My friend Michael Furmanovsky was born in Zimbabwe and raised there and in England. But his great love was American culture, so he came to UCLA to do a doctorate in American history. There we became roommates and friends. Michael has turned me on to so many different types of music, both American and world music. But one artist I did not appreciate until Michael opened my eyes was Brian Wilson. I knew about the Beach Boys, but I saw them as a pop group without understanding the exquisite creativity behind their music.
Brian Wilson and Van Dyke Parks, composer and lyricist of Smile (credit: Mark Hanauer)
Every time, Wilson has produced a solo album over the past ten years (Orange Crate Art, Imagination, etc.) Michael has informed me of what great treats lay in store for me when I’d hear them. And he was right. Of course, he gave me the word just before Smile came out at the end of last month.
I like to buy my CDs at discounted prices at sites like Half.com. But when I couldn’t find the album at a discount, I decided I could wait a few weeks or months to buy it. All that changed last night, when I saw Showtime’s Beautiful Dreamer: Brian Wilson and the Story of SMiLE. This musical documentary is an account of Brian Wilson’s struggle to complete his ill-fated 1967 album, Smile. There is some detritus here, notably the tedious interview material from the period before Smile was performed in England last spring. There’s far too much talking heads wondering whether or not Brian will have a nervous breakdown or severe depression from trying to revive the album. There’s far too much of Brian sitting listlessly in a chair while his musical colleagues rehearse his wonderful music.
As someone who periodically wrestles with depression demons myself, I understand how precarious someone’s mental state is and why his wife, friends and colleagues were so concerned for his well-being. Believe me, I’m glad they were because sometimes that’s all that will pull you through if you’re in the middle of what Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav (another depression victim) called the marah shorah (“black bitterness”). But it doesn’t make for especially compelling film footage.
What was great about the documentary was the music. Click here to view the documentary trailer. The footage of Brian and his ensemble performing Good Vibrations reminds one again of its sheer musical greatness. But for sheer extraordinary beauty and breathtaking splendor, listen to Our Prayer–Gee, in which Wilson captures the serene spirit of a medieval choir. It makes you treasure all the more this lost record that might never have been made had Brian Wilson not been brave enough to confront his musical and mental demons and vanguish them by finishing Smile. Thank God he did.
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