The Beach Boys, review: plenty of bad vibes among the good vibrations in bittersweet film

Rock and roll band The Beach Boys pose for a portrait with a vintage "Woody" station wagon in August 1962 in Los Angeles, California. (L-R) Carl Wilson, Mike Love, Dennis Wilson (under Mike Love), Brian Wilson, David Marks
Surf's up: The Beach Boys at Paradise Cove, California in August 1962 - Getty Images/Michael Ochs Archives

There is something ominous about the opening of Disney+’s slick documentary about classic US pop band The Beach Boys. Perhaps it is the disjunction between the sounds of the young Wilson brothers with cousin Mike Love and neighbour Al Jardine singing sweet harmonies to a nostalgic 1960s montage with the sudden intrusion of gaudily lit concert footage from a stadium in 1976.

“Would you please welcome … America’s band!” roars a presenter as a group of middle-aged, overweight, scruffily bearded men in loud shirts shuffle on stage, looking dazed, confused and fretful. Only Love seems to be having a good time, skinny and glittery, leaping about bare chested in a jaunty sailor’s cap.

Cut to a talking-head shot of the 83-year-old singer, baseball cap pulled down tight, face frozen behind clipped white goatee. A screen credit describes him as The Cousin, as if introducing a witness protection gangster in a Scorsese Mafia biopic. “There’s definitely been ups and downs,” growls the unsmiling Love.

The Beach Boys are a fascinating subject but you have to ask which narrative of “America’s band” would Disney dare (or care) to tell? Would this officially sanctioned film offer a rose-tinted celebration of a handsome Californian family exploding the parameters of popular music? Or might it dig deep into the strained saga of misfit brothers managed by their abusive father (Murry Wilson) who became trapped in an image of perpetual youth that stunted personal and artistic growth, splitting into factions while their brilliant leader Brian Wilson’s mental health disintegrated and their pin-up drummer Dennis Wilson befriended serial killer Charles Manson?

Perhaps predictably, Disney tries to have its cake and eat it too. The tragedies and ironies are not glossed over (albeit there is no mention that Dennis, their only actual surfing member, became an alcoholic and drowned aged 39, in 1983). We hear studio recordings of Murry berating and demeaning his sons, while Brian’s mental health issues are a constant presence, acknowledged by Brian himself in archive footage (“I did LSD and it totally tore my head off,” he chuckles weirdly in an interview conducted while lying in bed, where he apparently spent much of the late 1960s). Yet the tone is almost relentlessly upbeat and reverential, drawing on glorious music and brilliantly curated and edited archive footage (and frankly irrelevant interviews with such famous fans as Janelle Monáe and Ryan Tedder) to put a positive spin on events.

By the mid-1960s, the Beach Boys had effectively divided into two, with sweet-natured guitarist Carl Wilson (who died of cancer in 1998, aged 51) leading a live touring band, while Brian stayed in Los Angeles writing and producing their astonishing, groundbreaking albums, utilising Phil Spector’s elite session musicians, the Wrecking Crew. Much effort is made to emphasise a contrived rivalry with the Beatles, glossing over the reality that it was Brian ’s productions that stirred the competitive instincts of Paul McCartney (whose contributions are from archive interviews). The rest of the band were never in the Beatles’ league, which still seems to rankle. “They were a little bit crude,” notes a wizened Jardine (labelled The Good Friend by the gangster-ish credits). “It felt like we were singers and they were players.”

The Beach Boys astonishing rise was followed by precipitous creative decline as their record company, the public and the band themselves failed to align with the erratic Brian’s dazzling musical ambitions. Footage of The Who at Monterey Festival (after the Beach Boys had pulled out) is potently contrasted with Love apparently dressed as Captain Haddock leading a goofily grinning sailor band on a corny TV show performing California Girls to bikini-clad young women. The Beach Boys fortunes rose again only after Capitol Records released the Endless Summer compilation in 1974, embracing their harmonic past as purveyors of an idealised American dreams of sleek cars, beautiful girls and blue eyed boys.

There is something fascinatingly graceless about the hard-eyed Love, who still leads a touring version of the Beach Boys with no other original members and can’t quite contain a lingering grievance about the way Brian’s compositional genius was exalted above his own modest lyric writing efforts (Wilson spent four months and tens of thousands of dollars recording Good Vibrations. Love hastily made up lyrics in a car on the way to the vocal session.) “I got cheated by my uncle,” he notes bitterly of their late manager. As is so often the case, it all ended in lawsuits. Love visibly wrestles to control his emotions as he admits he doesn’t “talk much” to Brian anymore.

The Disneyfied ending contrives a reunion at the California beach where they shot the cover of their 1962 debut album, Surfin’ Safari, but after several strokes and a lifetime of health problems, Brian seems disconnected from proceedings. Waves wash on the shore as sweet harmonies play us out. The implication is that the Beach Boys’ music is eternal but the subtext of this often tragic tale is that the Endless Summer was always a nostalgic illusion.