Issued shortly after Brian Wilson's SMiLE finally saw the light of day on both official record and tour, this double-DVD set combines a documentary about the legendary album with an entire live performance of the work in Los Angeles. Pile on the heap of bonus features, and it adds up to about four hours of material -- way too much to wade through in one sitting, almost to the point of being overwhelming. But hey -- if you waited 37 years for an authorized version of the SMiLE album to come out, what's another four hours spent on viewing an auxiliary offshoot, right? The more interesting of the discs contains the documentary Beautiful Dreamer: Brian Wilson and the Story of SMiLE. This traces the history of what became perhaps the most famous unreleased album of all time, from its 1966 beginnings as a planned Beach Boys LP to its resurrection more than 35 years later with Wilson and other musicians. This is built around interviews with Wilson himself, as well as a good number of key collaborators and observers, most crucially co-writer Van Dyke Parks. (There aren't, unsurprisingly, any clips of comments from any of the other late or surviving Beach Boys, who had varying and mostly lackluster degrees of enthusiasm for the project.) The discussions with Wilson are really the highlights, whether he's illustrating some of his musical ideas by singing and playing passages on the piano, or reflecting on why the initial project fell apart in late 1966 and early 1967 under an assortment of pressures.
Though Wilson's mental and emotional problems at various times of his life are well known, here he talks about this most difficult and ambitious endeavor with candor and intelligence, though unpredictable glimpses of eccentricity and wacky humor in his demeanor hint at some of the demons surrounding his failure to pull it off in the 1960s. He offers some very interesting perspectives that don't often crop up in SMiLE criticisms. In his explanation of why it wasn't finished in 1967, for instance, he notes that he needed at least another year to do it, a year of work that wasn't possible to get at the time. As to why he didn't make it a Brian Wilson solo album, he piquantly offers that the vocal parts needed the other Beach Boys, a need that he could hear, but they couldn't. He also makes clear that he prefers SMiLE to Pet Sounds, using a scale of one to ten to rate Pet Sounds a mere seven and SMiLE the whole ten -- an evaluation that might be contentious even among besotted Beach Boys/Wilson/SMiLE admirers. The album's unlikely resuscitation with the help of Parks and musicians of a younger generation is given about as much space as its initial conception, as is Brian's anxiety-ridden (but ultimately successful) decision to present it on-stage. While scenes of an obviously disturbed Wilson walking out on a vocal rehearsal (and the revelation that he was again lapsing into psychic distress at this time) make for wrenching viewing, they perhaps inadvertently reinforce the image of a man who's being cajoled and babied into getting back in the public eye. Too, this is not the place to hear any less-than-fawning praise for Wilson or SMiLE, and the treatment of the man and the music verges on the overenthusiastic, though as a film it's well made. SMiLE was, after all, a nearly experimental song cycle mixing supremely uplifting melodies with whimsical humor and downright avant-garde sections and arrangements. It's not something that listeners, in the 1960s or the 2000s, will automatically find accessible or brilliant, and there are reasons that people in the Beach Boys' circle and Capitol Records were nervous that it might not have been a commercial or even artistic success back in 1967, even if time has judged the suppression of the album's completion an unreasonable action.
No nervousness on either Wilson's or his accompanists' part is evident on the concert part of the disc, in which he, a backing band, and a mini-orchestra present SMiLE before an audience in Los Angeles. There's a minimum of theatrics here, being largely limited to good-natured touches like the use of actual vegetables as props during "Vega-Tables" and musicians donning firefighter helmets during "Mrs. O'Leary's Cow" as a visual simulation of fire is seen on-stage. It's a very well shot and well recorded live version of the album that might, considering it's in 5.1 Surround Sound, be as palatable an option as the CD for some fans. Numerous bonus features top off both DVD discs, the best of them being interview outtakes with Wilson (one of which has Parks doing the questioning). Also available as extras are Wilson performing a few songs on piano, either solo or with bassist Carol Kaye; a featurette on the recording of the 2004 version of the album, comprised mostly of footage from the sessions; a lengthy Brian Wilson photo gallery; and a featurette of post-concert reactions to the premiere of the work in London that, more than any other segment of this abundantly stocked DVD SMiLE celebration, lapses into praise so gushing it starts to become irksome, dozens of concertgoers declaring in quick succession how the show was one of the greatest events ever.