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Smile, You've Got Brian Wilson on Camera

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Filmmaker John Anderson remembers when he got the seal of approval from Brian Wilson. In March 1998 he'd been called to Wilson's home in Saint Charles, Illinois, so that the eccentric former Beach Boy could decide if he was the right man to shoot a video and concert film for the forthcoming Imagination, Wilson's first album of new material in a decade. After an hour of shop talk the two adjourned to dinner, where Wilson's family and business associates joined them. Wilson waited for everyone else to take a seat, then grabbed a chair next to Anderson.

"He sat with his left ear next to me, which is the side where he still has his hearing," says Anderson. "When I got up to go to the bathroom, one of his guys told me, 'That means he likes you, because he's actually interested in what you have to say.'" Since then Anderson, a self-described 60s-rock geek, has worked on four major DVD projects for Wilson. The latest, a new concert film of Wilson's resurrected masterpiece, Smile, debuted at number four on Billboard's music-video chart.

Now 51, Anderson came to Chicago in 1972 to attend Northwestern and started working in television and film shortly after graduating. He's been a cameraman, an editor, and a director for several local production companies, and among his many jobs he's filmed news features for Bill Kurtis and edited the Bears' "Super Bowl Shuffle" video. In 1995, with partners Maggie Magee and Michael O'Brien, he launched a video and film production studio called Superior Street (no relation to the band-rehearsal complex of the same name) that now has 18 full-time employees. In 2004 Anderson filmed a concert DVD for Jim Peterik & the Ides of March called A Vehicle Through Time, which cast real-life figures like disc jockey Dick Biondi and manager Bob Destocki in an onstage retelling of the band's history, and he recently finished an early cut of a documentary on 60s pop oddball Tiny Tim.

Anderson's career in music has been nearly as long as his career in film, though hardly as serious: since 1978 he's fronted the Cleaning Ladys, a satirical pop band he started with fellow Northwestern grads Scott Brewer on bass and Art Collins on guitar. "We still meet every Wednesday," says Anderson, "and we've written 1,041 songs. And it's been the same three guys with just two different drummers. Our shortest-serving member has been 14 years."

Best known for novelty numbers like "When the Cubs Win the World Series" and "She Don't French Kiss," the Cleaning Ladys also composed the theme for Jonathon Brandmeier's short-lived early-90s TV series and frequently appeared as guests on his WLUP radio show. Throughout the 80s their tunes turned up on Dr. Demento's playlists. From 1993 to 1998 they hosted their own local radio program, a two-hour rock 'n' roll talk show called Needle Drop that aired twice a week, first on WCBR in Arlington Heights and then on WVVX in Highland Park. "We built up a great listenership, and it got us interviews with established artists--everyone from Ray Davies to Rick Nielsen," says Anderson. Currently the band is in the middle of an intermittent tour of Chicagoland Borders bookstores, promoting a 24-song career retrospective titled Split Personality.

In early 1998 Anderson heard about the Wilson project from two business acquaintances, engineer Frank Pappalardo and producer Joe Thomas, who were already working with Wilson on Imagination. After securing an invitation from Wilson's management, Anderson drove to Saint Charles with Superior Street partner Maggie Magee, who would go on to produce all the Wilson DVDs. "I walked in and he's by himself in his home studio," he says. "We talked music and he asked me my opinion on the mix of the album. Then I played him some Cleaning Ladys, and he did what I call his Yogi Bear dance, which is always a good sign."

Anderson ended up making a video for the song "Your Imagination" and filming Wilson's coming-out concert in Saint Charles, arranged by his manager, Irving Azoff, who wanted to unveil the reclusive genius in front of an audience of journalists and music-industry types from around the world. Wilson, who'd remarried in 1995, was in the middle of a long recovery from the psychological problems that had plagued him since the late 60s. "It was the first time Brian had performed in a long time," says Anderson. The movie of the show was packaged along with Anderson's video and released on DVD in 2000.

In 1999 and 2000, Anderson hit the road with Wilson for a total of seven weeks, filming his first proper tours in more than 30 years. The resulting DVD, released in 2003 as Brian Wilson on Tour (Sanctuary), documents Wilson's personal and professional rehabilitation, combining concert material with footage shot backstage, during rehearsals, and elsewhere: Anderson followed Wilson walking the streets of Japan, hanging out with Neil Young at Young's Bridge School benefit concert, and meeting up with old friends and collaborators like engineer Chuck Britz and Ronettes singer Ronnie Spector.

In January and June of 2002, Anderson shot and directed a DVD, released the following year, of Wilson and his band performing the Beach Boys album Pet Sounds at London's Royal Festival Hall. In late 2003 Anderson learned that Wilson had returned to the material from Smile--the Beach Boys' reputed magnum opus, left unfinished in the late 60s--and planned to perform it onstage. Music historian David Leaf was shooting a documentary about the history of the album for Showtime, and Wilson and his group were working on an all-new recording of Smile, which Nonesuch would release in the fall of 2004. By this time Anderson had become a trusted collaborator, and in May of last year Wilson asked him to film a live performance of the entire piece.

"With [Smile] I storyboarded every measure," Anderson says. "It was so dense and so complex the only way I could be sure I covered everything was to break it down that way. I got the album and put on headphones for about a week and wrote down everything and kinda mapped the cameras so they wouldn't get in each other's way."

The ten-camera shoot, on a Burbank soundstage in September with an invited audience of 500, was Anderson's first experience filming a concert in high-definition video, and the visuals are luminous, capturing Wilson and his 18-piece band in an inspired performance. The DVD was released late last month on Rhino as part of a double-disc set with Leaf's film, Beautiful Dreamer: Brian Wilson and the Story of Smile.

For Anderson, the best thing about the project has been watching Wilson reclaim his musical legacy. "He'd always thought of Smile as this bad thing in his past. It was his failure; it was incomplete. And it really has been like lifting the proverbial monkey off his back. Everyone around him sees the lightness of step, the lightness of being, the happiness he has in taking this negative thing and making something so overwhelmingly positive," he says. "And, you know, he likes good reviews and copies to be sold as much as any of us. So that's also been wonderful."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Robert Drea.

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