The Beach Boys and Director Frank Marshall on the Band’s Disney+ Doc: ‘We May Not Have Been Great Surfers, but We Sang About It Really Well’

The Beach Boys
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If Memorial Day weekend is the unofficial start of summer on most Americans’ calendars, then it makes sense that the real tentpole kicking off tent season for a lot of people is not “Furiosa” or “Garfield” but “The Beach Boys,” a streaming documentary devoted to the least wintery group of all time.

The Disney+ film, co-directed by music-doc stalwarts Frank Marshall and Thom Zimny, focuses on the first decade and a half, in the 1960s and ’70s, of the career of the rock band that still might rightfully be considered America’s greatest all-time group. It starts with their unusual, pre-Beatles melding of complex Four Freshmen harmonies with surf music and themes; continues on through the ground-breaking work of the “Pet Sounds” era that led to a friendly rivalry with the Beatles; covers the complicated years when musical architect Brian Wilson physically and psychologically retreated, leaving the group to seek out new identities during the counterculture years; and finally, their comeback in the mid-’70s when the “Endless Summer” best-of created a fresh wave of Boys-band mania.

Should it be at least an hour longer, and probably a lot more than that? Undoubtedly, if you’re a fan. But in an era of everything in the culture feeling like an extended deluxe edition, there will also be much gratitude for the skill with which Marshall and Zimny hit the key points in a doc that, true to the SoCal-based subject at hand, can honestly and admiringly be characterized as “breezy.” It’s a very efficient safari. (In his review, Variety film critic Owen Gleiberman writes: “I wondered how, exactly, the movie was going to pack the Beach Boys’ vast career into an hour and 53 minutes. But in its unabashedly conventional and fan-friendly way, it brings this off with a tasteful clarity and showmanship. In moment after moment, it gets the Beach Boys.”)

Variety had a conversation with original members Mike Love and Al Jardine (pictured above, left and right), along with Marshall (ccenter), just prior to the premiere. They talked about the documentary, plus a hefty new book, “The Beach Boys by the Beach Boys,” that covers the same ground in greater (600-page) detail. Meanwhile, Love’s touring edition of the Beach Boys (which includes one other near-original member, Bruce Johnston) will be back on home turf later this summer; the group plays the Greek on Aug. 30.

What the instigation of this project? Because there have been, in the far distant past, a Beach Boys mini-series and some documentaries, but we’re talking like the ‘80s or 2000 for the last time we saw anything significant. Was there a desire to say, we need to have a really definitive documentary, and a timely one?

Marshall: No, I think it was kind of my fault, that Thom Zimny and I were sitting around after we did Johnny Cash [“The Gift: The Journey of Johnny Cash,” which they also co-directed, released in 2019] and talking about what musical doc would we like to do together next. He started talking about the Beach Boys, and I said, “Well, I grew up in Newport, yeah, I love them.” And then as life does, things change; he did something else, I did something else. [When not directing music docs like “The Bee Gees: How Can You Mend a Broken Heart,” Marshall is a producer of major Hollywood and Broadway projects.] But we still kept at it.

But the problem was that the Beach Boys were not one unit. If you went to get the rights or approvals on everything, it would’ve taken forever. But then Irving Azoff and Iconic Artists brought them all together — one-stop shopping — and then I said, “I know Irving. I’m going in.” And that’s how it happened.

Love: We owe a lot of gratitude to Irving and to Frank for picking up the gauntlet.

Marshall: And now there’s a book, and everything’s coming together to celebrate this music that’s had such an impact on the world for so many years.

Love: Genesis, they make some beautiful books, and they did one for us [“The Beach Boys by the Beach Boys”] and it’s amazing.

It’s literally the heaviest book I own.

Love: The big one is, like, literally 11 pounds. I weighed it with my little weighing thing because, you know, if you go on Southwest Airlines, you can only have 50 pounds.

Jardine: Only Mike would know. He wants to read about himself.

Looking at the book, there are thousands of pictures, which would lead somone to believe the archives are really well-kept. Was that the same case with film clips for the doc, or were there any hurdles to overcome?

Marshall: No, it’s always a challenge because, first of all, there have been so many articles, books, movies, and I always try to find stuff that’s never been seen before. But once I got to know everybodyand say, “Have you got any home movies under (the bed)?” And sure enough, there’d be a shoebox with 8mm film, and that’s how we got Dennis. Both Carl and Dennis’s families were great in helping us represent their dad and their husband in the right way. So it was like a little treasure hunt where there’s gold bullions every once in a while.

