SMiLE for the Camera: DVD documents story and performance of Wilson’s recovered opus.
After 37 years of starts and stops, drugs and lawsuits, the odds that pop’s great lost album would ever see the light of day seemed akin to those of the Boston Red Sox winning the World Series. That both would occur within the space of six weeks last year was as remarkable as it was unlikely. The belated arrival of SMiLE in 2004 was a stark reminder of a time when ambition ruled the airwaves—when pop music could aspire to the wile of Twain, the expansiveness of Ives and the craft of Gershwin, and still capture the imagination of the masses. Yet for Brian Wilson, the release of SMiLE signified something else: catharsis, the culmination of a life’s work too often celebrated more for what could’ve been than what actually was. As such, the fawning press that ultimately greeted SMiLE seemed as much an acknowledgement of its composer’s plight as a testament to his magnificent music.
The record’s circuitous, near-tragic route to completion is the subject of the first disc of Brian Wilson Presents SMiLE: The DVD. Directed by noted Beach Boy-ologist David Leaf, Beautiful Dreamer: Brian Wilson and The Story of SMiLE aired last year on Showtime and chronicles Wilson’s long, often harrowing journey from overambitious mid-’60s wünderkind to the song cycle’s debut at Royal Albert Hall last February. Like Don Was’s 1995 documentary, I Just Wasn’t Made For These Times, Leaf’s portrait is enormously compassionate, with lyricist and SMiLE-collaborator Van Dyke Parks, George Martin and Wilson’s Wrecking Crew session players testifying to the composer’s creative powers, infamous peculiarities and masterful way in the studio (the surviving Beach Boys are conspicuously absent).
The disc’s latter half follows SMiLE’s voyage to Royal Albert Hall, as The Wondermints’ Darian Sahanaja and others gently coax the fragile man into revisiting the famed material. As Sahanaja meticulously fashions the reams of material into something coherent, reengages Parks in the writing process and painstakingly rehearses the live band with a depressed, disinterested Brian, the documentary suggests the success of SMiLE 2004 was as much his doing as it was Wilson’s. But by the time we see an awestruck London audience (including one-time rival Paul McCartney) giving the sad-eyed Wilson his decades-overdue ovation while Parks sits weeping in the audience, little of that matters.
The second disc captures Wilson and his mini orchestra in excellent form, performing SMiLE in Los Angeles. Despite the limitations Wilson’s now-ravaged voice reveals (particularly on the otherwise gorgeous “Surf’s Up”), the live SMiLE acquits itself nicely, deftly reproducing its polytonal melodies and expansive arrangements. The band—playfully donning the infamous ?re helmets for the “Mrs. O’Leary’s Cow” section—seems to have a calming effect on its leader; although the close-up-heavy camerawork tends to emphasize his odd, jittery hand movements, Wilson looks altogether more relaxed than he did in person last fall.
Chock full of extras, Brian Wilson Presents SMiLE: The DVD is a comprehensive look inside a historic work. Kudos, Brian—you’ve finally done it.