The tragedies of Brian Wilson’s life is a rock ‘n’ roll story well told. The postscript — that he’s a survivor nearing age 80 who appears to be supported personally and professionally in a way he never really had before — is less familiar. Despite some uncomfortable moments in Brian Wilson: Long Promised Road, that important update is the point of the documentary that premieres Tuesday at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York.
The film’s heart is a series of drives around southern California, where Wilson and Rolling Stone magazine editor Jason Fine talk, listen to music and occasionally stop at restaurants. There’s a comfort level between the two; Fine is a journalist who has become a friend. Wilson, the creative force behind the Beach Boys, has dealt with an abusive, hard-driving father, the mental illness Schizoaffective disorder where he’d hear voices berating and belittling him, and band members often resistant to where he was going musically.
Add in years of drug abuse, a quack psychologist who effectively held him prisoner for a decade and the younger brothers who died early, and it’s a lot to endure. “He doesn’t deserve the accolades about his music,” Elton John says in the film. “He deserves the accolades about his personal life.” John, along with Bruce Springsteen, Don Was and Linda Perry, are eloquent in describing what made Wilson’s work unique and enduring, crucial to making the film appeal to more than just his fans.
Film director Brent Wilson (no relation) contacted Fine after his own attempts to interview Wilson bore little fruit. Fine said his own experiences with the musician have taught him that “being there when he’s ready to talk has always been a big thing with Brian.” So they hit the road, eventually filming some 70 hours. Wilson’s importance to southern California is evident at some of the stops along their drive. A sign now marks the spot where a Beach Boys album cover was shot. While the boyhood home of Brian, Dennis and Carl Wilson in Hawthorne no longer stands, a plaque marks that location, too.
“I didn’t feel that Brian’s story, Brian’s third act now, had been done properly,” Fine said in an interview with The Associated Press. “I think that Brian is often seen as a recluse, as a victim, as someone who burned out (and)… lost his way,” he said. “That’s not how I see Brian at all. Ever since I’ve known him I see him as a hero, a courageous person, who gives everybody who goes to his shows strength and inspiration.” Fine said that “I wanted to show people Brian’s humanity, his decency, his kindness, his humor, his curiosity.”
In the film, Fine stops the car outside of the former home of Wilson’s brother Carl, who died of lung cancer at 51 in 1998. Fine gets out; Wilson wants to stay in the passenger seat. The camera catches Wilson wiping away a tear. At another point, as they passed a spot where he once owned a health food store, Wilson says that “I haven’t had a friend to talk to in three years.” They are moments that are deeply discomforting, bordering on exploitive. Wilson is clearly a damaged soul and, for his sake, you wonder at times in Long Promised Road if he would have been been better served by the dignity of privacy. Fine doesn’t see it that way.
“All of it is done on Brian’s terms and on Brian’s comfort level, so I don’t see it as exploitive,” he said. Wilson himself, in a Zoom call with reporters, said little. Asked why he agreed to participate in the film, he said, “I don’t know. I just made up my mind.” Fine said it appears that the level of fandom that Wilson inspires is sometimes intimidating. He was struck once, following a show where Wilson and his band performed the Pet Sounds album, when Wilson told him that he’d always doubted it, but that now he thought that people loved his music and that he was doing what he was supposed to be doing.
“You’d think that was something he would felt over the last 60 years or so, being onstage with people singing and screaming for his music,” he said. “But what you feel inside is different than what comes from the external sources. I think that he feels the love and I think that’s huge.” After all the years where his life was dominated by negativity, Wilson now has a positive, supportive personal life with wife Melinda and their family. He’s also surrounded by musicians who clearly revere him and are devoted to bringing what Elton John called the orchestra in Wilson’s head to life.
Nerves drove Wilson off the concert circuit at the height of the Beach Boys’ success. Now he loves performing, Fine said. Perhaps, within himself, Wilson has accepted that he’s done things that mean so much to others, he said. “That sort of simple message he really wanted to give people through his music going back to the ’60s — a sense of warmth, a sense that it’s going be OK in the same way that music lifted him up from his darkness, he’d try to do for other people,” he said. “I think now, more than earlier in his career, he accepts that he does that and that’s a great comfort to him.”