Come back from the beach early. Forsake the fireworks. Or at least make sure your VCR is primed.
Wouldn’t it be nice not to miss tomorrow night’s joyful celebration of the music of former Beach Boys leader Brian Wilson?
A small constellation of fellow pop artists converge on Radio City Music Hall for “An All-Star Tribute to Brian Wilson,” which premieres at 8 p.m. on TNT as a two-hour entry in the network’s Masters Series saluting influential music makers.
The lineup includes fellow ‘60s music icons Paul Simon and David Crosby; ‘70s and ‘80s hit makers Elton John, Carly Simon, Billy Joel and a reunited Go-Go’s; and more recent stars Vince Gill, Ricky Martin, Aimee Mann and Michael Penn.
Mr. Wilson, 59, is the gifted but long-tormented composer, arranger, singer and record producer behind the Beach Boys’ infectious recordings of the 1960s. Happily, his personal life has been bathed in sunshine again in recent years.
Among past documentaries and “docudramas,” this touching and overdue tribute keeps Mr. Wilson’s groundbreaking music front and center. Through 21 live performances supplemented by dramatic video and snatches of recordings, the program surveys evocative lesser-known works as well as such beloved hits as “California Girls” and “Good Vibrations.”
Actor Chazz Palminteri, a wiseguy on film who calls Brooklyn home, makes a disarming choice as host. He playfully articulates how such sweet and sad melodies, draped in rich harmonies, could penetrate even the world’s toughest street corners.
“In my neighborhood, it wasn’t cool to admit you liked the Beach Boys,” Mr. Palminteri says early on. But, he adds later: “The music Brian Wilson made changed my life, and probably yours too.”
That’s not all, of course.
As model-actress Rachel Hunter sums up in a review of the Beach Boys’ glory years: “Those catchy fantasies, those two-plus minutes of pure musical gold have become as much a part of America as fireworks on the Fourth of July.”
Mr. Simon pays stirring tribute, accompanied only by his acoustic guitar, with a jazz-inflected meditation on “Surfer Girl” that stands as the night’s gutsiest move.
Ricky Martin fires up the ladies in his blue leather pants, but his “California Girls” and “Help Me, Rhonda” have a phoned-in flavor, and he comes off as a calculated ratings lure. Far more fun are newcomer brothers Evan and Jaron, who romp through “I Get Around” in striped shirts and khakis that echo the Beach Boys’ early stage outfits.
Two showstoppers belong to Mr. Gill: The country star’s incandescent, effortless falsetto is heartbreaking on a mournful “Warmth of the Sun” and soars again on a dreamlike “Surf’s Up” when he is joined by Mr. Crosby and singer-songwriter Jimmy Webb.
Elton John renders a soulful “God Only Knows” as well as a stirring duet with Mr. Wilson on “Wouldn’t It Be Nice,” another number from 1966’s landmark “Pet Sounds” album.
In one riveting scene, Mr. Wilson listens intently as Mr. John pays homage.
Other great moments: a high-voltage “Good Vibrations” by Heart’s Ann and Nancy Wilson (no relation) plus mighty baritone Jubilant Sykes; a rocking “Sail on Sailor” pairing pop-rocker Matthew Sweet with Hootie and the Blowfish frontman Darius Rucker; Miss Simon rediscovering “In My Room” with Mr. Crosby and Mr. Webb; and Billy Joel’s doo-wop workout on “Don’t Worry, Baby.” Guilty pleasure: Wilson Phillips bouncing through “You’re So Good to Me” as daughters Carnie and Wendy Wilson reunite with Chynna Phillips, daughter of the Mamas and Papas’ Michelle and John Phillips.
Other onstage narrators include filmmaker Cameron Crowe, actor Dennis Hopper and the celebrated producer of the Beatles’ records, Sir George Martin.
“It was the day it became possible for rock to be art,” Mr. Crowe says of the release of “Pet Sounds” in 1966, “and it changed the face of popular music forever.”
“No one made a bigger impact on the Beatles than Brian Wilson,” Mr. Martin says. “I believe that without his inspiration, [1967’s] ‘Sgt. Pepper’ would have been considerably less of the phenomenon that it became.”
Mr. Wilson’s 10-member touring band provides potent vocal and musical backing that is recognized generously in the film editing along with shots of the ecstatic standing-room-only crowd singing and clapping along.
Wilson friend and biographer David Leaf, a 1973 graduate of George Washington University, scripted the tribute and produced it with partner Chip Rachlin. Mr. Leaf long has sought a vehicle for focusing a wider audience’s attention on Mr. Wilson, and his familiarity with his subject suffuses the program, especially in the well-crafted video segments.
When Mr. Wilson’s turn to shine comes, he snaps his fingers and waves his arms with abandon while delivering a bravura performance of “Heroes and Villains” as if it were still 1967.
And it’s a kick to see him sling on a bass guitar for the ensemble’s rambunctious, beach-party medley of “Barbara Ann,” “Surfin’ USA” and “Fun, Fun, Fun” — a finale that puts a broad smile on his careworn face.
No wonder that daughter Carnie — who earlier calls out, “We love you, Daddy” — cries happy tears.* * * *
What: “An All-Star Tribute to Brian Wilson
When: Tomorrow night at 8