'Brian Wilson: Long Promised Road' Director Talks Wanting to Show the Beach Boys Singer in a New Light

Brent Wilson's new documentary Brian Wilson: Long Promised Road sees the legendary Beach Boys singer opening up about the highs of his career and lows of his personal life

brian wilson, brent wilson
Brent Wilson; Brian Wilson. Photo: Santiago Felipe/Getty Images; Andrew Toth/Getty Images

When Brent Wilson first set out to make a documentary about the Beach Boys' Brian Wilson four years ago, he knew the iconic singer purely as a myth.

"There are numerous documentaries. There's a feature film. There's three television movies. There's numerous books and essays on Brian. There's a saying that when it comes between the truth and the legend, print the legend, and Brian has become legend," Brent told PEOPLE over a Zoom call earlier this month. "So with my film, I wanted to show people Brian, the man, not Brian Wilson, the myth."

Brent (who, despite sharing a last name, is not related to Brian) does just that in Brian Wilson: Long Promised Road (out now in select theaters and on streaming platforms). In it, Brian, 79, can be seen driving around Southern California with his longtime friend, Rolling Stone editor Jason Fine.

As they visit locations integral in shaping Brian's life, the musician — long known as a man of few words — reminisces about his storied life and career.

"I tried to interview Brian first, and it didn't go very well," said Brent. "So then Jean Sievers, Brian's manager, suggested I talk to Jason. I had read an article that Jason had written called 'Brian Wilson's Better Days,' where he and Brian went to see The Wrecking Crew and went to dinner and a drive around Malibu. As I was reading that article, I thought, 'Well, that's the movie I want to see.'"

"Jean put us in touch with Jason, and Jason made the mistake of saying, 'I'll do whatever I can to help,'" he continued with a laugh. "I pitched that idea, and we rigged up this car with these cameras, so that Brian wouldn't have to be around a camera operator. We had it rigged with a microphone, so he wouldn't have to wear a microphone. So they spent seven, eight days driving around."

Over the course of his drives with Fine, Brian touched on the many highs of his career and the lows of his personal life, including his struggles with depression and schizoaffective disorder, his drug and alcohol addiction and his complicated relationship with controversial psychologist Eugene Landy, who helped him off drugs but controlled much of his life in the '80s.

"Jason and I decided pretty early on that we wouldn't go any place Brian didn't want to go," said Brent. "If he didn't want to talk about something, we just weren't going to talk about it. We had this Hippocratic Oath that we took, which was do no harm. That was really important to us. So all of those moments that are in the film that are, I think, painful for Brian, are moments that Brian wanted to talk about, and I think wanted to share."

What Brent said he ultimately took away from those moments was that Brian "doesn't have the capacity to say anything bad about anyone."

"When you see the film, you see that Eugene Landy was such a traumatic person in his life," he said. "Yet, in the film, Brian can't bring himself to say anything bad about him. He just doesn't have it in his heart. In the film he even gives Landy credit for helping him lose weight and getting off of cocaine and quitting cigarettes and getting him in shape."

"He was so embarrassed that he was 311 lbs., and it was Eugene Landy who took him to Kona, Hawaii, and got him in shape," he continued. "So not only will he not say anything negative about Landy or anyone, he gives credit to them. As abusive as his father was, he talks about how he instilled in him this sense of competition and this work ethic. So even in those negative spaces, I think you see the light in Brian."

Here Brent and Brian chat with PEOPLE further about their experience making the film.

Was there a place you visited with Jason that brought back the most memories?

Brian: Paradise Cove [in Malibu].

Brent: Paradise Cove was pretty amazing. Brian had never seen the plaque there, and we stayed and had lunch. We had a killer hamburger. So that was fun.

What was the biggest challenge of putting this all together?

