Review: ‘The Beach Boys,’ starring Brian Wilson, Mike Love, Al Jardine, Bruce Johnston and David Marks

May 26, 2024

by Carla Hay

A 1964 photo of the Beach Boys in “The Beach Boys.” Pictured from left to right: Dennis Wilson, Al Jardine, Carl Wilson, Brian Wilson and Mike Love. (Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images/Disney+)

“The Beach Boys”

Directed by Frank Marshall and Thom Zimny

Culture Representation: The documentary film “The Beach Boys” features a predominantly white group of people (with two black people) from the music industry discussing the career and legacy of the Beach Boys, the California-based pop/rock band that rose to prominence in the 1960s.

Culture Clash: The Beach Boys had various conflicts inside and outside the band on the band’s musical direction, touring, business decisions, mental health, substance addiction and power struggles.

Culture Audience: Besides appealing to the obvious target audience of Beach Boys fans, “The Beach Boys” will appeal primarily to people who like watching celebrity biographies that have a lot of great archival footage but follow a familiar formula.

A 1966 photo from “The Beach Boys” of Beach Boys chief songwriter/producer Brian Wilson recording the album “Pet Sounds” in Los Angeles. (Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images/Disney+)

Ardent fans of the band will learn nothing new from “The Beach Boys” documentary, which plays it safe but is a very good introduction for viewers who don’t know much about the Beach Boys. The movie’s ending scene indicates a better story could’ve been told. That’s because at the end of the movie, there’s a very short scene of a band reunion with five surviving Beach Boys members (past and present) gathering to talk on the beach at Paradise Cove in Malibu, California, where the Beach Boys did the photo shoot for their 1962 debut album “Surfin’ Safari.”

“The Beach Boys” documentary purposely doesn’t show what was said during this reunion and only shows some of the men smiling and embracing each other before they sit down at a table on the beach. It’s an example of how the documentary is certainly competent when it comes to giving a history of the Beach Boys, but the documentary would have been more impactful if it had anything new that was truly exclusive and compelling. Showing this type of heavily edited reunion clip at the very end of the movie just seems like a tease that will give viewers the impression that the documentary left out some of the best parts of the Beach Boys’ story.

Directed by Frank Marshall and Thom Zimny, “The Beach Boys” is one of several biographical movies or TV series about the Beach Boys. This documentary can be considered a quasi-update of director Alan Boyd’s 1998 documentary film “Endless Harmony: The Beach Boys Story,” which did not have the participation of the surviving band members. Some other Beach Boys on-screen biographies are the 1990 TV-movie drama “Summer Dreams: The Story of the Beach Boys” and the 2000 drama mini-series “The Beach Boys: An American Family.”

Curiously, “The Beach Boys” 2024 documentary has very little details about the band members’ lives after the early 1980s. For example, the band’s 1988 massive comeback hit “Kokomo” is not discussed and only played during the movie’s end credits. However, because “The Beach Boys” documentary has the benefit of the participation of the band members who were alive at the time this documentary was filmed, it makes this documentary slightly better than most movies about the Beach Boys.

“The Beach Boys” documentary dutifully covers the origins of the band, which was formed in Hawthorne, California, in 1961. The original and best-known lineup of the band consisted of brothers Brian Wilson (the eldest brother), who was the band’s chief songwriter and multi-instrumentalist, playing bass guitar or keyboards on stage; Dennis Wilson (the middle brother), who was the band’s drummer; Carl Wilson (the youngest brother), who was the band’s lead guitarist; Mike Love, the Wilson brothers’ first cousin and lead singer of the band; and rhythm guitarist Al Jardine, a longtime family friend.

The Wilson brothers’ parents—Murry Wilson and Audree Wilson—encouraged and supported the band. Murry became the first manager of the Beach Boys. By all accounts, Murry was tough, bullying and abusive. (Murry’s physical and emotional abuse of his sons is briefly mentioned in archival interview footage with Carl and Dennis.) However, people who talk about Murry in the documentary also agree that the Beach Boys probably wouldn’t have achieved the level of success that they had if not for Murry. Eventually, a major problem for the band was Murry’s constant interference in how he wanted the band’s music to sound.

The Beach Boys had an image of being a carefree California pop/rock band with distinctive harmonies. The Beach Boys experienced almost immediate success with their first single “Surfin’,” which became a hit on a Los Angeles radio station, which led to bigger opportunities for the band. Many of the Beach Boys’ biggest hits were about surfing (“Surfin’,” “Surfer Girl,” “Surfin’ USA”) or about the California lifestyle. The band’s earliest musical influences included the Four Freshmen and surf music artists such as Dick Dale.

