On the 16th of May this year, The Beach Boys’ seminal album Pet Sounds turned 50 years old. Initially met with a lukewarm reception in the 1960s from the surfer fans who just wanted more Fun Fun Fun, Pet Sounds has gone on to quite rightly be considered one of the most influential albums in the history of music. The latest instalment in the ‘Classic Albums’ series, which is out now on DVD and Blu-ray, looks at how this album came about and perhaps why it has endured the last 50 years.
The 60-minute documentary covers the album’s inception, recording and release in moderate detail – the sort of detail that, if you’re already a Beach Boys maniac like myself, you will already know word-for- word. But the thing that makes this documentary more special than the usual talking heads tripe is the fact it is ‘the definitive and authorised’ story. This means the film is full of interviews with surviving Beach Boys Al Jardine, Mike Love, Bruce Johnston, David Marks and, of course, the legendary Brian Wilson.
Beach Boy buffs and music historians will know that in the early 1960s, Brian Wilson quit touring with the Beach Boys to focus his attention on writing and recording while the band took their surfin’ rock n’ roll all over the world. Wilson, fed up of the repetitive nature of the band’s early output, decided it was time to take the band in a fresh direction and create ‘the greatest album ever made’. And if you ask me – or many thousands of others - he succeeded. Often considered a solo Brian Wilson album, Pet Sounds is a deeply complex and personal album that even 50 years on still brings the average listener to tears – both of sadness and joy. Look up masterpiece in the dictionary, and you’ll see Pet Sounds.
The humble Wilson speaks gently throughout this documentary about the album’s recording and legacy in a way only he can. If you’ve ever seen a Brian Wilson interview before, you know what sort of behaviour you’ll get from him - short answers and a somewhat vacant expression. But if you know his life story, you’ll understand. And if you don’t know his story, watch Love & Mercy – one of the best biopics ever made. The rest of the Boys speak highly of Brian’s work here and rarely praise themselves – surprisingly, even bandmate and cousin Mike Love has nice things to say, for the most part. I’m not going to get into the band’s history here, but any ‘Team Brian Wilson’ Beach Boys fan will tell you that Mike Love is tantamount to a pantomime villain in the Beach Boy saga. Look it up. You might just find a few reasons there’s a popular “Mike Love is a Douchebag” group on Facebook. But that’s not for me to say…
Anyway...If you’re a Beach Boys nut, there’s nothing in this documentary that will shock you. But the interviews alone, although not necessarily in-depth, will entertain – the surviving Beach Boys all speak passionately about the album and era, while the unsung heroes of Pet Sounds speak up – session musicians and technicians, record executives and PR people all have time to tell an interesting anecdote or two. The documentary is also full of stunning archive footage of the band in action and Brian in the studio, along with some cuts from the masterpiece Pet Sounds itself. But again, diehard fans will have seen the footage many times before – though we will never tire of hearing the album. Every single song on Pet Sounds is up there with the best of all time.
Pet Sounds is the greatest album ever made. I offer that to you not as personal opinion, but as fact. It is still vastly ahead of its time 50 years into its life, and it is unparalleled perfection. This documentary, however, is not quite so perfect. Its short length doesn’t give it enough time to fully explore certain ideas and questions that are raised to the viewer – although the 30 minutes of deleted scenes do go some way to remedy this. The film doesn’t necessarily offer too much by way of new information, either – with the majority of the stories having been told a hundred times before in numerous books, documentaries and the album’s Wikipedia page.
Still, the new interviews with the band are enough to recommend this film to any Beach Boys fan, and if you’re not interested in the Beach Boys – first of all, fuck you, but secondly, give this a look all the same. Anyone with an interest in music or pop culture history will surely find some nugget of interest in this largely entertaining addition to the brilliant Classic Albums series.
Classic Albums: Pet Sounds isn’t as in-depth as it could be, but is still an entertaining watch for Beach Boys fans and newcomers alike. 4/5
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