Following the premiere of Brian Wilson’s biopic Love & Mercy, we look at the life of an enduring music icon through the eyes of John Anderson – a video producer and director who has worked with Wilson for nearly 20 years – humanising a larger than life and often misunderstood artist, while offering an insight as to why his music touches so many people.
The enduring popularity of the Beach Boys’ music makes it difficult to believe, and easy to forget, that some of their most successful songs were recorded in the early 1960s. At the core of the band’s timeless catalogue is Brian Wilson, whose legacy as a songwriter and musician is possibly rivaled only by the myths and misconceptions that have surrounded a career spanning more than half a century. His story is told in the new, critically acclaimed biopic Love & Mercy which closes with Wilson performing the title song.
That performance was shot by Emmy Award winner John Anderson, producer and director of the Brian Wilson SMiLE Live performance DVD, which earned Anderson a 2006 Grammy nomination. It marked his sixth project with Wilson, a working relationship that began with Imagination, followed by Brian Wilson On Tour, Pet Sounds Live In London, and Doin’ It Again, a 2012 film about the Beach Boys’ reunion.
Anderson, also a musician, is a lifelong Beach Boys fan who spent part of his childhood in California, where he developed his passion for music and film. He remembers the impact that Wilson and the Beach Boys had on him, as well as on youngsters and adolescents all over the world, including those who had never seen beaches and surfboards, or experienced the scenarios described in classics such as ‘Surfer Girl’, ‘I Get Around’, ‘Don’t Worry Baby’, ‘Fun, Fun, Fun’, ‘Help Me Rhonda’, and ‘California Girls’.
‘I was in California for about six years, right when the Beach Boys were happening,’ says Anderson. ‘They were our private band in California. It was tough to move to Philadelphia in sixth grade, let me tell you! I discovered their music through my sisters, who were quite a bit older than me, so they were bringing home Elvis records and playing the radio all the time. When I listened to the Beach Boys, when I listened to Brian’s lyrics, I felt like he was talking to me personally. We all did. I thought he was explaining my life and putting it into beautiful words and melodies. It hits a very deep spot in you. Not only are other people experiencing what I’m experiencing, but they’re able to express it in beautiful ways. Wouldn’t that be nice to do? So then you want to write songs. It takes over you, and I got completely swept up. The music of the mid- to late 1960s — there was no other period like that with so much originality. It gives you belief in humanity, and a sense that you fit in and maybe you can be part of the action.’
Anderson was well established in Chicago when he got the call to work with Brian Wilson. He graduated from Northwestern University and was playing in a band called the Cleaning Ladys — who are still together — when he landed his first editing job, working his way up to director. It was the mid-1980s and music videos were all the rage. Working for teleproduction companies, Anderson had access to equipment, made a video for his band, and suddenly his group found themselves internationally renowned, alongside heavyweights like Dire Straits and Don Henley. When a local producer came up with the idea to film the Chicago Bears football team performing a rap song ‘The Super Bowl Shuffle’ in 1985, he opted to finish the video at the postproduction house where Anderson was working.
‘He saw the videos I had done for my band and said, “Let’s do it there.” That led to me editing ‘The Superbowl Shuffle’ which opened a lot of doors. I worked with many bands in Chicago and had done lots of videos for them. In 1998, I got a call from my friend Joe Thomas, who was in town producing the Brian Wilson comeback album Imagination. [Thomas also produced Wilson’s latest and eleventh solo album No Pier Pressure.] Brian had moved here to make that record and it came time to make the videos. I had worked with Joe before, and he asked if I wanted to come out and meet Brian that afternoon. That was the beginning of a beautiful relationship.’
At that point, Wilson was “the biggest star” that Anderson had met. He laughs about putting on his best shirt and combing his hair in preparation for their first meeting, but admits, ‘I was worried, as anyone would be, about how he would accept me’. His concerns were quickly put to rest when he found that Wilson is “just a regular guy.”
Wilson was mixing a track from Imagination when Anderson arrived. ‘He was alone in the studio,’ he recalls. ‘On this hand he had the real strings that he had just recorded that afternoon, and on the other hand he had the synth strings. He said, “Which one should I use?” and he played one and then the other. Meanwhile, I couldn’t believe he was asking my opinion on something. It showed me that these aren’t just stars –they’re regular people with real feelings. It was heartening to see that he was a regular guy. And he liked my music. Joe Thomas had produced a record for the Cleaning Ladys and he suggested I bring it. As soon as Brian got my opinion on the synths or the real strings — of course he went with the real strings, not because I thought they sounded better, but because he thought they sounded better — he put on the tape with my band’s song on it, and to see that affect him … he started doing this dance where he stands in place and moves his hips and arms a little bit, and to see him doing that to a song I’m playing — it doesn’t get better than that.’
The Beach Boys signed with Capitol Records in 1962 when Wilson was only 20 years old. He wrote or co-wrote more than two dozen of their top 40 hits and was an integral part of the band’s multi-textured harmonies and phenomenal success, which resulted in nine consecutive gold albums, as documented on his website. In addition to being a singer, songwriter, and musician, Wilson is also a producer – all skills that reached a new height with the Beach Boys’ iconic 1966 album Pet Sounds which many consider one of the greatest albums of all time. It was during this time that Wilson began his journey down a long road of personal struggles. Love & Mercy covers two well-documented periods in Wilson’s life: the 1960s and the 1980s, depicting the early success, creativity, eventual psychiatric struggles, and ultimate recovery. Anderson describes it as “a complex film that makes you think” adding, ‘I’m really glad that people are going to get to see it.’
