The Beach Boys Story on BBC 6 Music: Surfing the airwaves

While there are those who will tell you that <em>Pet Sounds</em> is one of the most influential records of all time, the Beach Boys could be proper tedious.

The Beach Boys Story
BBC 6 Music

A six-hour series on the Beach Boys incorporating broadcast material both old and new (8-13 June, 4am) was so detailed, it sounded like an amorous and occasionally neurotic letter of persuasion to doubters, even giving us a precis of what surfing is. “A watersport where the participant stands on a floating piece of wood shaped like an ironing board.” Got it.

Then, of course, the archive monologues by wives of the band (“Well, one day Brian spilled hot chocolate on me”) and their husbands (“So we bumped into each other at a hamburger stand and someone said Mike can sing pretty good and then there’s Dennis, too – Dennis was always up for anything – and later we went round to Carl’s and he said . . .”)

While there are those who will tell you that Pet Sounds is one of the most influential records of all time, and there can be no denying that, around the age of 33, the sandybearded Dennis Wilson was the kind of sexy you feel in your bones – I’m talking actually feeling someone’s charisma neuralgically – still the Beach Boys could be proper tedious. Their song about root beer goes: “Root beer, oh root beer./ Root beer, oh root beer./ Root beer is my best buy./Cold beer, root beer, here a mug, there a mug, everybody chug-a-lug . . .” It’s only an early number, but Christ. And Mike Love sued Brian in the 1990s for leaving his name off the writing credits!

There’s a great story about BW going to see the bosses at Capital Records after they objected to any songs from the band that were not about root beer or surfing, and he showed up with a tape player with eight prerecorded, looped responses including “No comment” and “Can you repeat that?”. Refusing to utter a word, he played the various tapes when appropriate.

You can hear precisely that kind of pernickitiness coming through in “God Only Knows”, roundly accepted as one of the most romantic songs committed to vinyl. “If you should ever leave me/though life would still go on, believe me/the world could show nothing to me . . .” Hold on. Is it just me or does that not sound like mealy-mouthed nitpicking, or weirdly inappro priate small print, given the moment and the presence of an at-the-time groundbreaking number of 23 backing musicians? Life would still go on, believe me. And so defensive to boot! Give me “Here, There and Everywhere” any day.

The Beach Boys' Al Jardine and Brian Johnston performing in 1966. Photograph: Getty Images

Antonia Quirke is an author and journalist. She is a presenter on The Film Programme and Pick of the Week (Radio 4) and Film 2015 and The One Show (BBC 1). She writes a column on radio for the New Statesman.

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Women on the edge: new films Jackie and Christine are character studies of haunted women

With their claustrophobic close-ups and desolate wide shots, both films are stunning portraits of life on the brink.

Jacqueline Kennedy and Christine Chubbuck may not have had much in common in real life – the former briefly the US first lady, the latter a put-upon television news reporter in the early 1970s in Sarasota, Florida – but two new films named after them are cut resolutely from the same cloth. Jackie and Christine are character studies of haunted women in which the claustrophobic close-up and the desolate wide shot are the predominant forms of address.

Both films hinge on fatal gunshots to the head and both seek to express cinematically a state of mind that is internal: grief and loss in Jackie, which is set mainly in the hours and days after the assassination of President John F Kennedy; depression and paranoia in Christine. In this area, they rely heavily not only on hypnotically controlled performances from their lead actors but on music that describes the psychological contours of distress.

Even before we see anything in Jackie, we hear plunging chords like a string section falling down a lift shaft. This is the unmistakable work of the abrasive art rocker Mica Levi. Her score in Jackie closes in on the ears just as the tight compositions by the cinematographer Stéphane Fontaine exclude the majority of the outside world. The Chilean director Pablo Larraín knows a thing or two about sustaining intensity, as viewers of his earlier work, including his Pinochet-era trilogy (Tony Manero, Post Mortem and No), will attest. Though this is his first English-language film, there is no hint of any softening. The picture will frustrate anyone hoping for a panoramic historical drama, with Larraín and the screenwriter Noah Oppenheim irising intently in on Jackie, played with brittle calm by Natalie Portman, and finding the nation’s woes reflected in her face.

Bit-players come and go as the film jumbles up the past and present, the personal and political. A journalist (Billy Crudup), nameless but based on Theodore White, arrives to interview the widow. Her social secretary, Nancy Tuckerman (Greta Gerwig), urges her on with cheerleading smiles during the shooting of a stiff promotional film intended to present her warmly to the public. Her brother-in-law Bobby (Peter Sarsgaard) hovers anxiously nearby as she negotiates the chasm between private grief and public composure. For all the bustle around her, the film insists on Jackie’s aloneness and Portman gives a performance in which there is as much tantalisingly concealed as fearlessly exposed.

A different sort of unravelling occurs in Christine. Antonio Campos’s film begins by showing Christine Chubbuck (Rebecca Hall) seated next to a large box marked “fragile” as she interviews on camera an empty chair in which she imagines Richard Nixon to be sitting. She asks of the invisible president: “Is it paranoia if everyone is indeed coming after you?” It’s a good question and one that she doesn’t have the self-awareness to ask herself. Pressured by her editor to chase juicy stories, she goes to sleep each night with a police scanner blaring in her ears. She pleads with a local cop for stories about the darker side of Sarasota, scarcely comprehending that the real darkness lies primarily within her.

For all the shots of TV monitors displaying multiple images of Christine in this beige 1970s hell, the film doesn’t blame the sensationalist nature of the media for her fractured state. Nor does it attribute her downfall entirely to the era’s sexism. Yet both of those things exacerbated problems that Chubbuck already had. She is rigid and off-putting, all severe straight lines, from her haircut and eyebrows to the crossed arms and tight, unsmiling lips that make it difficult for anyone to get close to her. That the film does break through is down to Hall, who illuminates the pain that Christine can’t express, and to the score by Danny Bensi and Saunder Jurriaans. It’s perky enough on the surface but there are cellos sawing away sadly underneath. If you listen hard enough, they’re crying: “Help.” 

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era