Brian’s Song: New Documentary ‘Brian Wilson: Long Promised Road’ Goes Inside the Beach Boy’s Saga (Q&A)

Ed RampellCategories:Featured ArticlesFeatures

Rock Cellar Magazine

Brent Wilson (no relation to Brian Wilson) is a Kentucky-born and bred director/writer/producer who specializes in music-themed documentaries. It should come as no surprise that a filmmaker hails from the Bluegrass State – after all, motion picture pioneer D.W. Griffith, “the man who invented Hollywood,” is from there, and the University Press of Kentucky is one of America’s top publishers of movie biographies.

Brian Wilson: Long Promised Road is a well-made documentary that takes viewers – and listeners – inside of the mind of the eponymous Beach Boy and beyond. The biopic consists of archival footage (look for glimpses of Paul McCartney and other music icons), plus original interviews with musicians, critics and contemporaries.

Most importantly, these are intercut with candid interviews with Brian himself shot specifically for Road while Brian is (literally) on the road, reminiscing and crooning while being driven to various SoCal destinations that are milestones in the musician’s fabled life and career. There are also scenes — both from the past and present — of Brian in the recording studio, enabling we mere mortals to watch his near-angelic creative process unfold right before our eyes (and ears).  

Road’s original interviews include: Wilson’s fellow Beach Boy Al Jardine; Sir Elton John; Bruce Springsteen; Taylor Hawkins of the Foo Fighters; Linda Perry; Don Was; Jakob Dylan; Nick Jonas; and conductor Gustavo Dudamel, who favorably compares Brian to great classical composers, such as Mozart. The intimate documentary sheds light on Wilson and his state of mind.

For instance, while we tend to think of Brian as being fragile, Road asserts that he could be very “competitive,” and discusses his competitive spirit, vis-à-vis the Beatles and Rubber Soul, etc. Fans of the Beach Boys will likely see Brian Wilson as he’s rarely, if ever, been revealed before, and are unlikely to be disappointed by this penetrating, insightful, tragic, joyous, entertaining journey into the odyssey of one of rock’s greatest geniuses. 

The documentary film opens theatrically on Nov. 19 in 125 theaters nationwide and is available on Video On Demand.

Click here to pre-order the film on Blu-ray (release date: January 2022)

Below, enjoy a one-on-one chat with director, Brent Wilson.

Rock Cellar: Tell us about your personal background.  

Brent Wilson: I was born and raised in Louisville, Kentucky. I was one of those film kids, I was somebody who always knew what I wanted to do from a very early age. 

Rock Cellar: And you’re doing it!

Brent Wilson: I knew from the age of 13. I’m very blessed … For me to be able to make this film, growing up a Beach Boys fan, being able to make a film with Brian Wilson … This is the kind of stuff as a 13-year-old I dreamt about. It’s pretty miraculous.

I went to Eastern Kentucky University. I was there for two years. I was able to take all of their film classes as a freshman. As soon as those film classes were all done, I dropped out of college.  I moved to Orlando, Florida – at the time, in the early 1990s, that was supposed to be “Hollywood East.” I started working as a production assistant, working from the ground up.    

Rock Cellar: One of Road’s co-writers and co-producers is Jason Fine, who is also the film’s onscreen presenter, narrator and chauffeur. Tell us about Jason’s background.

Brent Wilson: Jason is a longtime editor with Rolling Stone, an amazing journalist and writer. For the purposes of our film, he’s Brian Wilson’s friend. I think that’s one of the things that makes the film work, that friendship with Jason. I hope that comes through – Brian and Jason are friends. They started as writer and subject but Brian has an amazing instinct for people. Actually, a remarkable instinct for people. He reads people’s vibe and they just became friends.

Rock Cellar: I guess Brian picked up “Good Vibrations” from Jason. How is Brian doing nowadays?

Brent Wilson: He’s in his late 70s … He’s doing really well. They just did a short tour. His voice never sounded better. I got to see one of the first shows that they did out here at Long Beach. Went down to it and got myself a nice seat right in front.