Brent: We ended up with about 70 hours of film of Brian and Jason in the car. So I think it was just trying to find that through-line that would allow it to become a cohesive story. We spent nine months editing and trying to shape those 70 hours into a film that would be honest and true to everything that Brian and Jason were doing. Because there were a lot of moments where they wouldn't talk. That's the great thing about friends is you can ride in a car, and you don't have to say anything. You can just listen to music. We wanted to honor those moments and had the film reflect their friendship. And Hector Lopez, our editor, and I, we talked about Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid as an influence. As strange as that may sound, this is a movie about friends.

Brian: About two friends.

Brian, having known Jason for 20 years, did that make it easier to open up to him about your life?

Brian: Yes.

Brent: What is it you like about him?

Brian: His personality.

With 70 hours of footage, I'm sure there were a lot of great moments that didn't make the cut.

Brent: Oh absolutely. So many great moments. But you've got to make choices. One of my favorites was when we took Brian back to Hawthorne High School, where Brian had very famously gotten an F in music class in his senior year. We reached out to the school and said, "Hey, we'd like to take Brian back to his old high school." The principal said, "That's fantastic. But Brian received an F here ... I have the power to change that grade."

They do Brian Wilson tours there at Hawthorne High School, and people always ask to see the F and that thing. She was like, "It's just wrong that Brian got an F." There's a certain thing that they can do where if you apply a certain amount of work towards your class, they can use that work to change your grade. She said, "Well, Brian Wilson has definitely applied his work."

Brent, is there anything that you were surprised to learn about Brian through filming?

Brent: For me? How funny he is.

Brian: Oh, thanks.

Brent: He's a really funny guy. I remember at one point you discovered that I could hear you in the car. You didn't know all that at first. At some point he heard me on the radio and he goes, "Brent, you can hear?" And I go, "Yeah, yeah. Brian, I can hear everything you guys are saying. I'm in the van behind him." Hearing you talk about your pectorales...

Brian: Right, pectorales.

Brent: He wanted to have good pecs or something one day. So he was just joking around, just hanging with the guys. We tried to keep those moments in if they could lead us to a story, but there's a lot of that. There's a lot of Brian talking about sushi, which is pretty funny.

There was a scene that I couldn't have made it play from an editorial standpoint, but it was so funny. It was a Saturday afternoon. We were shooting in Malibu, and Brian, he wanted to go to Nobu to lunch. So I called our production coordinator, and I said, "Brian wants to have lunch at Nobu. Can you get us a table for Brian and Jason?" And she said, "Yep, I'm on it." She calls back five minutes later, and she said, "It's a Saturday afternoon, four o'clock. There is no way — even for Brian Wilson."

I was like, "Well, we've got to get him in, so call our producer, Theresa Page." Theresa then calls Tim Headington, our other producer, who knows a very prominent person in Dallas who knew Nobu, the chef. This very prominent person I believe called Nobu himself, and Nobu called the restaurant and said, "Please make a table for Mr. Wilson." 10 minutes later, I get a phone call and they said, "You're all set. There's a table for you and Jason at Nobu." So I go on the microphone on the radio, and I say, "Hey, Brian, we're all set at Nobu. We're going to head there now." And he goes, "Eh. Never mind. Let's just go home and have a pizza and watch the baseball game." The Dodgers were on.

It was hilarious, and that was just how it was with Brian. You just went along for the ride. So yeah, a lot of funny moments like that. Again, he likes hanging with the guys. There was another funny moment that didn't make the film where him and Jason were driving along, and they were talking about television. Like, "Hey, what are you watching these days?" And Brian goes, "I'm watching General Hospital." And Jason goes, "Really? You're watching a soap opera, General Hospital? Are you into the story?" And he goes, "Nah, there's just a lot of hot chicks on there."

So there was almost this, I don't know, grandfatherly quality to him. It's just something your grandfather would say.

Brent, you and Brian are close friends now. Did you ever imagine that would be the case?

Brent: It's one of those things that if somebody had told me that this was going to happen, I never would've believed him. Because it's just sweet. We've become really good friends and really close, and every time I leave him, I tell him I love him. It's been an unbelievable blessing to become Brian's friend, and we're making plans for dinner tomorrow night. So it's one of those things where if the film doesn't get seen by anybody, and if it falls completely on its face, at least I've gotten a beautiful friendship out of this with Brian Wilson, which is pretty amazing.