By March of 1998, when he met Wilson, ‘He was in a really good place,’ Anderson says. ‘He’d been married to Melinda for two or three years, and she had really gotten him the care and the attention that he needed. He was strong, he was away from whatever demons there might have been in LA, he was in a new working environment with a new producer in Joe Thomas and the whole Chicago surroundings, so it was kind of a period of rediscovery for Brian. He was into life and into making new music. He’d been away from the scene for a while and he was getting his legs back again in a way. Being with Melinda gave him confidence, being with Joe gave him confidence, so he was really ready to go. He was ready to work, and when somebody’s ready to work, that means they show up on time for the interviews, they take the background vocals when I need them to go back in and light them and shoot them so they look good, they put up with all the junk that someone like me gives you. He was strong enough to do that, and that inspired me. You’re with him in a way that you’re not with other people, but you know all of the troubles he’s had in his life and all the pain he’s felt. I don’t mean to oversimplify this, but when he’s feeling good, you feel good. But you tend to forget that you’re dealing with Brian Wilson because he is such a regular guy. He’s sharing your fries and he’s talking to you about some pretty girl that just walked down the street, and then it hits you that, “Hey, this is Brian Wilson, so you’d better get it together.” So absolutely I try to bring my A-game to Brian because he so deserves it.’
Anderson creates many of the stage visuals for Wilson’s concerts. He also produced the video content for the Beach Boys’ 2012 tour and directed, edited, and co-wrote the aforementioned Doin’ It Again – a PBS documentary about their long-awaited reunion. ‘Oh my god, what a show!’ he says. ‘Who knew what to expect in 2012? After all the stories, after all the bullshit headlines, all the junk that’s out there, number one, who would have ever expected that they would have gotten together, and number two, who would have expected that they could make beautiful music, and man, did they! It was tremendous. Everyone had their role, everyone’s still got their voice, everyone’s got their personalities. Al still sings like a bird. Brian — I don’t want to say that it’s an easier gig for him, but when you’ve only got to sing lead on every third or fourth song, it’s much easier to get into the vibe, play the piano, and feel the love that the world has for you.’
‘You know, Brian never felt that love as a Beach Boy. He went off the road. He wasn’t going out there, hearing the screams and so forth, and feeling the love. When he came back as a solo artist, here he was feeling this for the first time. It was incredibly inspiring. And now, here he is in a completely different configuration with many of the same songs that he played solo but also a whole different canon of stuff. For the first time, he was seeing all the love that people have for the Beach Boys. It can only make you stronger. It was a tour de force. I was really overcome with the whole thing. The music was still beautiful, they could still pull it off, and it was just a party. Who is America’s greatest band? You can easily make the argument that it’s the Beach Boys, and here they were, live in person, something you never thought you would see after all of the junk of the last 50 years, and they’re pulling it off musically.’
More than 50 years since their debut, the Beach Boys are cited as influences by musicians in all genres and loved by fans of all ages. Of course, Brian Wilson is still revered as one of music’s most innovative and prolific singers, songwriters, musicians, and producers — a true artist in every sense.
‘There’s a deep emotional connection there,’ says Anderson. ‘Something about the way he presents those 12 tones and those few simple lyrics shows you that it comes from someone who feels things very deeply. Nothing they put out ever sounded like anything anyone else had done, or anything else they had done, other than stylistically, other than you recognise the same voices. It represented the whole beauty of the human experience, from the ‘Fun, Fun, Fun’ party songs that everyone can relate to – and there’s genius in those lyrics, too, don’t kid yourself; Mike Love’s lyrics were a key part of Brian’s success back then — to songs like ‘In My Room’ and ‘God Only Knows’ that make you slow down and say, “Oh my gosh, this is a universal feeling; you can express deep joy and sorrow in a pop song.” What they’ve done is unique; it is truly different. I think that’s what continues to draws people to the Beach Boys and to Brian’s music.’
For more information, visit: www.brianwilson.com
John Anderson: The Grammy-nominated Emmy-winning longtime wilson collaborator
John Anderson was 10 years old when he had epiphany. ‘I saw A Hard Day’s Night at a theater in Mill Valley, California,’ he says. ‘I’ll never forget it. It was bigger than life. We lost our minds, all of us kids. We went up on the stage and tried to touch our favorite Beatle as they moved across the street. It was complete pandemonium. They had to shut the film down and wait for us to get back to our seats. Five minutes later, a hundred kids, at least, are up there touching the screen. And the girls — are you kidding? That’s when I realized, This is the ticket!’
Today, his Chicago-based Anderson Productions is a full-service production and post-production facility. He has won numerous awards, and his client list is a who’s who of musical talent, television programs, and entertainment companies.
He continues working with Brian Wilson, and in December 2014 assisted with shooting a Las Vegas concert for longtime Chicago television music program Soundstage. He also played a part in bringing last year’s Wilson/Jeff Beck co-headline tour to Chicago’s House of Blues for the annual benefit concert for San Miguel Schools.
Recent projects include Born In Chicago, a feature-length documentary about Chicago blues; Joey Molland: Badfinger, Beatles, & Beyond, a stage and screen presentation combining Molland’s live performances with documentary film clips; and Sam Lay in Bluesland, a documentary about the legendary Chicago blues drummer that premiered in April at the Chicago International Movies and Music Festival before a sold-out crowd (www.samlayinbluesland.com). Anderson is working on a documentary about Paul Butterfield for a 2016 release. A film about Joey Molland is slated for 2017.