Even though the Beach Boys were initially rejected by every major record company, they eventually signed with Capitol Records, with Nick Venet as the band’s A&R (artists and repertoire) executive from Capitol. Venet started off producing the early Beach Boys records until Brian Wilson took over as the chief producer during the height of the group’s success. Murry acted like he wanted to be a producer for the band too, and that led to inevitable major conflicts.

Each member of the band had a certain role that was part of the Beach Boys image. Brian Wilson was the “musical genius” who didn’t like to tour. Love was the extroverted lead singer who was band’s jokester with a huge ego. Dennis Wilson (the only member of the Beach Boys who was an enthusiastic surfer) was the rebellious heartthrob. Carl Wilson was the “shy and quiet one.” Jardine was the “regular guy” who was often the peacemaker.

“The Beach Boys” documentary has the expected archival footage and use of the band’s original songs. Most of the band’s biggest hits from the 1960s are included, such as the aforementioned “Surf” songs, “Help Me, Rhonda,” “Fun, Fun, Fun,” “California Girls,” “I Get Around,” “Good Vibrations,” “Wouldn’t It Be Nice” and “Sloop John B.” The documentary’s best archival footage (audio and video) is of the recording sessions, particularly when it shows how these recordings took shape.

During the heyday of the Beach Boys’ 1960s commercial success, they were heavily influenced by the music created by music producer Phil Spector (who was famous for his Wall of Sound) and the Beatles. The Beatles’ 1965 “Rubber Soul” album influenced the Beach Boys’ 1966 album “Pet Sounds,” which in turn influenced the Beatles’ 1967 album “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.” The rivalries and the influences that the Beach Boys and the Beatles had on each other are detailed in the documentary, but there is no new information revealed.

The documentary and band members give a lot of credit to the Wrecking Crew, the influential group of studio musicians who played on a lot of iconic music of the 1960s and 1970s. Don Randi of the Wrecking Crew is interviewed for this documentary, which also has archival interview clips from Wrecking Crew members Carol Kaye and Glen Campbell, who was briefly a member of the Beach Boys. Other collaborators, such as lyricist Van Dyke Parks (who worked on the Beach Boys’ previously unreleased “Smile” album from the late 1960s), are seen in archival clips.

The Beach Boys had various lineup changes over the years. Brian Wilson and Jardine quit and rejoined the band multiple times for various reasons. One of the people who is interviewed in the documentary is David Marks, a neighbor friend of the Wilson brothers, who replaced Jardine in the band for a few years after Jardine quit the band for the first time in 1961.

There have been several reasons cited for why Jardine quit the Beach Boys for the first time, with the reasons ranging from creative differences to apathy to wanting to finish his college education. In the “Beach Boys” documentary Jardine says he quit the band in the early 1960s because he wanted to finish his college education. Jardine rejoined the band in 1963, replacing Marks, who quit after getting into a big dispute with Murry Wilson.

In 1965, guitarist Bruce Johnston joined the Beach Boys as a replacement for Campbell, who went on to have a successful career as a solo artist. Johnston takes some issue with the widespread public perception of Brian Wilson being the most important member of the Beach Boys. In the documentary, Johnston says, “Brian was lucky to have our voices to sing his dreams.” Out of all of the surviving Beach Boys members who participated in this documentary, Brian is the one who has the least to say in new interview footage. Most of the documentary’s comments from Brian are from archival interviews from other sources.

South African musicians Blondie Chaplin (who is interviewed in the documentary) and Ricky Fataar joined the Beach Boys in the band’s more experimental early 1970s era. Chaplin doesn’t say much in the documentary except that the Beach Boys’ music had a harder-edged sound when he was in the band, and the band situation “wasn’t that great” during this period of time. The documentary mentions the Beach Boys’ declining popularity in the first half of the 1970s got a significant boost with the release of the 1974 greatest hits compilation album “Endless Summer,” which was a big hit and made the Beach Boys a touring powerhouse that could sell out arenas again but also cemented their fate as a nostalgia act.

“The Beach Boys” is not a documentary where people should expect to hear much about the Beach Boys’ personal lives. The only current or former spouse of a Beach Boy who is interviewed in the documentary is Marilyn Wilson-Rutherford, who was Brian Wilson’s first wife and who was the president of Brother Records, the Beach Boys’ record label. The children of Beach Boys members are not interviewed.

