July 4, 7 p.m., on the TNT cable channel.
Brian Wilson’s renowned songwriting abilities have ensconced his name among the giants of popular American music. Wilson addressed a generation drunk on the celebration of life but lost in a land of alienation and self-doubt. Appropriately, the former Beach Boy penned stunningly melodic twists on standard three-chord rock ‘n’ roll while revealing through achingly beautiful ballads an unparalleled grasp of loneliness and fear.
On July 4, TNT premieres An All-Star Tribute to Brian Wilson, a concert taped at Radio City Music Hall. Featured in the telecast is an ensemble of performers and actors saluting Wilson through interpretations of his songs and anecdotes about the power of his music on their respective lives.
The tribute opens with the Harlem Boys Choir singing in celestial harmony on “Our Prayer” from the 1968 Beach Boys album 20/20. The show immediately descends into embarrassingly sacrilegious performances of “California Girls” and “Help Me Rhonda” by Ricky Martin, whose shameless mugging and inane gestures make one pine for Mike Love’s endless summer of onstage charades. Paul Simon’s version of “Surfer Girl” is predictably boring. Simon has an uncanny knack for rerouting gorgeous melodies down his own improvisational jazz-influenced alleys.
The Go-Go’s finally coax the sun back onto the stage with a bare-bones, loud guitar rave-up of “Surf City” as singer Belinda Carlisle’s shimmering hips and guitarist Jane Wiedlin’s green hair inject a blast of rock ‘n’ roll that easily obscures the quartet’s penchant for singing flat. David Crosby, songwriting legend Jimmy Webb (“Wichita Lineman,” “By the Time I Get to Phoenix), and an impossibly sexy Carly Simon offer a haunting rendition of “In My Room.”
The big surprise of the evening is Vince Gill, introduced by David Crosby as the “purest and best voice in all of popular music.” Gill’s version of “Warmth of the Sun,” written by Wilson and Mike Love hours after the assassination of JFK, is nothing less than angelic. Billy Joel relates an endearing generation gap story about his teenage daughter Alexa’s discovery of “Don’t Worry Baby.” Dedicating the song to her, his over-blown vocal vibrato proceeds to pummel the delicacy out of Brian Wilson’s Phil Spector-influenced masterpiece. One wonders why Joel didn’t simply let Alexa sing it.
Old film clips of Beach Boys performances and recording studio clowning are disrupted by “candid” studio banter from tapes supposedly representing Wilson’s voice during recording sessions. But the voice is a little too much like David Crosby’s to be believable. Testimonials from Dennis Hopper, Cameron Crowe, and host Chazz Palminteri frequently sound like cue card lines read at the Academy Awards, though famed Beatles producer George Martin offers fascinating insight into the rivalry and mutual influence shared by the Beach Boys and The Beatles.
An emotionless, stoic Brian Wilson finally emerges toward the show’s end to sit at his piano and sing “Heroes and Villains,” offering a dedication loaded with twisted brotherly affection and macabre Beach Boy reality: “I’d like to dedicate this show to my brothers Dennis and Carl, who both died.”
Wilson, who never once smiles, encores on “Wouldn’t It Be Nice” with Elton John, adding hilarious irony to the pair’s history of troubled lives as they sing together, “We could be married. And then we’ll be happy.” As the song concludes, the stage fills up with the entire cast of performers, with everyone joining Wilson, now standing and playing bass though still looking befuddled, for rowdy versions of “Barbara Ann,” “Surfin’ USA,” and “Fun, Fun, Fun.”
As the stage clears, Wilson momentarily discards his robot-like persona and quips, “Now that we’ve broken your eardrums with all that noise, we’ll send you home with a nice little love message.” Backed by the impeccable California band, The Wondermints (whose amazing vocal harmonies and precision playing flawlessly recreated a Beach Boys ambience that made up for some performers’ shortcomings), an orchestra, and the Harlem Boys Choir, Wilson closes the show with an amazing version of “Love and Mercy” from his first solo record, Brian Wilson.