Brian Wilson’s story is fascinating, not least because Wilson shows little sign of being fascinated by it himself. Everywhere he goes, he is treated with reverence, and he responds with nonchalance. There is, for example, an interview by Zooey Deschanel on this DVD, in which the actress – all bubbly and excited – attempts to engage Wilson in discussion. They are at the Hollywood Bowl, so she asks about the shows he has seen there. The first was The Beatles, Wilson says blandly. “And I saw Andy Williams one time.”
So, while he can just about reminisce about hanging out at Skippy’s hot dog stand in the early 1960s, it seems as if memories, for Brian, are best left unpacked. Yet sometimes, in the flatness of his conversation, Wilson does reveal himself. Deschanel enquires whether he always knew that his brothers could sing, and he replies that he did. It’s a story he has told before, but the phrasing here is precise. “We used to sing in our bedroom. A song called ‘Come Down From Your Ivory Tower And Let Love Come Into Your Heart’ [presumably Porter Wagoner’s ‘Ivory Tower’]. And just two years after that we recorded ‘In My Room’, which is the same three parts we used to sing in our bedroom. So we got some practice. If you can learn the parts and you can do the harmonies, and do them just right, it’s going to sound like angels.”
This DVD focuses on Wilson’s 2008 album, That Lucky Old Sun, which marked a new stage in his creative recovery. There is a beautiful performance of the album in LA’s Capitol Studios, but just as interesting is the footage of it being recorded. It shows that while Wilson can be diffident, he is the boss in the studio. There are flashes of temper, and odd moments of humour – his impersonation of an Elvis karate kick – but mostly what you see is how Wilson’s whole life is concentrated on music. “Music is probably the biggest source of mental and emotional healing that I have in life,” he says. “When I’m at the piano, I dream.”
That Lucky Old Sun saw him back at the piano, dreaming with an intensity he hadn’t approached in decades. The tone was set by the title track, an inspired reworking of a Louis Armstrong song, but there does seem to have been an element of collaboration in the decision to frame the album as a kind of autobiography; of Wilson, and Los Angeles.
The song “Oxygen To The Brain”, Wilson explains, was “about how I laid around, didn’t do anything, gained weight, didn’t wash my face, and then one day I stepped on the gas and started exercising.” Inspired by the confessional tone, one of Wilson’s collaborators Scott Bennett wrote the lyrics to “Midnight’s Another Day”, in which Wilson sings about how his memories made him feel like stone, and how “all these people made me feel so alone”. “That’s exactly how I felt!” Wilson says, faintly amazed. “And he knew that!”
That wistfulness now permeates all of the Beach Boys’ material. Watch Wilson performing “California Girls” (on the Yahoo live set included here), and it’s apparent that the youthful complexion of the song is now barnacled with sadness. It is terribly poignant.
But, despite the reverential tone of the interviewees (among them Fleet Foxes’ Robin Pecknold), this is no obituary. What you see here is a gentle man, in sympathetic company, trying to cope with the burdens of genius by refusing to acknowledge them, even when everyone around him remains awed by the myth. My favourite moment comes when Scott Bennett explains how his lyric for “You’ll Be My Surfer Girl” was inspired by his sense that Wilson was making a musical reference to the first song he wrote, “Surfer Girl”. So, “in addition to it being an ode to your first love, it’s like a love song to your first song.”
“I just think it’s all about how I still love my wife,” says Brian.
Anyway, he sings it like an angel.
EXTRAS: 4* Track-by-track commentary, feature-length Making Of, Yahoo! Nissan Live Sets performance, MySpace “Artist On Artist” interview by Zooey Deschanel, Black Cab Sessions performance.