Review: Brian Wilson—A Fragile Genius Revealed

Videos by American Songwriter

Videos by American Songwriter

Brian Wilson/Long Promised Road/Chicken Soup for the Soul/Ley Line
4.5 Out of Five Stars

Flush with both pathos and poignancy, Long Promised Road is a remarkable documentary that is, at once, both heartbreaking and heartwarming. There have been other films made about Brian Wilson, the tortured, tormented man/child, and the remarkable saga that took him and the Beach Boys from their all-American origins in Hawthorne California to their status as one of the greatest bands of all time, but few offer the personal perspectives shared here. In a sense, it’s a day in the life of Brian, one that finds him and journalist pal Jason Fine taking a road trip to revisit Brian’s old haunts, offering him an opportunity to reminisce and reflect albeit with constant prompting from Fine. 

Never much of a talker, Wilson remains haunted by the demons that overtook him early on, and his mental illness has never abated. He looks troubled and tortured to various degrees, and the sadness, insecurity, and isolation are still obvious. While it’s apparent his love of making music—and his affection for the Beach Boys’ music in particular—are still immediate and inscribed in his soul, his despair over the loss of his brothers and the abuse he took from his father Murray has never subsided. There’s not a single moment in the present where we see Brian smile, and indeed, his pain is palpable in every frame of the film. 

While there’s no denying Wilson’s genius—as spotlighted in several fascinating archival films showing him in the studio both then and now—it’s also clear he’s a troubled individual, even by his own admission. He frequently alludes to his nervousness both in social situations (“I haven’t had a friend to talk to in three years,” he admits at one point) and prior to performing. Ironically, the past three years have also seen him perform more concerts than he did in all the years prior combined.

Despite his storied history—the documentary makes mention of the fact that by the time he was 22, Wilson had already accumulated seven top ten hits for the Beach Boys—he’s clearly not done. Obsessed by the need to please (“His biggest competition was himself,” songwriter/producer Linda Perry observes) and plagued by the voices he hears in his head, he keeps creating. Any number of other artists—Elton John, Bruce Springsteen, Don Was, Jim James, and Nick Jonas, among them—testify to his talents and heap praises on the man for breaking the rules and elevating pop music to a plateau that’s yet to be scaled even now. Elton John insists that Wilson “threw the rule book away. Springsteen mentions how Wilson “Took you out of your world and to another place.” Was makes it clear he’s simply astounded.

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

Indeed, Wilson’s so-called “Teenage Symphonies to God” have never been equaled.

Still, in revisiting the past, the turbulence parallels the triumphs. The pain is palpable when he listens to a recording of his father chiding the boys during one of their early sessions in the studio.  His stoic visage gives way to a tear while visiting the home of his late brother Carl, and even now, the humiliation inflicted on him by his bogus psychiatrist and constant companion Eugene Landy still seems overwhelming. So too, when Fine informs him that his writing partner and Beach Boys’ former manager Jack Rieley had passed away (Some six years earlier no less). Wilson seems not only saddened but shaken as well.

At times, Long Promised Road is difficult to watch, given Wilson’s fragility as he approaches the age of 80. Nevertheless, it also renews appreciation for this true American icon, who, despite his own anguish, gave the world such incredible gifts.

Photo by Pamela Littky / Decca Records

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