The Beach Boys Review | It Just Wasn’t Made for These Times

by Andrew Parker

In an age when so many nostalgic and iconic musicians are getting epic, lengthy, multi-part documentaries made about them, it’s disappointing that a band as talked about and successful as The Beach Boys get a tribute that’s so thin and patchy. Directors Frank Marshall (Alive, Congo, and producer extraordinaire who has been dabbling with music docs for a little while now) and Thom Zimny (Sly, numerous films with Bruce Springsteen) have plenty to work with in terms of archival materials, interview subjects, and drama, but the first two of those are pretty much all The Beach Boys offers with any degree of satisfaction. Clearly trying to perform ballet moves around some of the darker elements of The Beach Boys, Marshall and Zimny have made a well constructed, but far from definitive primer around what made the band so influential, but little else.

One of the bands that defined the sound of California in the 1960s, The Beach Boys is predominantly a family band, made up of brothers Brian, Dennis, and Carl Wilson, their cousin Mike Love, and longtime friend Al Jardine. Managed in the early days by father Murray Wilson, the band first experienced breakthrough success with elevated surf rock that elegant vocal harmonies to go along with their spin on the catchy instrumental riffs of the time. They were pretty much the only mainstream American band capable of weathering the growing storm of Beatlemania, but their differing personalities and musical interests would lead the band away from the sound that established their careers and into territory closer to what their rivals across the pond were attempting. It wasn’t a smooth transition for The Beach Boys when it came to moving away from being a best-selling, crowd pleasing band to one that garners critical acclaim and writes songs that are almost impossible to perform live due to their elaborate nature. Mismanagement, in-fighting, wars with their record label, and personal tragedies all marked the commercial decline of The Beach Boys, but somehow their greatest hits keep getting revived every generation and their successes start anew.

The Beach Boys is careful and safe, taking a fast paced, straight line approach through the band’s career, complete with requisite “march of time” historical montages and lots of shots of songs zooming up the record charts. It’s all the kind of stuff documentary viewers should be familiar with by now, and it’s a tried and true method when it comes to talking about the successes and failures of public figures. It’s also not telling anyone familiar with The Beach Boys anything they don’t already know, and not confirming or denying things they have suspected for decades. Everything a knowledgeable viewer expects to be covered is touched upon, but unless it deals with how the music itself came together in the studio, much of it isn’t explored in any real detail.

The band always operated in a fractured state to some degree, with publicity averse and neurotic songwriter and composer Brian Wilson notoriously disliking touring, leading to a revolving door of replacements that made seeing the core line-up of players in the same place at one time an increasing rarity over the years. Like many popular musical acts, their time in the mainstream spotlight was short lived, but once Brian pushed their sound into a different direction with the landmark album Pet Sounds, they created some of the most ambitious music of the era. But personality clashes within the group – many of them stemming from Brian’s struggles with mental illness – would find them constantly on the brink of destruction.

Again, nothing here that’s not surprising to anyone in the know, but anyone hoping to hear more about how Brian’s long documented and thoroughly sad history, Dennis’ death from drowning in 1983, or the always controversial contributions and stances of Mike Love (who has been labelled as being a bit of a villain in The Beach Boys story for quite some time) will get next to nothing. While The Beach Boys admirably goes the extra mile to ensure that Dennis, Carl, and Al Jardine’s contributions and rich inner lives are not forgotten amid the exploits of the band’s two most famous members, anything that approaches touchy territory is given a wide berth. One one hand, this is the story about a deep dive into the band itself, so spending too much time on Brian or Mike would likely cause an imbalance. But on the other, Brian and Mike are still around to talk about their side of events and likely want to preserve the band’s legacy, and the myriad ways they shaped the band for better and worse should be discussed at length. Marshall and Zimny always come across as people who are afraid of pushing their interview subjects too far and causing them to pull the plug on the whole project. 

To hear this version of The Beach Boys story is to believe that Brian just had severe anxiety and got messed up as a result of taking too many psychedelics, and Mike Love never did anything wrong. It’s very reductive and somewhat disrespectful towards audiences who know there are bigger stories here. The most dramatic, revelatory, and tragic moments in Marshall and Zimny’s film come via and examination of the ways Murray Wilson tried to control the group and shape it in his image. A tense and depressing confrontation between Murray and Brian in the studio captured on tape reflects true discomfort reveals wounds that still hurt, and in some ways led to the notorious legal rift that developed between Brian and Mike down the road. But it’s also easy to focus on this aspect because Murray isn’t around anymore and hasn’t been involved with the band for even longer than that. I’m not saying that Murray didn’t engage in villainous actions, but in The Beach Boys view of things, he’s the only main antagonist to be found.

The film itself is competent and certainly watchable, and it’s good enough to make those unfamiliar with The Beach Boys think it is coming across as a comprehensive picture. In the late 1970s, the profile of the band was raised by their record label’s decision to promote a greatest hits album featuring only their peppy surf rock hits and nothing that appeared on Pet Sounds or anything after. It’s a great metaphor for what Marshall and Zimny have done to the overall story of The Beach Boys: all obvious points, no deep cuts. Anyone with even a perfunctory knowledge of the band will question why so much has been left out of The Beach Boys. It’s part of a story, and a sanitized look at their legacy, but it feels like an authoritative cinematic look at the band is still a long way off in the future. There’s just too much that doesn’t want to be talked about yet.

The Beach Boys premieres on Disney+ on Friday, May 24, 2024.

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