Knowing all Brian's been through, what's it like seeing him in a better place now?

Brent: Oh, it's amazing. One of the great things that came out of the last year and a half with COVID-19, is Brian worked with a vocal coach for the first time, I think, in his life. Now he sounds better than he's ever sounded.

Brian had two back surgeries in the time I've known him. He had one back surgery while we were making the film, and then he had another back surgery right after we finished the film. So for the last couple of years, he was in really bad shape. He had a walker and a wheelchair and those kinds of things. But he has been doing his rehab, and man, now he flies on that walker. He scares the hell out of me. I'm like, "Slow down!" Because for the last two years when I've seen him, he's been really hunched over and his back has hurt and he's moved really slow.

He'll be 80 in June, and, relatively speaking, he's in a good place. He's healthy, and the rehab has gone really well. It's great to see him stand up straight from that back surgery and to hear his voice. I saw a show in Long Beach, California, when they had a short tour there when it looked like things were going to slow down a little bit with COVID. It was the best I'd heard him sound. He sounded better then than he did when we started the film.

There was a beautiful moment when he sang "God Only Knows," and he tried to hit a note. He hadn't sang "God Only Knows" in years, and he quit about halfway through the note. He just stopped, which is very much Brian. But he tried to hit that note, and the whole audience just applauded. I get chills just thinking about it. They all cheered Brian trying to hit that note, even though he came up short. He tried, and ... that was something he wouldn't have done four or five years ago. He's a pretty remarkable guy.

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What was it like to have artists like Elton John and Bruce Springsteen take part in the film and talk about Brian's impact?

Brent: That was fantastic. Brian has so many fans from the business and so many different generations of fans and different genres of fans, so I wanted to tap into that. I knew that Brian had influenced so many different artists. So the idea was to find people who were unique, like Bruce, Elton John from the U.K., Jakob Dylan who grew up here in Southern California, Gustavo Dudamel from South America, and Nick Jonas, who started as a young teenager in a band with his two brothers and who in his 20s tried to create his own sound. We thought, if we put all these people together, what in the world could they have in common? The only answer was Brian Wilson. So we were very fortunate.

I hear Elton John couldn't get over the fact that you two aren't related.

Brent: Everybody thinks we're related! It was great too, because Elton thought I had Brian's hair. He was like, "You've even got Brian's hair." I'm happy to have Brian Wilson hair.

Brent, have you always been a Beach Boys fan?

Brent: Absolutely. I saw my first Brian Wilson and Beach Boys concert when I was nine years old. It was the Keepin' the Summer Alive tour. I have been a fan ever since. I've dreamed of being a filmmaker since I was 13, and I've been a Beach Boys fan since I was 9, so for me, this project is a dream come true. To have this film be even a tiny thread in Brian Wilson's story, is a miracle.

Brian, have you watched the documentary in its entirety now that it's completed?

Brian: I watched it. Yes, I did. I watched it.

Brent: What'd you think?

Brian: I loved it.

Brent: That's good to know. I haven't asked yet. I didn't know that you loved it, because you know what they say, never ask questions you don't want to know the answer to. So I didn't know. Well, that's good to hear.

Brian, what's the biggest thing you learned from watching your life story back?

Brian: Music.

Brent: Hearing the music?

Brian: Yeah.

Brent: Yeah. That's lovely. That's a great answer. That's lovely.

Brian, by sharing your story, do you hope that people feel less alone in their struggles?

Brian: Yes. Yes.

Brent: Your story, it's inspiring to people. You inspire people. The one thing I hope people come away with is that it's a story about courage. I hope when people see the film, they'll see just how brave this guy really is and what a courageous dude he is.

Brian Wilson: Long Promised Road is out now. The soundtrack for the film will be released Nov. 26.

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