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Brian Wilson: I Just Wasn’t Made for These Times, record producer Don Was’ paean to the Beach Boys Wunderkind, reveals more about the anesthetic nature of hagiography than it does about its subject. The work of a fan rather than a biographer, Times is a blandly uncritical pat on the back that succeeds at the seemingly impossible task of making Wilson’s career trajectory—bizarre even by rock ‘n’ roll standards—seem almost humdrum.
Much of the film consists of footage from the recording sessions for Wilson’s I Just Wasn’t Made for These Times, a CD released earlier this year on Was’ Karambolage label. In the record’s liner notes, Was recounts his Biblical reaction to hearing a bootleg version of the Beach Boys’ unreleased Smile album: “Like a musical burning bush,” he writes, “these tapes awakened me to a higher consciousness in record making.” Was met Wilson several months later, and was surprised to find him “lucid and happening.” The documentary and accompanying album are Was’ attempt to rectify public perception of an artist he describes as “misunderstood and underappreciated.”
As the film opens, a montage of period soundbites provides historical context for a 1962 “Surfer Girl” performance clip. This effort marks Times‘ final attempt at such contextualization: Marked by uneven pacing and zigzag chronology, this is not a movie for audiences unfamiliar with the Beach Boys’ story. Neither comprehensive nor analytical, the film adopts the sham conviviality of a celebrity roast. Weighted down by a superfluity of performance footage from Times the album’s recording sessions, Times the movie resembles nothing so much as a documentary-themed video trailer for the record.
The presence of subjects left unexamined permeates every aspect of the film. Mainstays of the Wilson legend, like the notorious sandbox that he constructed in his living room and in which he placed his grand piano, make their appearance here as cute anecdotes unrelated to the psychosis that brought his career to an end. Indeed, what few revelations there are in Was’ documentary must be extrapolated. At one point, for instance, Wilson’s mother recalls the mid-’70s period when her son stayed in bed for two years, adding casually, “His Dad did that.” Somewhere in all this, there’s clearly a documentary so chilling it would make Terry Zwigoff’s Crumb seem like a feel-good film.
Wilson’s talent has been celebrated to a greater extent than that of almost any other composer/arranger of the rock era. Yet it is not simply Wilson’s accomplishments that Was seeks to establish—the director also seems determined to prove that Wilson is as mentally healthy and artistically viable (lucid and happening, that is) today as he was in his youth. This, of course, is simply not the case. The bloated Wilson is so heavily medicated that his speech is slurred, rendering his interview and performance footage profoundly disturbing. Was’ upbeat tone seems almost tasteless and his undertaking roughly analogous to making a film about Vegas-era Elvis without acknowledging the contrast between past and present.
In the film, a multitude of big-name performers attest to Wilson’s talent. Most of these talking heads are notable only for demonstrating that rock stars are not, on the whole, an articulate bunch. Only John Cale is at all insightful (describing Wilson’s lyrical persona as an “ideal of innocence and naiveté”), while only Thurston Moore is at all unaffected (noting that the Pet Sounds album cover always struck him as “creepy looking”). Other interviewees, like fellow drug casualty David Crosby and similarly compulsive studio wiz Lindsay Buckingham, unwittingly put Wilson’s problems and eccentricities in perspective. As a group, the voices in Was’ all-star testimonial serve as a reminder that no one emerges unscathed from the music business—everyone from obese Linda Rondstadt to wizened Tom Petty appears to have aged even less gracefully than Wilson himself.
Times is hard to watch without compiling a mental index of what’s not mentioned. What about Wilson’s $200-a-day live-in therapist, Dr. Eugene Landy? And Dennis Wilson’s friendship with Charles Manson? It’s not only the sensational details of Wilson’s life that are passed over: He never once mentions his daughters or their mother. Their appearance in the film allows viewers a telling look at the Brian Wilson story from the receiving end. His daughters, fidgeting uncomfortably, speak about him as they would a stranger.
Times is not without its small pleasures, most of them anecdotal. Danny Hutton of Three Dog Night tells a story in which Iggy Pop leaves Wilson’s house in a hurry because the aging Beach Boy is “too weird.” Wilson himself recalls being utterly transformed by his first exposure to the harmonies of the Four Freshman—“magic, total magic,” he gushes. Wilson also recounts prayer sessions at which the Beach Boys, evidently in all seriousness, gathered together to plead “for an album that would be a rival to Rubber Soul.” But for all the film’s bright spots, Wilson emerges as a profoundly unhappy man, making Was’ efforts to put a happy face on his story seem perverse.
Wilson’s mother puts it best. “He’s sorta like he used to be,” she says of her son.