Beach Boy Brian Wilson's story will come to the screen, courtesy of the screenwriter of 'I'm Not There'
EXCLUSIVE: There are few 20th century music figures as compelling as Brian Wilson. The former Beach Boys producer-singer had a profound effect on a generation of artists and a rich and complicated personal life even by pop-icon standards.
Now it looks like his tale will be dramatized on the big screen.
"The Tree of Life" producer Bill Pohlad and veteran television writer and producer John Wells (“ER,’ “The West Wing”) have teamed to develop a drama based on Wilson's personal and professional story. They've acquired life rights from Wilson and his wife, Melinda, and hired Oren Moverman, the Oscar-nominated screenwriter behind the offbeat Bob Dylan film "I'm Not There," to write a script.
(Wilson was the subject of a documentary, the black-and-white "I Just Wasn't Made for These Times" directed by musician and record producer Don Was in the mid-1990s.)
Wilson's arc is too complex to describe in a few neat sentences, but the short version, if you're not familiar with it, is this: Barely out of his teens, the Southern Californian burst on the music scene as the creative driving force of the Beach Boys. That band produced hits such as"Surfin' U.S.A.," "I Get Around" and "California Girls." Their 1966 album "Pet Sounds," with its unconventional instruments, harmonies and sound effects put together by Wilson, is widely regarded among pop's most important records.
But things went downhill from there, particularly after an ambitious project called "Smile" was scrapped in 1967. Wilson grappled with all sorts of demons throughout the 1970s and 1980s, including substance abuse and a mental illness.
During that time, he also came under the care of a controversial and Svengali-like doctor named Eugene Landy, who was credited with both rehabbing the musician and ruining him further. Wilson would eventually return to health and has cut several new albums in recent years. He's on tour and celebrated his 69th birthday Monday.
While the filmmakers have yet to decide which periods of Wilson's life their as-yet-untitled movie will focus on, they say they will home in on specific eras instead of retracing the musician's entire life. "I have no interest in making a biopic," Pohlad told 24 Frames. "What's fascinating to me is to look at the different elements in his life, like that super-creative period when he was doing 'Pet Sounds' and the later part when he was redeemed." The Landy era could be a subject as well, Pohlad said.
While filmmakers are not close to hiring actors, Pohlad said he could imagine a number of possibilities, including the idea that different stars could be brought on to play Wilson (at various points in his life, not in the vein of "I'm Not There," where multiple actors portrayed different Dylan phases).
Rights to many of Wilson's songs have been secured — producers are working closely with Wilson and wife Melinda — but Pohlad said the tunes will inform the story, not dominate it. "We're not thinking about this as the hit parade — that would be the biopic thing," he said.
Pohlad is no stranger to based-on-real-life stories, having produced films such as "Fair Game" and "Into the Wild." Moverman, meanwhile, seems to be honing a specialty in portraying complicated musicians — in addition to writing "I'm Not There," he is developing a film at Universal about Kurt Cobain. (Moverman made his directorial debut in 2009 with the well-regarded military drama "The Messenger.")
While music biopics along these lines have been successful — James Mangold's Johnny Cash tale "Walk The Line" comes to mind — producers see the Wilson movie less as a music picture than as a kind of tuneful "A Beautiful Mind," exploring the intersection of genius and madness.
"You don't have to know the music here in the same way you didn't have to know the math in 'Beautiful Mind,' " Pohlad said. "What we want to do is let you experience the story in a personal way."
— Steven Zeitchik
Photo: Brian Wilson performing in Toronto on June 18. Credit: George Pimentel / Getty Images.