Today: June 11, 2024

The Beach Boys

2024 sees the 50th anniversary of The Beach Boys’ chart-topping compilation album Endless Summer that threw the fading band back into the limelight. Whilst this double LP release was a big financial success for the band, it arguably reinforced their reductive image as basic surf pop as it neglected to include anything from the Boys’ more creative era of Pet Sounds, SMiLE, and onward. The fact this new Disney+ documentary uses this glorified ‘best of’ album release as the triumphant climax to the group’s story just shows how badly the filmmakers misunderstood the story.

There have been countless documentary features on The Beach Boys over the last fifty years – whether focused specifically on the band’s creative leader Brian Wilson (2021’s Long Promised Road is essential viewing) or on the group as a whole – and even more books, podcasts, and television specials. It is difficult to tell this band’s incredible story now in a way that feels fresh, and frustratingly, this doc from filmmaker Frank Marshall doesn’t even try. The film is nauseatingly simplistic in both its structure and content, feeling more like an adaptation of the band’s Wikipedia page than the “celebration of the band that revolutionized pop music” it promised to be.

Surviving band members Al Jardine, David Marks, Bruce Johnston, Mike Love and (very briefly) the remaining Wilson brother Brian are all present for new interviews in which they roll out the same anecdotes fans have heard a hundred times. Other familiar faces like Don Was also come out to autopilot some wishy-washy recollections of the first time they heard the band’s music and the continuing influence it has on their work. A moment hinted in the film’s marketing materials that sees the band members reuniting to reminisce at the site of the Surfin’ Safari album cover photoshoot is saved for the film’s final minutes and in perhaps the most baffling of the film’s omissions, we don’t get to hear a single word of their chat as the film fades out. 

And that is how the film can be summed up – baffling in its omissions. At almost two hours, the film has certainly got time to tell a lot more story than it does. The band’s ups and downs are enough to fill a miniseries, but there is far too much that is left out or sped through here. The Pet Sounds and SMiLE era is rushed, while the darker sides of the story – particularly Brian Wilson’s battles – are glossed over. The deaths of Dennis and Carl Wilson are not even discussed, and saved for a brief “in loving memory” title card at the film’s close. And yet the nauseatingly egotistical and much-vilified Mike Love is given time to moan about his 1990s lawsuits for songwriting credits and take any opportunity to brag about he brought the positivity to the group. And his pathetic crocodile tears towards the end of the film when he speaks of how “if he could”, he’d tell Brian Wilson he loves him. First of all, what’s stopping you? Second of all, you’ve made it very clear over the years you have no respect for him. This moment – supposed to poignant and moving – comes off as sickeningly forced.

But again, the main issue is the film’s choice of emotional and narrative climax – the release of Endless Summer. After years of Brian Wilson sacrificing everything to push boundaries and create new sounds, and the group’s attempts to take that creativity forward when Brian’s mental health plummeted and he disappeared, it is seen as celebratory and triumphant when their record label effectively publicly said “fuck all that shit, here’s all the surfin’ surfin’ surfin’ tracks again” and cemented the group’s reputation as such. It’s part of the reason that the uninitiated scoff when you say you listen to The Beach Boys today, or -gasp-, that you prefer them to The Beatles. Regrettably, this film is far too celebratory of this era of the group’s output – although of course this early music is culturally significant, the band were so much more. 

Overall, this documentary is ably edited and put together, but bland and reductive. There is such an incredible story here to tell, and this film doesn’t seem interested. Other documentaries that came before – such as 1998’s Endless Harmony – are far more detailed, and even the 2014 Brian Wilson biopic does a far better job at covering the group’s creativity and the toll it took. This is just so painfully surface level that even those who have never listened to The Beach Boys are probably going to feel like they haven’t learned anything.

I have never before seen a documentary (of a lengthy two hours, no less) that has left me feeling this short-changed. Fans and newcomers alike are encouraged to avoid – there are far more insightful entry points into The Beach Boys story than this basic and uninvolved doc.

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