Brian Wilson’s music has consistently acknowledged his inner child, sometimes to the extent of obscuring his outer adult. So there’s a certain logic to the former Beach Boy putting his spin on songs from the Disney archives with his latest album, “In the Key of Disney,” which came out Tuesday.
“The album has humor in it, it has sweetness in it and a little uptempo music in it,” Wilson, 69, said while seated on a sofa in the living room of his Beverly Hills home last week. “All the Disney lyrics are good; every single one of those lyrics is good.”
It’s the sound of the other shoe dropping on the two-album deal he signed with the Disney Pearl label, the first of which, “Brian Wilson Reimagines Gershwin,” surfaced last year, and included his completion of two song fragments George Gershwin left behind when he died in 1937 at age 38.
Wilson didn’t have to finish any uncompleted work this time, but he applied his signature arranging, orchestration and vocal harmonies to a dozen songs from recent-vintage Disney films including “Toy Story 3” (“We Belong Together”) and “The Lion King” (“Can You Feel the Love Tonight”) back to such quintessential movies as “Dumbo” (“Baby Mine”) and “Pinocchio” (“When You Wish Upon a Star”).
The latter song was the first thing that sprang to mind for Wilson when Disney Pearl execs broached the idea of him singing an album’s worth of Disney songs.
“I knew right away I wanted to do that one,” Wilson said, “because I’d heard Rosemary Clooney sing it. It’s a wonderful tune.” To illustrate the point, he started humming the opening of the song a cappella, adding, “It’s got beautiful ascending and descending lines.”
Another facet of the appeal of that song, he said, is that it originated with his favorite Disney film. “'Pinocchio’ is the one I like the most. That’s my very favorite Disney character.”
“In the Key of Disney” includes a pair of songs written by one of Wilson’s contemporaries and another of the most gifted composer-arrangers in all of pop music: Randy Newman. Along with “We Belong Together,” Wilson opens the album with the theme song from the first entry in the “Toy Story” franchise, “You’ve Got a Friend in Me.”
Newman’s trove of work aside from his film scoring over the last 30 years didn’t escape Wilson’s notice.
“I bought ‘Sail Away’ in 1972, listened to it and it blew my brains, it really did,” Wilson said. “He’s a helluva music guy. ‘I Love L.A.,’ that was great one too.”
The man who once sang “columnated ruins domino” in “Surf’s Up,” for which he collaborated with lyricist Van Dyke Parks, said he chose to take on the ballad “Colors of the Wind” from “Pocahontas” because “It’s a very interesting lyric, to tell you the truth. I can’t describe it — it’s just a really crazy lyric; really crazy lyric.”
The Rock and Roll Hall of Famer saved perhaps his greatest praise, however, for “Stay Awake,” the lullaby from “Mary Poppins,” a film that came out the same year Wilson and the Beach Boys were flying high on the pop charts with hits including “Fun, Fun Fun” and “I Get Around.”
“Stay Awake” never attracted as much attention as that film’s upbeat numbers “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious,” “Chim Chim Cheree” and “A Spoonful of Sugar.” But to Wilson, composer of heart-rending ballads such as “God Only Knows” and “Don’t Worry Baby,” “Stay Awake” is “the most beautiful song I’ve ever heard."
"I love that song, I love it,” he said. “It’s just the prettiest song I’ve ever heard. I don’t know what it is about it. Even ‘Strangers in the Night’: Well, that’s a pretty tune. But ‘Stay Awake’ is even prettier.”
His exploration of songs spanning more than half a century of pop songwriting reinforced his feeling that “Songwriting has evolved a little bit. I think it reached its peak in the '60s. There were some [good songs] in the '70s also, but I think it all wound up in the '60s as the renaissance.”
Brian Wilson waxes rhapsodic on Gershwin
Brian Wilson on Gershwin's music
He can't suppress a 'Smile'
-- Randy Lewis
Photo: Brian Wilson samples the Disney catalog on his new album. Credit: Mark Boster / Los Angeles Times.