Early on in “Brian Wilson: Long Promised Road,” a new documentary about the legendary Beach Boys leader, now on VOD, an interviewer asks him to explain how he writes songs. “It starts in my brain,” he says. “Makes its way to the piano and on to the speakers in the studio.”
Can you explain further?
“No,” he says, “I can’t.”
That exchange sums up what a great deal of the film is like. Like it’s reticent subject, it doesn’t reveal much, certainly anything you don’t already know about Wilson’s well-documented life, but chance to hear his music recontextualized by talking heads like Bruce Springsteen, Elton John, Linda Perry and others is a treat.
Directed by Brent Wilson (no relation), the backbone of the movie is a road trip between Brian and “Rolling Stone” writer Jason Fine. They cruise around to Beach Boys hotspots like Malibu’s Paradise Cove, where the band shot their first album cover, his hometown of Hawthorne, California and the home, perched high above Los Angeles, that was home to Wilson, his first wife Marilyn and the infamous sandbox he installed as a creative refuge. The two are longtime friends, but even in the comfort of Fine’s company, Wilson seems fragile, offering up short, nondescriptive answers to Fine’s questions.
More revealing are Elton John and Springsteen’s comments or producer Don Was, who calls Wilson, “One of the greatest artists who ever walked the face of the earth, in our time or any other time,” marveling at the production on “God Only Knows.” Former Barenaked Ladies singer Steven Page talks about the pressure Brian must have felt being labelled a genius from an early age. Nick Jonas talks about expectations being the foundation for disappointment. In these moments the film mines something deeper, and offers a third hand analysis of what it means to be Brian Wilson.
Of course, Wilson’s music speaks louder than words and it is here “Brian Wilson: Long Promised Road” excels. Wilson, it’s said in the film, used the studio as an instrument itself, and if this movie teaches us anything, it’s that everything we really need to know about the musician is already out there, on the grooves of his records.