June 13, 2024 9:55 am

The Beach Boys
The Beach Boys

The Beach Boys

There’s something so appropriately disheartening about a movie about The Beach Boys being too superficial. For generations, people accused the band behind hits like “God Only Knows” and “California Girls” of being too disposable, a pop candy confection compared to the denser work of bands like The Beatles or the many artists that followed them in the counter-culture wave of the ‘70s. It took time for their legacy to be cemented as a band who was always doing more than it seemed, whether it was their dense harmonies that sounded almost impossible or the way they distilled California culture into melodies. As Don Was says in the new Disney+ documentary about the band, they were “the most articulate spokespeople for the California dream.”

The problem is that “The Beach Boys” too often seems content to tell the story of the band that its music has already told. A documentary should produce more than what would result from just listening to a band’s collected discography. But you’d get nearly as much from a marathon of Beach Boys recordings as you would from watching this two-hour film. 

To be fair, there’s a mid-section of the movie by Frank Marshall & Thom Zimny that works because it gets a bit more granular on the recordings of Pet Sounds and Smile, but then the film depressingly races through the last forty years of the band. They were struggling; Capitol Records released a greatest hits compilation called Endless Summer (this ‘80s child’s introduction to what would become one of his favorite bands), and it made them famous again, the end. There’s nowhere near enough about the band’s legacy or why they are still so popular—there are so many alternative pop-rock bands that sound like them now who could have contributed beyond the lead singer of OneRepublic offering a few soundbites. I LOVE The Beach Boys and consider them still underrated. I just wish this documentary could have done more to fix that second part.

As with all by-the-numbers bio-docs, “The Beach Boys” starts as an origin story. The band went through a few iterations in the early years, but the film captures how they melded harmony groups like The Four Freshmen with surfer rock like Dick Dale to create something that felt refreshingly new. They also define some conflicts that would shape the band as musical genius Brian Wilson often found himself in creative conflict with cousin and band frontman Mike Love. Brian wanted to stay home and write; Mike wanted to perform. At one point, there were really two different Beach Boyses, the one in the studio and the one on the road. The suggestion that The Beach Boys became famous partly because they could recreate their sound live in ways that other bands, even The Beatles, couldn’t at the time is one of the film’s more fascinating insights.

Of course, anyone who knows anything about The Beach Boys knows about the complicated legacy of the Wilson family. “The Beach Boys” dips into the abusive, controlling behavior of patriarch Murry Wilson, who was not just violent but eventually sold the catalog out of little more than jealousy. Still, it seems a bit reticent to spend too much time in those muddy waters. It’s a bad habit of the film in that it’s constantly walking up to the conflicts that are an undeniable part of the Beach Boys’ legacy, including the creative (and eventually legal) differences between Brian and Mike, before bouncing back to something that feels easier to digest—and then racing to the end in a way that feels like the film was intended to be a series but ran out of money.

It makes it hard to figure out who “The Beach Boys” is for. Fans who want to watch some interviews and hear some tunes they know by heart may be satisfied, but I hold films about artists I love to a higher standard. They need to attempt to match the creative integrity and complexity of their subject. Maybe I love the band too much for “The Beach Boys.”

On Disney+ now.

There’s something so appropriately disheartening about a movie about The Beach Boys being too superficial. For generations, people accused the band behind hits like “God Only Knows” and “California Girls” of being too disposable, a pop candy confection compared to the denser work of bands like The Beatles or the many artists that followed them in the counter-culture wave of the ‘70s. It took time for their legacy to be cemented as a band who was always doing more than it seemed, whether it was their dense harmonies that sounded almost impossible or the way they distilled California culture into melodies. As Don Was says in the new Disney+ documentary about the band, they were “the most articulate spokespeople for the California dream.” The problem is that “The Beach Boys” too often seems content to tell the story of the band that its music has already told. A documentary should produce more than what would result from just listening to a band’s collected discography. But you’d get nearly as much from a marathon of Beach Boys recordings as you would from watching this two-hour film.  To be fair, there’s a mid-section of the movie by Frank Marshall & Thom Zimny that works because it gets a bit more granular on the recordings of Pet Sounds and Smile, but then the film depressingly races through the last forty years of the band. They were struggling; Capitol Records released a greatest hits compilation called Endless Summer (this ‘80s child’s introduction to what would become one of his favorite bands), and it made them famous again, the end. There’s nowhere near enough about the band’s legacy or why they are still so popular—there are so many alternative pop-rock bands that sound like them now who could have contributed beyond the lead singer of OneRepublic offering a few soundbites. I LOVE The Beach Boys and consider them still underrated. I just wish this documentary could have done more to fix that second part. As with all by-the-numbers bio-docs, “The Beach Boys” starts as an origin story. The band went through a few iterations in the early years, but the film captures how they melded harmony groups like The Four Freshmen with surfer rock like Dick Dale to create something that felt refreshingly new. They also define some conflicts that would shape the band as musical genius Brian Wilson often found himself in creative conflict with cousin and band frontman Mike Love. Brian wanted to stay home and write; Mike wanted to perform. At one point, there were really two different Beach Boyses, the one in the studio and the one on the road. The suggestion that The Beach Boys became famous partly because they could recreate their sound live in ways that other bands, even The Beatles, couldn’t at the time is one of the film’s more fascinating insights. Of course, anyone who knows anything about The Beach Boys knows about the complicated legacy of the Wilson family. “The Beach Boys” dips into the abusive, controlling behavior of patriarch Murry Wilson, who was not just violent but eventually sold the catalog out of little more than jealousy. Still, it seems a bit reticent to spend too much time in those muddy waters. It’s a bad habit of the film in that it’s constantly walking up to the conflicts that are an undeniable part of the Beach Boys’ legacy, including the creative (and eventually legal) differences between Brian and Mike, before bouncing back to something that feels easier to digest—and then racing to the end in a way that feels like the film was intended to be a series but ran out of money. It makes it hard to figure out who “The Beach Boys” is for. Fans who want to watch some interviews and hear some tunes they know by heart may be satisfied, but I hold films about artists I love to a higher standard. They need to attempt to match the creative integrity and complexity of their subject. Maybe I love the band too much for “The Beach Boys.” On Disney+ now. Read More