"Brian Wilson Presents Smile"
If the Beach Boys had released "Smile" in 1967, as originally planned, it would have been an unprecedented merger of rock 'n' roll and art music. When head Beach Boy Brian Wilson finally released "Smile" last year, 37 years later, it was still unprecedented. Most attempts to blend rock and classical music have been ghastly assemblages of schmaltzy strings, bombastic guitars and bad poetry, but Wilson used the repeating motifs, shifting textures and through-line of classical composition not to replace pop's intimacy but to reinforce it, linking one personal moment to the next. "Smile" is rock 'n' roll's "Rhapsody in Blue."
"Smile" is not only one of pop's great albums; it's also one of music's great stories. Wilson moved from his early surf-music hits to a rivalry with the Beatles that yielded "Pet Sounds" and an almost-completed "Smile" before resistance from his band and his label triggered a nervous breakdown and a downward spiral that lasted decades. It was only in 2003 that Wilson was willing to face the demons from his past and try to finish "Smile" and perform it in London in early 2004.
David Leaf, Wilson's longtime biographer and confidant, has captured that tale in an impressive documentary, "Beautiful Dreamer: Brian Wilson and the Story of Smile." Leaf uses still photos, old film clips and interviews to trace Wilson's story from childhood to breakdown to comeback. Elvis Costello, Burt Bacharach and Beatles producer George Martin attest to the importance of "Smile," while Wilson, lyricist Van Dyke Parks and others explain how it was made. The film reaches a climax when Wilson sits backstage before the first London concert, paralyzed with fear. Paul McCartney comes backstage to give his old friend and rival a pep talk; Wilson reluctantly drags himself on stage, and an hour later he's beaming as the audience, including a fist-pumping McCartney, gives him a standing ovation.
The documentary is part of a two-DVD set, "Brian Wilson Presents Smile." The second disc is "Smile: Live Performance," a concert version of "Smile" at a Los Angeles soundstage at the end of the American tour. In Leaf's documentary, several musicians mention how Wilson and the band grew more confident with the material at each tour stop, and this version of "Smile" is stronger than last year's studio version or last year's show at the Warner Theatre. Wilson's singing still isn't as good as it was in the '60s, but it's better than it had been since the early '70s, and that's miracle enough.
-- Geoffrey Himes
Appearing Wednesday at Wolf Trap's Filene Center.