Brian’s been working with this vocal coach through the pandemic. One of the things that’s been a benefit of the pandemic is that Brian got himself a vocal coach. It kept his voice active, and he sounded better in time.   

Brian Wilson

Rock Cellar: Your documentary is candid about Brian’s mental health issues. Please describe Brian’s illness — when did it start? How does he cope with it? What kind of treatment does he have?

Brent Wilson: Brian suffers from a form of schizoaffective disorder. He hears voices in his head. They [his doctors] believe it’s always been there. He was misdiagnosed for a very long time, which was part of the issue in his life. Mental health, of course, has really taken a tremendous amount of leaps and bounds over the last 25 years or so. But through his wife Melinda’s help, he was able to get away from Dr. Eugene Landy, who was part of that misdiagnosis, very famously. Brian is now receiving treatment and therapy. It’s something he’ll live with his whole life, of course.

That’s part of the film, and what makes Brian’s story so amazing is that there’s no cure for mental [illness], it’s just something you manage, something you deal with. That devil is always nipping at your heels and it’s always just right there, one step away. Yet Brian has found a way in his everyday life to try to keep that at bay. I personally think that’s part of Brian’s story, and part of Brian’s journey is the courage he shows to continue to address his own mental health and deal with it every day. 

Rock Cellar: Brian has been appearing in motion pictures since at least 1965’s How to Stuff a Wild Bikini, with Annette Funicello and Buster Keaton. In terms of insight regarding Brian, how does your film break new ground? What is original in Long Promised Road and different from other films about Brian, such as 2014’s Love & Mercy and the 2000 TV mini-series The Beach Boys: An American Family

Brent Wilson: What I think is most unique about this film – and you’re right, there’s been a lot of terrific documentaries out there, and a lot of terrific films, and books, and essays. You know, Brian is a myth in a lot of ways, but this is the first time that Brian is telling his own story. This is not an actor; this is not Brian sitting down for an interview and a camera sitting across from him and somebody’s asking him the questions.

What’s unique about Long Promised Road is we put Brian in a car, with some cameras, and Brian talks when he wants to talk. And Brian talks about what he wants to talk about. In some ways, this is Brian for the very first time telling his story. And telling it how he remembers it, and what it means to him. And he picks the songs [played during the car rides] – those are the songs that mean the most to him. Not the songs that mean the most to an A&R person or a record executive or a music supervisor in a film.

When he asks Jason, “Hey, let me hear ‘Long Promised Road’ or ‘It’s OK’ or ‘The Night Was So Young’,” you’re hearing from Brian, “These are the are the songs that I connect with from the Beach Boys, from my career.” That’s what makes this film so unique: It’s Brian telling his own story.    

Rock Cellar: Part of your film consists of Jason Fine driving Brian around SoCal to various landmarks in Brian’s life. Was Road influenced by James Corden’s popular “Carpool Karaoke” segments on The Late Late Show?    

Brent Wilson: Absolutely. There’s the one he did with Paul McCartney which was fantastic, The disadvantage to that was that those “Carpool Karaokes” are only about five or six minutes long. And I knew I was going to need to be able to shoot this in a way to be able to keep people’s interest for an hour, an hour-and-a-half. So, I looked at the way they did “Carpool Karaoke” and I knew I needed to do it a little different and a little more elevated, if you will. Those guys are great, they do fantastic work and I love those [mobile musical segments].

But if I wanted this to work in a theater on a big screen for an hour-and-a-half I was going to have to elevate the game a little bit. I worked with our director of photography, Max Schmige, and we were able to get cinematic cameras and cinematic angles to try and hold audiences’ attention for a little longer than six or seven minutes. But absolutely, it’s a great format. 

Rock Cellar: Is this correct? A major part of Brian’s dilemma is that he was endowed with genius-level musicianship and as such, he wanted to pursue and record the sounds he heard in his mind, to get them down in vinyl, so to speak. This type of music tended to be more complex, pushing the Beach Boys’ sound into more imaginative dimensions. However, other members of the Beach Boys and related commercial interests just wanted to stick with the program that had brought them so much success, the formula of cars, surfing and chicks. And these different musical agendas, between the pursuit of creativity and commerce and fame, led to a split and conflicts within the band?  

