Review: New Documentary The Beach Boys Gives History of American Pop Icons a Thorough, Thoughtful Review

In a fairly crowded weekend for documentaries, probably the best of the bunch is this in-depth profile of the legendary band that changed the face and sound of popular music and continued to inspired generations of fans and other artists (including, most prominently, The Beatles). Co-directed by Frank Marshall and Thom Zimny, The Beach Boys takes a fairly straight-forward approach to tracing the band’s journey from being a family group (brothers Brian, Carl and Dennis Wilson, cousin Mike Love, and their friend Al Jardine) to being one of the top touring bands, while the group’s primary songwriter and producer, Brian Wilson, stayed back and recorded backing tracks for future albums with the legendary session musicians known as The Wrecking Crew (who have their own doc, which you should absolutely seek out). The Wilson brothers’ father acted as the band’s business and tour manager, and was often very meddlesome, leading to one early member, David Marks, to leave the band just as its fame was kicking in.

The film also includes new interviews with surviving members and gives the late Carl and Dennis Wilson a chance to speak in their own words through archival footage. The filmmakers include interviews with a handful of musicians (including Lindsey Buckingham, Janelle Monae, Ryan Tedder, and Don Was) with truly great stories about the Beach Boys' impact on their early lives.

Although the group was initially known for personifying the California surfing sound, they expanded beyond that as the 1960s continued, as Brian Wilson’s creative sensitivity and edginess pushed him to the brink of nervous breakdowns, and sometimes well over that line, more than once. The film opts to ignore Wilson’s time away from the band and concentrates solely on what the still-performing and recording Beach Boys did without him, which was mostly flail. The film is far from a whitewash, especially when it comes to Dennis Wilson’s involvement with Charles Manson and his desire to become a singer/songwriter (Dennis’ guilt over his small, passive role in the Manson Family murders haunted him for quite some time).

Other documentaries have been made about the Beach Boys over the years, yet Marshall and Zimny’s illustrates how, no matter how big the band got, it was always a tight-knit group of friends and family who protected each other as a collective. The entire work feels more intimate, emphasizing Brian’s genius without ignoring the contributions of the other bandmates, which went on to include Bruce Johnson, who took over for Brian in the live act. One could quibble about what is or isn’t included (where is the section of the film dedicated to John Stamos’ contribution to the band?), and I still can’t believe there’s no mention of the group’s last big hit “Kokomo,” a leading candidate for one of the worst songs ever recorded (the song is played over the end credits for some reason). But, I digress.

In the film’s final moments, it appears all of the surviving members (all of whom contribute new interviews to this project) get together, despite ongoing squabbles and legal drama. We don’t hear what they’re talking about, and maybe they aren’t talking about much, but it seems a fitting and even moving tribute to one of the most persistent, iconic acts ever to have created music.

The film is now streaming on Disney+.

Did you enjoy this post? Please consider supporting Third Coast Review’s arts and culture coverage by making a donation. Choose the amount that works best for you, and know how much we appreciate your support! 

Picture of the author
Steve Prokopy

Steve Prokopy is chief film critic for the Chicago-based arts outlet Third Coast Review. For nearly 20 years, he was the Chicago editor for Ain’t It Cool News, where he contributed film reviews and filmmaker/actor interviews under the name “Capone.” Currently, he’s a frequent contributor at /Film (SlashFilm.com) and Backstory Magazine. He is also the public relations director for Chicago's independently owned Music Box Theatre, and holds the position of Vice President for the Chicago Film Critics Association. In addition, he is a programmer for the Chicago Critics Film Festival, which has been one of the city's most anticipated festivals since 2013.