finds him and journalist Jason Vine taking a road trip to revisit Brian’s old places, giving him a chance to remember and reflect albeit with constant urges from Vine.

Not much of a talker, Wilson was still haunted by the demons that overcame him early on, and his mental illness never subsided. He appears restless and tormented to varying degrees, and sadness, insecurity and isolation are still palpable. While it is clear that his love for composing music – and his affection for Beach Boys music in particular – remain immediate and encased in his soul, his despair over the loss of his siblings and the abuse he received from his father never subsided. There is not a single moment nowadays that we see Brian smiling, and in fact, his pain is evident in every frame of the film.

While there’s no denying Wilson’s genius—as he has been highlighted in many of the great archival films he’s shown in the studio then and now—it’s also clear that he’s a troubled person, even by his own admission. He often hints at his nervousness in social situations (“I haven’t had a boyfriend to talk to in three years,” he admits at one point) and before a performance. Ironically, the past three years have also seen him perform more concerts than he has done in all previous years combined.

Despite his acclaimed history—the documentary mentions the fact that by the time he was 22, Wilson had already amassed seven Beach Boys top ten hits—it’s clear he hasn’t. Obsessed with the need to please (songwriter/producer Linda Berry noted that his biggest rival was himself) and because of the voices he hears in his head, he continues to create. Any number of other artists — Elton John, Bruce Springsteen, Don Wass, Jim James, Nick Jonas, among them — vouch for his talents and commend the guy for breaking the rules and elevating pop music to a level that hasn’t scaled yet. Elton John insists that Wilson “thrown the rulebook away. Springsteen mentions how “Wilson got you out of your world and somewhere else.” He was explaining that he was simply amazed.

Fellow Beach Boy Al Jardine sums up his strengths succinctly. “With Brian, we hit the jackpot.”

In fact, the so-called “teenage symphonies of God” have never been equated.

However, when revisiting the past, the turmoil parallels the triumphs. The pain is palpable when he listens to a recording of his father scolding the boys during one of their early studio sessions. His stoic face gives way to tears while visiting the home of his late brother Carl, and even now, the humiliation he was subjected to by his fake psychiatrist and constant companion Eugene Landy still seems overwhelming. So too, when Fine told him that his writing partner and former Beach Boys director Jack Riley had passed away (about six years ago and no less). Wilson seems not only sad, but shaky as well.

Sometimes, LOng the promised road It’s hard to watch, given Wilson’s frailty approaching the age of 80. However, it also renews appreciation for this true American icon, who, despite her suffering, gave the world such wonderful gifts.

Photo by Pamela Litke/Deca Records

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