Love:  I think it’s wonderful that everybody was represented. Glen Campbell was in the group for a while. David Marks was in the group for a while, right at the beginning. Blondie (Chaplin)and Ricky (Fataar)from South Africa were in our group for a while. So it’s really been nice to see that everybody’s talents and contributions were recognized.

It’s easy to forget, until this film reminds you, that Glen Campbell was briefly in the group, before he had to take off and got replaced by Bruce Johnston.

Jardine: Glen had a burgeoning career about ready to happen, so he had to leave the band early. I think he only did one summer with us while Brian was out of action. And then I think you (Love) found Bruce…

Love: We called 12 people to find somebody who could play bass. Bruce could sing high, but he didn’t play bass and we needed the bass player, so he said, “Oh, I play bass.” And he went and learned it, you know…

Jardine: …on the way to the airport…

Love: Kind of!

Mike Love and Al Jardine of the Beach Boys (left and right) and director-producer Frank Marshall (center)

Is there anything that you dug up archivally that was a little bit surprising, or just that you hadn’t seen in a long time, that you’re kind of delighted is in the documentary?

Love: Well, I hadn’t seen certain people’s home movies. Why would I have, you know? The Wilson stuff, yes, the Love stuff, yes. But the Jardines, the Marks, the other people involved…

Jardine: How about the photo of Bruce and Keith Moon? Those are the ones I went, “I can’t believe that.” And you know, nobody knows that story, really.

Love: Derek Taylor, the Beatles’ publicist who came to America and became our publicist, actually set up Bruce with about 15 interviews in England and introduced him to Keith Moon, who introduced Bruce to Paul McCartney and John Lennon. They were in Bruce’s suite, and Bruce was able to play them the “Pet Sounds” album before it even came out in Great Britain, and they played it through twice. So those guys became our promotion men.

The Beatles/Beach Boys “rivarly” circa 1966 has been talked about so much over the years, but someone in the film makes the statement that it wasn’t a rivalry so much as a collaboration, in a way.

Jardine: It was a mutual adoration, I think. And they inspired each other, because I don’t think we’d have “Sgt. Pepper’s” without “Pet Sounds,” and I don’t think we’d have “Pet Sounds” without “Rubber Soul.”

Frank, you said that growing up in Newport helped your love of the Beach Boys develop in the early ‘60s. Can you talk about what your first point of connection was?

Marshall: Well, my dad was a guitarist [noted jazz guitarist and TV/film composer Jack Marshall], and we played guitar a lot at home with him. But I also grew up as a surfer, so we did “The Surfer Stomp” at the Rendezvous Ballroom [on the Balboa beach in Orange County]. But all the music was instrumental; it was the Ventures or Dick Dale. Then suddenly there were lyrics and harmonies, and I was keenly interested because my dad was so sophisticated with his music, and also at Capitol Records [the label that both the Bach Boys and Jack Marshall were signed to]. And I thought, “Wow, they’re writing about this lifestyle and this culture” — which was very small at the time; surfing was very small — “but they put words to it.” And that just exploded out, because people started thinking: That’s what I want to do. It created a lifestyle that people envied and wanted to be a part of, and it was music that made people feel good and want to come to sunny Southern California.

Of course it’s part of the Beach Boys’ legend that Dennis Wilson was the only real surfer in the group. In those first years, Mike and Al, did either of you guys think, gosh, may, maybe we need to try a little harder to do this, just so we fit in and actually live the lifestyle we’re singing about?

Love: Well, a couple of the guys never surfed at all. A few of us tried to do it. But it’s harder than Chinese arithmetic. I mean, it really is. So I really appreciate the fact that those guys would get up and before class go surfing and then go to school and then after school they’d surf until it got dark. That was a way of life. [He quotes the lyrics to “Surfin’,” from 1962.] “Surfing is the only life, the only way for me now, now surf, surf [claps hands] with me.”

Jardine: I used to take Dennis to the beach to go surfing. I had an old ‘49 or ’50 Ford, and he needed wheels. So we went down to El Porto in Manhattan Beach, and he taught me how not to surf. I hit the sand straight, the very first wave, right down to the bottom. That was probably my last experience. He was a natural athlete. He knew how to do it. And he wrote the story on surfing.

Love: Well, we may not have been great surfers, but we sang about it really well.

To ask about the interviews that were done for the film: Beyond the Beach Boys themselves, past and present, there’s just a very small list of people who you got for this. It’s a very tight film, so it’s for the best that you didn’t go out and interview 50 talking heads for it. You’ve got Marilyn, Brian’s first wife, who may be better to represent his feelings from back in the day that he could at this point…

Marshall: Yeah, she did. Good job, too.

