Sometimes a movie’s greatest strength is also its greatest weakness (or perhaps vice versa). Directed by Brent Wilson, “Brian Wilson: Long Promised Road,” puts the Beach Boys legend front and center and in doing so offers us a glimpse at a unique individual, but it also keeps some things rather obfuscated.
Famously, Wilson (and for the purposes of this review, the use of “Wilson” without noting it’s the director specifically, will mean Brian Wilson, who has no relation to director, Brent), is not only a musical genius, but also has his own set of challenges. He has been diagnosed with Schizoaffective disorder and is a man uncomfortable being interviewed. Consequently, he does not sit down for one in this otherwise talking head-heavy look at his life. Instead, we see recorded footage of Rolling Stone critic and someone who has become Wilson’s friend through the years, Jason Fine, driving Wilson around Los Angeles over the course of several days. The two men visit famous places from Wilson’s past and Fine attempts to tease out stories and thoughts and feelings from the Beach Boy.
Alongside these car-based moments—horrifically they are in a Porsche SUV instead of some sort of Beach Boys-adjacent vehicle with the top down (presumably sound considerations played into this)—we get artist after artist praising Wilson to the heavens. Bruce Springsteen, Linda Perry, Elton John, Don Was, and so many more parade through the film and attempt to dissect the genius of the man as we sit there and attempt to dissect the man himself.
Listening to a producer like Don Was attempt to decipher how Wilson recorded things is fantastic. Unlike one or two of the other interviews, it doesn’t come off as blowing smoke, it is true appreciation for Wilson and the way his mind works. This is really the heart of the movie – the mind of Brian Wilson and attempting to understand what is going on within him, musically or otherwise. The most powerful moments Brent Wilson gives us are those where the camera just looks at this silent subject, making us to look into his eyes, study his mannerisms, and try to see if we can understand.
When Wilson is in the recording studio, or listening to music in the car or at his house, we get the sense of this massive wellspring of emotion being opened up, but it’s not just that which we sense. We watch as Wilson pulls apart the music as it’s playing out, seeing how it was constructed. We watch as memories play through his mind.
Or do we?
Undoubtedly Brent Wilson would have us believe that we do. It seems highly likely that Fine would as well. Heck, we want that to be what’s happening. To paraphrase, we want to believe.
But, that isn’t necessarily what’s actually happening. We no more know what’s going on inside the mind of Brian Wilson than we do any other individual we pass on the street. Brent Wilson builds up the history and tells the story of Wilson and the Beach Boys (or a portion of it, leaving out some notable moments), to make us think we do, but we don’t.
Not to sound silly, but that’s the power of good filmmaking – we are drawing the associations that the director wants us to draw. They may be true or not true, but we are undoubtedly being led down the path.
Notably, Brent Wilson does this without what could otherwise be his most powerful tool – a sit down interview (or a series thereof) with the movie’s star. Fine is forced to work at the margins when he talks to Wilson, to see what the artist will allow at any given moment and what he will not allow. What might be important that can Fine not get at because Wilson rebuffs him?
Fine declares himself a friend of Wilson’s early on and that, too, leads to questions. Did Wilson only do the movie because it’s Fine talking to him and they’re friends? How does Fine’s closeness to the subject alter the interview and consequently the movie as a whole? To be sure, these are not necessarily negatives for the film, just added layers; added things to ponder.
“Brian Wilson: Long Promised Road” is a fascinating look at the artist, but it’s not a terribly deep one. It provides little information that is not already in the public record. What it does do—and quite well at that—is show us the man as it’s telling its story, throwing at us this montage of audio from one moment and video from another, drawing conclusions that may or may not be there. I choose to believe that they are and that we’re not being led astray, but one could very easily imagine a world in which Wilson, or someone else, completely disavows the work down the line as a piece of manipulative puffery.
Somehow that too would fit the legend of Brian Wilson.
photo credit: Screen Media Films