Brent Wilson: That’s 1,000 percent right, Ed. I couldn’t say it any better. More than that, even deeper than those commercial conflicts, is that it ate away at and eroded Brian’s confidence. It made him for the first time really question his own choices. That’s something Brian has struggled with his whole life, his own confidence in himself. He was that 22-, 23-year-old kid in there directing the Wrecking Crew, which had been recording with Sinatra and Elvis. He had confidence in what he heard, but when that confidence was taken away from him by the record labels or his own bandmates or critics, I think that affected Brian greatly.

I don’t know if he’s – only in the last few years has Brian really started to become comfortable again with his music and what his music means to people. He struggled with that for a very long time, because of those hits and those, those, those shots taken at his confidence.        

“Good Vibrations,” from Brian Wilson At My Piano coming Dec. 10

Rock Cellar: Okay, so here’s something that I don’t get, I really don’t understand. In one of the early clips from archival footage in your documentary, a seemingly confident Brian asserts himself as being the songwriter and producer for the Beach Boys. As such, he himself was directly responsible for much of their early popularity, fame and fortune. Given that Brian already had such a proven track record, why did members of the band and certain commercial interests in the recording industry balk at Brian’s new directions in music in Pet Sounds, SMiLE and beyond? Why didn’t they all just follow the leader who had already delivered so much success to them? 

Brent Wilson: That’s the million-dollar question, isn’t it? You’d think that after having so much success that they would have. But it was so groundbreaking. The only thing I can imagine is – maybe this is a bad analogy – you’ve been studying the Renaissance paintings and all of a sudden you see Monet for the first time, and everything’s out of focus. It’s like: “What is that? Why are the flowers out of focus?” It just was so radical at the time.

Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis, Chuck Berry – all of these just great rockers, including the Beach Boys, and the Beatles, “I Want to Hold Your Hand.” And they’re just rocking out, jamming out. And here comes Brian with these very sensitive songs. It must have been like maybe seeing Monet or Picasso for the first time, and thinking: “My god! What is that? That’s so damn different, strange and bizarre.” Now in hindsight, we know it’s incredible art.  

Rock Cellar: Your film has a number of high-profile interviews. What was it like interviewing Elton John for Long Promised Road

Brent Wilson: Elton was amazing. He’s such a gentleman and loving person. And he just loves Brian Wilson and that music. We interviewed him for an hour or so, and could have used every single word he said in the film.    

Rock Cellar: How about Bruce Springsteen? What was it like interviewing “The Boss”?

Brent Wilson: You know, interviewing the Boss is like interviewing the Lincoln Memorial. [Laughter.] It’s like Abraham Lincoln sitting up there. It can be a little intimidating.

You walk in and he puts you at ease. He was so passionate about Brian’s music and his influence on his own music and career, he just made you feel at ease. And made you feel like he was there to help tell Brian’s story. To help spread “the Gospel.”  

Rock Cellar: Tell us about Brian’s original song in Road?

Brent Wilson: There’s a new song in the film that we use, it’s called “Right Where I Belong.” It’s written by Brian Wilson and Jim James of My Morning Jacket. I gotta say it’s a helluva combination, I’m really proud of this song. Brian wrote this incredible melody for the film and Jim came in and added these incredible lyrics in co-production with Brian. It’s such a great song and I can’t wait for fans to hear it.

There’s going to be a soundtrack in a few weeks, it’s going to be released and will be all new music by Brian. You get a little taste in the film when he does “Honeycomb.” And that great song from Brian and Jim. I’m just as excited by this music coming out as I am about the film coming out.

Rock Cellar: What’s next for Brent Wilson?

Brent Wilson: I’m doing a project I hope to announce soon. And another project with Jason [Fine], so yes, more documentaries coming up that I hope to announce soon.  

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