Thursday, September 21, 2017
The Life of Brian
I came into the middle of Love & Mercy last night, which was a bit confusing since there was a "Brian - Past" and "Brian - Future," played by Paul Dano and John Cusack respectively. The "Brian - Past" was more interesting as it revolved around the making of the Beach Boys' classic Good Vibrations, a polyphonic gem of a song. Director Bill Pohland meticulously recreated the studio scene featured in the "lost studio footage" that appeared in 2012.
Seems everyone recognized Brian's immense talent except his father, who taunted and abused him for years, making Brian feel that his songs never measured up to his father's standard. Not only that but he ended up with a domineering psychotherapist in the 1980s, who insinuated himself into every aspect of Brian's life. By this point, Brian was so strung out that it probably took a domineering figure to bring him back onto the stage, but Dr. Landy didn't stop there. He became partner in subsequent book and music deals that netted him a nice share of the pie. He even managed to get himself written into Brian's will, but unfortunately the good doctor died before he could collect.
Genius comes with a heavy price. Brian Wilson heard music on a level few of us could even imagine and transposed those sounds into multiple layered songs that defied the pop genre of its time. Paul McCartney can only wish he wrote a song like Good Vibrations, which beautifully captured the psychedelic era in a wistful breezy way that plays just as well today as it did when it first appeared in 1966.
I thought the song originally appeared on Pet Sounds, but was released separately later the same year. Brian had started it along with the other songs on the album, but couldn't quite resolve the harmonies before releasing Pet Sounds in May. Seems critics didn't know what to make of these new Beach Boys, but the release of Good Vibrations along with one of the cuts from Pet Sounds, seemed to put it all together, as the single was a huge hit worldwide. The Beach Boys had moved well beyond "surfer music."
Pet Sounds and Good Vibrations took harmonies to a whole new level. This is something no other pop group at the time, or for that matter since, could pull off. Crosby, Stills and Nash probably came the closest, and their harmonies seem clumsy by comparison. There doesn't appear to be a note out of place in Wilson's best compositions, so carefully layered together that it takes many listenings to sort them all out.
There were critics. Pete Townshend thought the harmonies were manufactured. There was no way to repeat this on stage, which he thought was the whole point of rock and roll. Brian was after something bigger. If it took four studios and a wide variety of studio musicians to pull it off, so be it. Needless to say, the song became the gold standard for subsequent productions.
It is hard to fathom why Murry tormented his sons so much, particularly Brian. I suppose he thought they were veering off into a new music that wouldn't fetch the sales of previous singles and albums. Murry was a businessman above all else. The degree of abuse and manipulation he inflected on his sons could only be speculated until this letter came to light in 2010. Murry was truly a sick, demented man.
Bill Pohland tries to cover a lot of ground in his movie, enough to fill a mini-series, but alas it fails to capture the mood of either the 60s or the 80s, which clash harshly in this biopic. I suppose that is why the movie pretty much went under the radar, despite its impressive cast. I think it is best to focus on one aspect of Brian Wilson at a time.