The Beach Boys' Disney+ Doc Is a Puff Piece That Skips the Interesting Bits

Directed by Frank Marshall and Thom Zimny

Starring Mike Love, Brian Wilson, Al Jardine, Bruce Johnston, David Marks, Marilyn Wilson-Rutherford, Janelle Monáe, Lindsey Buckingham

Photo: Michael Ochs Archives / Getty Images

BY Alex HudsonPublished May 24, 2024


The Beach Boys were one of the definitive pop groups of the '60s, but while their surviving peers are stadium superstars, the Beach Boys have spent recent decades devaluing their brand to the point that they're now a novelty act performing at casinos and summer fairs.

It's a tragic story that resists being turned into a puff piece documentary: there's an abusive father, a mentally ill songwriting genius, a brush with Charles Manson, a tragic drowning at the age of 39, and in-fighting amidst a dwindling lineup of core members. They made one of the greatest albums of all time, 1966's Pet Sounds, but never came even close to matching it, eventually turning the group into the bargain basement casino band they are today.

The band's eponymous Disney+ documentary is caught between grim reality and directors Frank Marshall and Thom Zimny's half-hearted attempts to put a positive spin on the story. The bulk of the near-two-hour runtime is devoted to a surface-level overview of their early years: how this group of family members and neighbours met, and how they become the kings of surf pop even though the members didn't actually surf.

Things go awry in the final half of The Beach Boys: Brian Wilson's post-Pet Sounds mental breakdown is only superficially addressed, with his bandmates seemingly less concerned with his health than that are with how his departure impacted their own roles within the group. Bizarrely, Brian's infamous connection with his therapist Eugene Landy is ignored.

"When Brian stopped producing, it opened the door to more of a democratic process in the studio," Mike Love says optimistically, portraying Carl Wilson as a worthy successor to Brian's studio genius. Never mind the fact that their output without Brian at the helm was inconsistent to say the very least.

In newly filmed interviews, the band members make unconvincing attempts to suggest that their own talents mach Brian's. "The musicality of every Beach Boy is essential," Bruce Johnston insists, his shoulder practically buckling under the weight of the enormous chip on it. "Brian was lucky to have our voices to sing his dreams."

While the group's decline in the late '60s and early '70s is explored, it's mostly in service of showing how they were saved by the success of the 1974 compilation Endless Summer, with an on-screen newspaper headline reading "Beach Boys Have Never Been Better" — as if that were remotely true. This was the same period when Brian was living in reclusion, heavily using drugs and unable to write music, making this sunny spin frankly insulting to the band's key member.

The lawsuits between band members receive a passing mention in the final few moments, and their ill-fated 50th reunion (when Mike Love briefly reunited the surviving members before stripping the group for parts and returning to the casino circuit) is left on the cutting room floor. Strangest of all, the deaths of Dennis and Carl are completely omitted, and are reduced to an "in memory of" footnote in the final moments.

The film ends with a clumsy, contrived reunion on the beach, where the surviving members sit and chat. This is more sad than heart-warming, thanks to the film's conspicuous attempts to edit around Brian's dementia (who appears and speaks only briefly). Perhaps Brian and his family weren't ready to open up about the musician's diagnosis at the time this was filmed, which is fair enough, but it's yet another reason while this attempt to depict a happy ending falls flat.

The Beach Boys have many fascinating stories to tell, which understandably wouldn't fit into a film that's less than two hours long. But the omissions are simply too conspicuous for The Beach Boys to pass as anything more than pandering flattery of its subjects.


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