Thursday, May 23, 2024

THE BEACH BOYS Doc Makes Its Disney+ Debut, But Does It Offer Anything New?

THE BEACH BOYS (Dir. Frank Marshall, Thom Zimny, 2024)

There have been plenty of Beach Boys, and Brian Wilson documentaries before so fans that know their story backwards and forwards may wonder whether what this film, which debuts today on Disney+, brings new to the table. 


Well, famed producer/filmmaker Frank Marshall, and Thom Zimmy (best known for a handful of acclaimed Bruce Springsteen doc projects) give us loads of never-seen before photos, lots of previously unshown footage, and a bunch of brand-new interviews with the principles (Wilson, Mike Love, Al Jardine, David Marks, and Bruce Johnston) so that’s what.


But with this wealth of material, it’s surprising that the program’s length is less than two hours (1h 53m, to be exact), as one might reasonably expect an epic three-hour (or even two part) event. This means that THE BEACH BOYS is heavy on the early years (1961-1969), going into detail about their beginnings in as a Four Freshman-inspired garage singing act from Hawthorne, California, giving focus to the creation of their sound, and their run of chart-topping singles, and speeds through their later career in the last thirty minutes.


However, despite this doc’s uneven presentation, it contains a very entertaining exploration of how a band that was defined by the surf ‘n sun Californian dream (so much so that their first three records had the word “surf” in their titles), came of age in the mid ‘60s rock era with the Beatles as their rivals/later friends, and went through various re-births via the two then concurrent incarnations of the band.


As Brian Wilson refrained from the road to conjure up studio genius with the aid of The Wrecking Crew, “The Beach Boys effectively became two groups, the touring group and the recording group,” Love reflects as the doc gets into edgier territory with the ground-breaking Pet Sounds sessions, and the shelving of the ambitious Smile album. 


The main arc (or arcs) concerns how the band goes from being cool to embarrassingly unhip to cool over and over again, but, as it skips over huge chunks of their output in the ‘70s, ‘80s, and even the ‘90s, it doesn’t feature how the touring and recording versions of the group later became two camps.


Firstly, the long-running Mike Love-led hits-centric outfit that largely performs at state fairs and casinos under the banner of the Beach Boys (Love has the exclusive license of the name), and the Brian Wilson-fronted pop orchestra that has played loftier venues, recreating Pet Sounds, and Smile in full, as well as a ton of fan favorites with Jardine, and later BB member, Blondie Chaplain (who is also featured in a new interview in the doc).


There are many, many elements from the band’s canon that are either glossed over, or skipped completely while the most attention is paid to Wilson toiling over the mixing console conjuring up his eccentric brand of melodic magic with almost a half an hour spent on Pet Sounds and SMiLE, and the ending’s declaration of its sacred place in musical history.


Not that I’m complaining as those are amazing works, and BB enthusiasts will dig the insights and delight in all the footage finally seeing the light of day here, but there really is too much that’s left out of this treatment. The stories around their later day attempts to recapture the band’s glory days would be nice, and I believe necessary to have been included, for example their 50th Anniversary album, That’s Why God Made the Radio, which re-united all the principles in 2011 for a surprisingly solid effort, but isn’t even mentioned here.


Keep in mind, these are the quibbles of a fan who has grown up with not just the BB catalogue, but with the narrative behind the music, and would probably still have issues with a three-four hour version. Overall, whatever it lacks, THE BEACH BOYS is a highly recommended watch for what it has, and I was impressed that when it was wrapping up, it had gone its entire running length with no instance of “Kokomo,” the unbearably cheesy 1988 single that was the band’s last top 20 hit. 


But I had thought too soon, as when the black screen credits starting rolling, “Kokomo” kicked in. Sigh. I’m not usually a fan of medleys, but there’s an early ‘80s single, officially sanctioned by Capitol Records, “Beach Boys Medley,” made up of bits from eight smashes from their ‘60s heyday, that would’ve worked so much better, especially as this doc is more about those times than any others.

More later...

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