How did that selection process go, picking interview subjects?

Marshall: One of the things that I love about documentaries is the freedom. You know, in my day job [producing dramatic feature films], I get a script and I know exactly where I am all the time. But it’s a team effort. I have archivists and I put it out there: OK, who’s talked about being influenced and inspired by the Beach Boys’ music? And then I’d have to narrow ’em down depending on where they were (growing up) — you know, Don Was was in Detroit, and Janelle Monae was in Kansas City, and Ryan Tedeer was in Oklahoma, and he wanted to go someplace where it was warm. So they had different areas of influence, but they recognized the power and how brilliant the music was. So Thom and I split it up. Thom did a lot of the audio interviews, and then I came in with the camera and did the on-camera stuff.

With Brian, it was a useful workaround to have some good archival interviews as well as the little bit you have of him in the present day. Anyone who has interviewed him in recent years knows he is not loquacious, and the diagnosis that recently went public helps explain why he’s a man of fewer words.

Love: Yeah. But for the end of the film, he was great. We sang together. We talked together. He was 100% present with the long-term memory and everything. He’s just not physically as well as he could be, and he does need help and supervision, particularly health-wise, and it’s challengng. But he was remembering stuff from our childhood and teenage years that I had forgotten, actually, and so we could sing together. We sang “Their Hearts Were Full of Spring.” We sang “Fun, Fun, Fun.” Sang “Surfin’ Safari” together. All that was fantastic.

Marshall: And that was kind of my dream come true. I had always wished as we were going along: Maybe I can get ’em together. And what a perfect spot, where the first album (cover was shot). But it wasn’t an interview. So Brian was able to just be himself, with the guys he spent 60 years with, and it was like a family reunion, laughing, crying, singing, telling stories. It was incredible. There wasn’t the pressure of “Tell me about when you did this or that.” So that was part of what made it special.

Jardine: Exactly. He doesn’t forget lyrics. We go way back and we’ll do songs like the stuff we did out at Paradise Cove. He remembers everything, just like that. The current stuff, not so much. But he’s got musical integrity, let’s put it that way.

Marshall: But you’re right about the interview. It was difficult.

When did you film the bit at the end with everyone together on the beach?

Marshall: In September.

Jardine: Maybe we’ll hear some more about it in part two.

Is there a story you wanted to tell with this film, where in any way you feel like the Beach Boys’ story isn’t totally understood? Some of us are a part of friend groups where it might be a natural thing to talk about the Beach Boys in any given week, but not the whole world is like that.

Love: I think that everybody doesn’t know the Beach Boys’ story, because it hasn’t been told comprehensively enough, giving enough attribution to various individual members and experiences. At one time we had two jets on tour, the non-smoking jet and the smoking jet, going on tour. Alan and I, along with Bruce, were on the non-smoking, and the Wilson boys were on the smoking, and that may be a euphemism for certain lifestyle choices. So, I mean, there was division, there was a schism, and all that stuff. But when it came time to get on stage together or get around the microphone together, then all those things disappeared. And what manifested was that harmony and that blend and that sound that’s known around the world.

Marshall: And I think one of the keys was that Brian didn’t like touring and came back here (to L.A.) and was just able to create, with none of the pressures of touring, and then their touring energy would come back and sing these parts, and that’s something that no other group did.

Love: There’s a huge amount of information, from pre-group to early group to Brian leaving, and then the two groups, the recording group and the touring group, and then the different changes and…

Marshall: You know, they’ve adapted at every turn. But then, you know, losing Carl and Dennis, it was a different sound.

Love:  So when people ask me, how do you feel (watching it)? I felt nostalgic, and I felt sad that a couple of the guys aren’t with us.

Frank, you end the film essentially in the mid-‘70s, after the comeback with the “Endless Summer” greatest-hits album… followed by an epilogue in 1980 with the Washington, D.C. show. It ends before anyone dies, before “Kokomo,” before other controversies or reunions. Was there a reason structurally or for anything else that you put that particular time frame on the film? Of course it would’ve taken at least another hour to bring it anywhere near the present.

Marshall: Yeah. I wanted to celebrate “America’s band,” to be honest. And that was, in my opinion, one of their greatest performances, with 400,000 people in Washington, D.C. (at the National Mall). It was one of the best recorded performances we had, and they were all there, reunited, so I just felt, “That’s the way to go out.” It was kind of poetic, I thought.

From Variety US