In "I Just Wasn't Made for These Times," a new documentary about Beach Boys founder Brian Wilson, there's a remarkably sweet scene in which Wilson; his brother, Carl, and their mother, Audree, are around a piano singing the group's melancholy classic "In My Room."
It's a moment of profound normalcy that sharply contrasts the familiar story of Brian Wilson and the Beach Boys, a 30-year saga in which hit music was often overshadowed by tales of mental illness, drug abuse, alleged brainwashing and bitter familial disputes.
Sitting recently in the Mulholland-area home recording studio of musician-producer Don Was, who directed the documentary, Wilson stressed just how much that simple moment of normalcy around the piano meant.
"This is gonna sound stupid, but that's the first time we'd ever done that--Carl and Mom and me singing together--since Hawthorne," said Wilson, 52, referring to the late-'50s/early-'60s pre-fame days in the bedroom community that the Beach Boys would later make world famous.
Normalcy is, in fact, a relatively new watchword for Wilson. The recent lawsuit in which cousin and fellow Beach Boy Mike Love successfully sued Wilson for greater songwriting credit and back royalties for old songs--the latest in a string of court actions involving Wilson--was merely, he says, "my last hurdle--the final hurdle before we go on to bigger and better things for music."
To that end, he and longtime girlfriend Melinda Ledbetter are planning to marry next month, and discussions are under way for the first new Beach Boys album in nearly two decades.
That normalcy, says Was, is a major point he wanted to address in the film, which will premiere at the Sundance Film Festival in Utah this weekend and will be broadcast by the BBC later in the year. Plans for U.S. distribution are still being finalized, and a soundtrack album will be released by Was' Karambolage Records label when it is set.
Was and Wilson first met in 1989, and a few months later performed together at a benefit concert in Los Angeles. Was said he was struck by how different Wilson was from the fragile person bedeviled by drug abuse and mental illness portrayed in news reports in the '70s and '80s.
"I just thought, 'Wow, there's so many wrong ideas about what kind of shape he's in,' " said Was, sitting next to Wilson.
"You sit and spend a lot of time with him and the conversation comes from pretty deep philosophical things," Was said. "It wasn't the guy I expected to find."
Said Wilson, "I don't think that anyone really knows where I'm at now. It's funny. People look at me I think as somebody who used to write songs for the Beach Boys, and is sort of inactive."
Was, whose extensive music production credits include Bonnie Raitt's last three albums and the Rolling Stones' "Voodoo Lounge," had no experience in film, but felt Brian Wilson's story needed to be told. He saw it, he said, as a modern-day Orpheus tale.
"This guy was able to move mountains with this gift he had for music," Was said. "And then he descends down into the depths."
Wilson was initially against the idea, but Was talked him into it. The story unfolds in stark black and white, through interviews with Wilson, family members and musical colleagues and fans. Such luminaries as David Crosby and Graham Nash, Tom Petty and Sonic Youth's Thurston Moore expound on Wilson's musical genius.
"I Just Wasn't Made for These Times" (named for a Beach Boys song) also features new studio performances of a handful of Wilson's old songs. The emphasis is on the more melancholy tunes, from "The Warmth of the Sun," which was written the day of the J.F.K. assassination, to 1988's "Love and Mercy," a highlight from Wilson's lone solo album.
Was wanted to focus on old songs because they benefit from a new context. With a band of Was associates--keyboardist Benmont Tench, drummer Jim Keltner and guitarist Waddy Wachtel--Wilson sings with strong voice and passion.
"We were never really thinking, 'Don't buy the Beach Boys box set if you want the definitive versions,' " Was said. "But he brings a new perspective. For example, 'Caroline No' is a song about the loss of innocence, and when you listen to Brian sing the original version with a very sweet, high voice, I think there was a great deal of innocence.
"But it's very interesting to consider that this guy has been through the emotional wringer over the last 35 years. You can hear where he's been."
The image that emerges from the talk and music in the film is of a still-childlike prodigy, a sweet but somewhat sad man whose head is so crowded with music that sometimes there isn't room for anything else.
In conversation, sipping Diet Coke, Wilson did indeed seem childlike, his attention wandering. When not addressed directly he often closed his eyes and fidgeted. But when asked about a topic of interest to him--music or family--he was thoughtful and clear.
Yet the film also carries a large note of optimism and strength, most profoundly in an interview clip featuring Wilson's daughters, Carnie and Wendy, who found their own fame in Wilson Phillips. The two young women squirm while talking about past embarrassing behavior of their dad, but beam when revealing that the past Father's Day was the first they had ever spent with him. Later there's more beaming as the daughters join their father for a spirited new recording of "Do It Again."
In the film, Wilson and his mother both talk somberly about the beatings he and his brothers received at the hands of their late father, Murry. Brian's ex-wife, Marilyn, also discusses his peculiar behavior, including Wilson's installing a sandbox in which to rest his piano, and the two years in the '70s he spent largely in bed.
But some elements are glossed over or left out entirely. There's little reference, and none by name, to Dr. Eugene Landy, the psychotherapist who was hired to help treat Wilson's mental illness and was later accused of holding a Svengali-like power over him. According to the terms of a 1991 lawsuit settlement, Landy is no longer involved in Wilson's personal or business affairs.
There's also no mention of the 1983 drowning death of the third Wilson brother and Beach Boy co-founder, Dennis, nor of the court battles of the last five years concerning both control of Brian's affairs and publishing royalties.
"Everybody knows about that," explained Was of his editorial decisions. "In a way, this movie serves the same function as ginger in a sushi restaurant: It's to cleanse the palate for the next course. People need to reacquaint themselves with the real important things in the story. I think it sets up the appetite for new material."
And that's the next focus for the pair. Wilson says he has 25 songs for a Beach Boys album and is eager to work again not just with brother Carl, but also with Mike Love, despite their bitter lawsuit battle, which was resolved last month with a U.S. District judge ordering Wilson to pay Love $5 million in cash and future royalties on 35 Beach Boys songs.
"The lawsuit ripped my heart right out," Wilson said. "But it turns out that the trial was actually a godsend, because it totally put (Mike and me) together."
Said Was, "We were talking the other day in terms of the lyrics (for a new Beach Boys album) that maybe could tell the story about what these guys have been through. Most people in America come from dysfunctional families. And here's one family that's been through as much adversity as one can go through. But if they can pull it together . . ."
Wilson turned toward Was and nodded.
"It's called a miracle, Don," Wilson said solemnly. "It's a miracle."