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Fine 'Beach Boys' saga anything but fun, fun, fun

Sunday, February 27, 2000

By Ed Masley, Post-Gazette Pop Music Critic

The Beatles may accidentally have spoken to the Manson Family through their music, but they never had old Charlie over, never championed his music, never called him the wizard or thought about joining the family.

No, for that, you'd have to look to Dennis Wilson, the pretty-boy drummer who, prior to bringing Charlie to the studio, had been the only surfer boy in America's band, the Beach Boys.

That alone would be enough to elevate the Wilson brothers' tragic rise to fame above your average made-for-TV miniseries fodder.

But there's more - the fame, the drugs, the drive to overcome the clean-cut image of their early days, the nervous breakdown and subsequent mental deterioration of Brian Wilson; and, of course, the Daddie Dearest of our story, Murry Wilson, who abused the boys both physically and psychologically while robbing them blind as a cold, conniving manager.


'The Beach Boys: An American Family'

When: 9 p.m. Feb. 27 and 28 on ABC.

Starring: Frederick Weller, Kevin Dunn


They skimp on a few of the creepier details of the Murry Wilson legend in "The Beach Boys: An American Family," airing tonight and tomorrow at 9 on ABC.

There's no remorse for having beaten the hearing out of one of Brian's ears. Instead, he tells him, "You were out line so I gave you a whack in the back of the head" and brags about losing an eye when he wasn't much older than Brian as "the best thing that ever happened to me. ... It taught me to fight." What you don't see is Murry removing the glass replacement eye and torturing his son by forcing him to look inside the empty, mangled socket. Whatever their reasons for sparing the viewer the eye-socket torture and other gruesome details of the Murry Wilson legend left unfilmed, it certainly wasn't because they were hoping to paint him as anything less than the monster he was.

But Kevin Dunn's portrayal of the wicked Mr. Wilson is a complex one, inviting the viewer to see him as not just a monster but also a sad little loser who's driven to hateful extremes by the need to make his sons the stars he'd always wished he could be and then resents them for it, sitting alone in his room with one of his own old records, clearly inferior, playing it over and over again.

It's pathetic. And it doesn't make his actions any less contemptible. But just the same, it's all a little sad. We also get the chance to meet his father in a scene that shows you where he learned to raise a child. Again, it's sad without suggesting we excuse the way he treated Brian (or Dennis or Carl).

As it should, the miniseries tends to focus on the troubled genius with the sandbox in his living room. A relatively unknown Frederick Weller does a remarkable job of fleshing Brian out (with the help of the folks in makeup) as he gradually unravels from an introverted California boy with a passion for music to a drug-ingesting paranoid incapable of rising to his own artistic standards (and eventually incapable of rising out of bed).

Weller plays him as a fairly normal, well-adjusted kid when he's palling around with Al Jardine (?????) or singing backup for a song he wrote for Jan and Dean. But touring against his wishes while his father cracks the whip to keep the money coming in by sticking to the formula (and looking happy) is too much for Brian to handle. He finally snaps on a flight to a gig, but not before a scene in which a confident, aggressive Brian grabs his father by the shirt and screams, "You're fired" after Murry tells him the music to "I Get Around" doesn't make any sense.

The scenes of Brian's downward spiral are painful to experience, especially the one that finds him repeatedly pounding out a simple two-chord riff at the piano, stopping and asking his session musicians if they know the song.

Although the two-part series does a commendable job of giving the primary heroes and villains of the Wilson legend screen time, only Dennis' (Nick Stabile) role is as fully developed as Murry's and Brian's. The drummer emerges here as desperate for Murry's attention, so in need of family that he turns to Manson and his followers, explaining, "Charlie accepts people for who they are. He doesn't ask you to prove yourself."

It's Brian who says the only way to talk to his father is through the music, but it's Dennis who actually does it, reconciling with Murry in song in a scene that's surprisingly poignant when it could have been embarrassingly trite.

Most scenes, in fact, are handled masterfully, including one that finds the Wilson family huddled in front of the TV when the Beatles hit America. It's like a funeral. And Murry's eulogy is priceless. Looking around at his boys, he says, "You know what this makes you guys? Yesterday's news."

There are a few descents to the level of cheese we've come to look for in a made-for-TV biopic. The scene of them hearing themselves on the radio the first time with "Surfin'" is not only corny, we've already seen it a million times before.

But those are the exceptions in a film that, like the early Beach Boys, rarely misses. Anyone who's ever played an instrument will no doubt find it truly inspirational, especially the scenes that focus on the making of the great American album, "Pet Sounds." Best of all, for all the dirt it dishes, they were able to secure the rights to all the music, making this a must for any music fan.

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