Produced as part of the BBC "Classic Albums" series, "Beach Boys: Making Pet Sounds" has been flown transatlantically to Showtime to belatedly commemorate the 50th anniversary of an album relatively few people bought in its time but which is now widely considered a landmark of pop music. That the 1966 album has eclipsed "Surfin’ Safari" and "Shut Down, Vol. 2" in the Beach Boys’ legend would surely have surprised the Capitol Records marketing executives who greeted it with confusion and, so far from getting behind the record, sabotaged it by releasing a "best of" collection of old surf and car songs directly on its heels, more than symbolically putting the band's future in direct competition with its past.
Hopeful, melancholy, exuberant and nostalgic by turns, "Pet Sounds" lives in the space between innocence and experience; it's a record about growing up whose strength derives in part from the fact that the music itself is the work of a maturing talent, bandleader and composer-arranger Brian Wilson. "The album is the sound of him trying to explore becoming an adult," music journalist David Wild says here, "because I think he might have had a delayed go at that." On the other hand, he was only 23.
The backstory, which many will have learned from the 2014 Wilson biopic “Love and Mercy,” is quickly sketched: Brothers from Hawthorne, Calif., plus a cousin, plus another kid, with a love of group singing, mix surf music, rock ’n’ roll and Four Freshmen harmonies to conquer the charts with songs less simple than they seem; sensitive and overburdened, Wilson has a breakdown, retires from touring to stay at home and make increasingly luscious backing tracks with the studio musicians later known as the Wrecking Crew. Wild calls this new focus "one of the most profound moments in rock history," when Brian "intuitively decided he was going to be an artist."
It's an intermittently illuminating, rarely dull and, if only for the music, often moving hour that paints Wilson as a sort of half-naive genius who held complicated parts in his head, thought outside the pop mainstream and pushed the Beach Boys to the edge of their abilities and endurance. (You can sense the wounds even now.)
Still, apart from a couple of anecdotes, the commentators don’t quite get to the heart of what makes his music distinctive, influential and durable — he is even now performing "Pet Sounds" on an extended 50th-anniversary tour. (It comes to Hollywood's Pantages Theatre May 26-27.) It doesn’t help that Wilson is himself not particularly articulate on the subject, tending to go to phrases like "I was so inspired that I wrote a great album; I knew people would like it" and "I love music."
Because it tells its story without narration or title cards, and with near-complete lack of archival interviews — though with plenty of fine old photos and home movies and snips of silent footage cut to musical tracks – the shape of the film is dependent largely on who agreed to talk and what they had to say.
But every living member of the band that made "Pet Sounds" is here: Wilson (who has survived brothers Dennis and Carl); Mike Love, often cast as the villain of the piece ("Don't mess with the formula,' or words to that effect, he is said to have said regarding Brian’s new direction), defending himself from the "bad rap" that he doesn't like the album; Al Jardine, who gets to tell how he brought his modified-with-a-minor-chord version of "Sloop John B" to Brian, who arranged it into a classic; and Bruce Johnston, who replaced Brian onstage but fit so well that he became a full-fledged Beach Boy.
Also heard from are lyricist Tony Asher, a writer of jingles Brian met in the halls of Capitol Records who helped the songs get deep; David Marks, an early Beach Boy and later a Wilson sideman; drummer Hal Blaine and pianist Don Randi; and engineers Bruce Botnick and Mark Linett, who sit together or with Wilson, playing back master tapes, isolating individual tracks or combinations of tracks to hear how the parts combine into something greater than their sum. These passages are the best part of the film, as when Linett drops the instrumental tracks and lead vocal out of "Wouldn't It Be Nice," leaving just the stacked and interlocking background vocals.
"There they are,” Wilson says happily, as if discovering something for himself. “The Beach Boys."
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