Brian Wilson remains a fascinating figure -- a man-child whose musical genius is beyond debate, but whose personal life has been filled with torment, emotional breakdowns, and ultimately the miraculous courage to come back. Showtime's world premiere of "Beautiful Dreamer: Brian Wilson and the Story of `Smile' " is one of the most sympathetic music documentaries ever made -- and why not? Many lesser men have been declared pop heroes, which at the very least defines Wilson after his near-mythic life and his wait of 37 years for his masterpiece, "Smile," to reach the general public.
"Beautiful Dreamer" is directed by David Leaf, who was nominated for an Emmy for his A&E special "Billy Joel: In His Own Words." Leaf penetrated Wilson's inner circle of family and friends and interviewed admirers from Elvis Costello to Roger Daltrey to forge a psychological portrait that is sometimes almost uncomfortable, thanks to the total access he was given to Wilson, a man often written off as a drug casualty, despite a recent comeback that continues to make believers.
Conspicuously absent, though, is any input from Wilson's fellow Beach Boys -- Mike Love (his first cousin), Al Jardine, and Bruce Johnston. Says director Leaf in a phone interview: "None of them chose to talk to us."
That's not surprising, because the thesis of this program is that the other Beach Boys, who were in England when Wilson was writing the songs for "Smile" (the would-be follow up to the band's "Pet Sounds" album, which so heavily influenced the Beatles), did not like the music. Their negative reaction, together with growing self-doubt from Wilson, led him to scratch the sessions and spiral into a massive breakdown. "We heard about `Smile,' but we waited in vain for it," says Beatles producer George Martin.
So did the rest of the world, but the wait is over Tuesday, when "Smile" is released in a newly recorded version. "Brian has come to life, and he's doing what he loves," Daltrey says in the film.
"It felt like the demons had left me. It healed my soul," Wilson says of resurrecting "Smile."
The Showtime special takes a worshipful attitude toward him. A prominent quote finds Costello saying, "There's a continuum that goes: George Gershwin, Cole Porter, Richard Rodgers, Burt Bacharach, and Brian Wilson." And there's a quote from Bob Dylan: "That ear . . . Jesus, he's got to will that ear to the Smithsonian."
Wilson is remarkably unguarded throughout. He talks of the physical abuse received from his father; of listening to the Beatles' "Rubber Soul" on marijuana, then later to "Strawberry Fields" after he'd taken a Seconal; and of taking his first LSD trip, during which he wrote "California Girls."
He relives the pain of the band's rejection of "Smile" and admits that his intention to make what he called "a teenage symphony to God" was too "experimental for the time." He adds, "I was worried that it wouldn't go over, like when Gershwin was worried about `Rhapsody in Blue' in 1924 in Paris."
The story climaxes with Wilson, urged on by his wife, Melinda (who reveals she got him psychiatric help after their marriage in 1995), reviving "Smile" for a concert tour that debuted in London in February and is coming to Boston's Orpheum Theatre on Oct. 14. Wilson is shown to be squirmingly uptight during rehearsals at his home in Los Angeles, as he dredges up bad memories, but then, coaxed by a supportive ten-piece band, he triumphs in London and is given a standing ovation by an audience that includes Paul McCartney. "This isn't just a unique story in the history of art. It's an amazing human story," Leaf says. "We usually don't get a chance to fix the bad things that happen to us."