Wilson-Rutherford tells the same stories she’s told in many interviews and books about the ups and downs that she witnessed or experienced as a member of the Beach Boys’ inner circle. Brian Wilson’s health problems (mental and physical), including substance addiction and depression, are also rehashed in the documentary, as they have been in many other biographies. This documentary provides no new insight on these issues. The only people who will be surprised by the information in this documentary are people who don’t know much about the Beach Boys.

One of the biggest flaws in the documentary is how it sidelines the deaths of Dennis Wilson and Carl Wilson. In 1983, Dennis drowned while intoxicated in Marina del Rey, California, when he was 39. Carl died of lung cancer in 1998, when he was 51. The deaths of Dennis and Carl are not even mentioned in “The Beach Boys” documentary until the very end, when a caption is briefly flashed on screen with their names and the years of their births and deaths.

In other words, don’t expect anyone in this documentary to comment on how these deaths affected them. For a movie about a “family band” (a term Love uses more than once), it’s a glaring omission not to discuss the deaths of two of the family members in the band. The documentary also never mentions that at the time that Dennis died, he was homeless and had nearly been fired from the band because of his alcoholism. The other band members ordered Dennis to go to rehab, but he left rehab after a few days and then died. None of that information is in the documentary.

“The Beach Boys” documentary features interviews with some well-known music artists—Lindsey Buckingham, Janelle Monáe, Ryan Tedder and Don Was—but their comments really just amount to fan gushing and offer nothing new to say. Josh Kun, a former music critic and currently University of Southern California’s vice provost of the arts, gives the obligatory academic/historian perspective. One person who is noticeably absent from the documentary is actor John Stamos, who has been a close friend (and occasional touring musician) of the Beach Boys, beginning in the 1980s.

As for Beach Boys scandals, there’s a brief mention of Dennis Wilson introducing an aspiring musician named Charles Manson to the Beach Boys’ inner circle in the late 1960s. (The documentary doesn’t mention that Dennis let Manson and some of Manson’s cult members live at a house rented by Dennis, who moved out and eventually got the Manson people evicted by no longer paying the rent.) Lead singer Love says in the documentary that he only met Manson once, and that was enough for him not to get further involved. Still, Manson wrote a Beach Boys song called “Never Learn Not to Love,” which was the B-side of the Beach Boys’ 1969 remake single of “Bluebirds Over the Mountain.”

Music producer Terry Melcher, whom Johnston describes as Johnston’s best friend at the time, declined to work with Manson, which led to a terrible aftermath that doesn’t need to be described in this review. The Beach Boys’ brief but notorious association with Manson is obviously described as a mistake in judgment, with the band members having no idea what Manson and his cult would end up doing. It’s quickly mentioned that Dennis Wilson felt tremendously guilty over introducing Manson into the Beach Boys’ world.

“The Beach Boys” documentary has an even shorter mention of all the lawsuits and legal disputes that Love has had with the Beach Boys in the 1980s and beyond. The documentary does not mention the controversy over Brian Wilson’s therapist Eugene Landy, who had an on-again/off-again, guru-like relationship with Brian from 1975 to the early 1990s, resulting in several lawsuits that involved the Beach Boys. (Landy died in 2006.) Beach Boys singer Love will only say in the documentary what is already public knowledge about his own Beach Boys legal conflicts: Love has been fighting for a share of royalties for Love’s uncredited songwriting of Beach Boys songs.

The Beach Boys lead singer bitterly comments in the documentary that Murry Wilson’s 1969 decision to sell the Beach Boys’ publishing (without consulting any of the band members first) has damaged the family’s legacy. Love, who says that he and Brian Wilson don’t talk very much these days, gets teary-eyed and chokes up when he remarks that if he would say something to Brian, it would be “I love you. And nothing anybody can do can change that.”

That’s why it’s incredibly frustrating that this documentary doesn’t show what was said in the reunion of Love, Brian Wilson, Jardine, Johnston and Marks seen at the end of the movie. There could almost be an entire documentary about that conversation. “The Beach Boys” gets the job done on an acceptable level when retelling well-known facts and putting them in a nostalgic package. Ultimately, it has the glossy sheen of a celebrity biography where all the key people participated but still didn’t tell the whole story.

Disney+ premiered “The Beach Boys” on May 24, 2024, with a sneak preview at select U.S. IMAX cinemas on May 21, 2024.

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