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Pet Sounds

Tuning in NBC's Sassy Little Richard and ABC's Rocky Beach Boys

By Adele Marley | Posted 2/16/2000

Little Richard and The Beach Boys: An American Family

There's a scene during night two of the ABC miniseries The Beach Boys: An American Family that pretty much sums up why the '60s surf-rock legends merit treatment in a spiffy sweeps-month extravaganza. Neurotic whiz kid Brian Wilson (Fred Weller) is beginning production on the Beach Boys' landmark 1966 concept LP Pet Sounds. Despotic family patriarch Murry Wilson (Kevin Dunn), plastered, barges in on his estranged son and instigates a knock-down, drag-out fight with him. Sure, there's supposed to be some disturbing father-son melodrama going on, but the argument merely provides a backdrop for what's really worth noting—the lilting strains of "Wouldn't It Be Nice" performed repeatedly, awaiting the addition of vocal tracks, as a seriously stressed Brian orders retake after retake. Listening to the piece stripped of the Beach Boys' pitch-perfect harmonizing is a revelation: What's become a taken-for-granted staple of oldies radio suddenly seems like a stunning, complex masterwork.

This kind of focus on music and the creative process is an anomaly in rock 'n' roll biopics. Generally, art takes a back seat to sundry other exploitable elements: the ups and downs of a musician's career; the artist's personal life; scandals, rumors, and secrets. It's a formula perfected by VH1's series Behind the Music, which has strip-mined rock's mythology while zeroing in on musicians' lives as a viewer magnet for the deep-pocketed baby-boomer demographic. It's only logical that other networks would want to duplicate this kind of success in their event programming—hence ABC's and NBC's takes on the Beach Boys and Little Richard, respectively. To their credit, both projects pay attention to their subjects' musical accomplishments, albeit too briefly to significantly alter the formula.

Little Richard comes to us in movie-of-the-week form, and his is the sassiest of the rock 'n' roll sagas airing during the February sweeps. Sure, there's some drama—the flashy singer (born Richard Penniman in Macon, Ga.) has a hard time with his macho dad (Carl Lumbley), who continually berates him for being a "sissy." Later, Little Richard (played by León—just León, thank you) and his dad reconcile; not long after that, Dad gets shot while trying to eject a patron from the bar he owns. And then there's Little Richard's quest for spiritual fulfillment—he quits the music biz in 1957, at the peak of his fame, to pursue Bible study. (He claims to see Sputnik flashing across the sky and interprets it as a sign from God.)

Before he quits, however, he enjoys great crossover success on the charts in a stringently segregated America, which the film partially attributes to his ambiguous (read: attention-getting but queenily nonthreatening) sexuality. Musically, the film proffers that Little Richard developed a distinct, hard-to-duplicate vocal style in order to prevent cream-cheese squares like Pat Boone from covering his tunes—which they did anyway—and siphoning off his white listeners.

Little Richard's narrative covers only the period between the singer's childhood and his comeback tour of the United Kingdom in 1962, where his musical stylings helped provide an impetus for the British Invasion. (Throughout the film he's repeatedly referred to as "the architect of rock 'n' roll"—not a surprising sobriquet, given that the real, never modest Little Richard is one of the film's executive producers.) The somewhat pedestrian script by Bill Kerby and Daniel Taplitz is punched up considerably by Robert Townsend's snappy, stylish-for-TV direction. But cheeky charmer León's witty interpretation of the flamboyant legend (the actor collaborated with Townsend previously on the NBC miniseries The Temptations) is what really lights Little Richard on fire.

The Beach Boys: An American Family starts off pretty slow—interchangeable altar-boy look-alikes are regularly thumped by abusive dad, who micromanages their career while they record a string of surf-craze hits in the early '60s. Part two really picks up speed, recapping events that unfurled from the mid-60s to the mid-70s: Brian Wilson fires dad, has a nervous breakdown, starts tripping on LSD regularly, isolates himself, cuts other group members out of the creative process, obsesses about trumping the Beatles, lays in bed, gains a zillion pounds. Meanwhile, promiscuous Dennis Wilson (Nick Stabile, of MTV's Undressed) picks up two leechy, brain-dead hippies on the roadside. They turn out to be members of the Manson family. The Tate/LaBianca murders haven't taken place yet, but Dennis clues in to some bad vibes and is too frightened of the group to kick them out.

Wilson cousin and band frontman Mike Love (Matt Letscher, a dead ringer), takes up transcendental meditation and fights with Brian on a regular basis. Nice guy Carl Wilson (Ryan Northcott, who resembles the real Brian Wilson more than the guy who's playing him) tries to act as a peacemaker. Al Jardine (Ned Vaughn) doesn't do anything—apparently, he's the Beach Boys' Zeppo.

An American Family winds up being a fun, dishy ride. (How could any movie featuring both Brian Wilson and Charles Manson not be?) But it seems like the actors, virtually all of them unknowns, imitate rather than inhabit their characters. (The exception is Weller, who morphs into Brian remarkably, playing him as a fried-out bundle of nervous tics.) This is where the performers could have used a little intuition to bring viewers an understanding of what lies beneath the surface—after all, if you want to plug into reconstituted hype about who an artist is supposed to be, you can just turn to VH1.

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