"Smile was going to be a monument. That's the way we talked about it, as a monument." David Anderle as quoted in Barney Hoskyns-Waiting For the Sun, p. 130
"The songs (Brian Wilson) and Van Dyke Parks wrote through those months into early 1967 comprise some of the most intoxicatingly beautiful, dementedly ambitious pop music ever committed
to tape. This was Pet Sounds on 20 tabs of acid with the unabashedly literary lyrics about the Old West, or even stranger ones about balding women; it was Brian Wilson's Fantasia" Barney Hoskyns-Waiting For the Sun, p. 130
"I never liked the stuff (classical music). honestly, I just couldn't listen to it. But I can listen to it now. It seems to mean a little more to me. Maybe it can give other people the same thing. When I heard the music it made pictures in my head. Then the boys (animators) listened and they had ideas. I had a lot of ideas, but they voted some of them down. Anyway, here are the pictures...." Walt Disney s quoted in the New York World Telegram in Walt Disney's Fantasia by John Culhane p. 29
There is a tendency to reach into the unknown that drives us as men and women into new ways of creating something beyond our immediate grasp and drives us to break beyond the everyday in an attempt to make something that lives beyond us. In the fine arts, we see artists create something so out of character that it not only shocks their audience, but surprises the artist as well. In the world of music, we need look only as far as Miles Davis or Neil Young for examples of such a person. There is also the drive to be taken seriously as an artist, which in music may send the songwriter toward the world of Classical Music in an effort to somehow seek validation as a serious composer.
It took almost 35 years for Walt Disney to be recognized as an Academy Award winning film creator. While his studio received numerous technical Oscars, Mr. Disney's first Oscar for Best Full Length Motion Picture was for Mary Poppins in 1964, some 28 years after Snow White. It was not unlike the experience Brian Wilson had in receiving a Grammy. His first Grammy in 2005 for Best Rock Instrumental ironically was for Mrs. O'Leary's Cow (The Elements-Fire), a tune he had almost discarded along with the rest of Smile. In this case, the span of time was 37 years from composition to Grammy. That Brian's work on Surfs Up was featured on Inside Pop in 1966 on CBS, and was regarded as a serious work of music by David Oppenheim and Leonard Bernstein led to critical acclaim for Brian that had previously eluded him. The momentum that was Pet Sounds and Good Vibrations was lost when Smile went down in flames. In no less than 24 to 36 months afterward, Brian Wilson was regarded as a casualty of his own ambition, with Rolling Stone Magazine saying that his attempt to compete with The Beatles was doomed from the start.
1940 Theater Poster advertising Fantasia
Fantasia was initially envisioned by the Disney Studio as an ongoing series of animated features to be created periodically as new ideas for animated segments of different composers' works emerged. As an art form, animation was relatively young compared to other visual arts. The genre of animation was initially thought of as a way of entertaining motion picture audiences prior to a full length motion picture being screened. Mr. Disney's Steamboat Willie, featuring Mickey Mouse, was the first cartoon with sound, and immediately established Disney Studios as pioneers in the animation genre, with innovation becoming a Disney hallmark.
Brian Wilson was smitten with everything Disney. It is well known that Brian's favorite Disney film is Pinocchio, which was developed concomitantly with Fantasia. Brian's love of going to Disneyland is also well known, as it seems to be a place where he could experience the carefree happiness he felt so sparingly as a child. The Magic Kingdom of Disneyland was the jumping off place for Smile. Even a cursory look at Smile can reveal the same imaginary yet powerful images that a place such as Disneyland could elicit as uniquely American images. The history of the Old West was present throughout Disneyland, in places like Adventure Land, Main Street, and especially Frontier Land. That these Disney images were a key inspiration for Smile is unquestionable. Television reinforced the image of the Old West with programs such as Davy Crockett, Maverick, and The Rifleman. Movies like How the West Was Won were another influence.
The "Cartoony" Smile Cover-1966 by Frank Holmes
A 2011 interview by Paul Zollo in American Songwriter Magazine hints at Brian's view of various musical keys having colors attached to them. This does not necessarily mean that Brian has synesthesia, like Laura Nyro did, but Brian's ability to show moods and colors in his music, which is highly pictorial, is fairly unique among musician's in the Rock Era. As writer Barney Hoskyns
indicates in the quote cited above, Smile brought a unique marriage of highly visual music to highly descriptive lyrics created by Van Dyke Parks.
The Fantasia project was created as a number of animated short films unified by their history of being based upon the compositions of famous Classical composers such as Mussorgsky, Stravinsky, Dukas, Beethoven, Bach, Tchaikovsky, Ponchielli, and Schubert. The recording process by The Philadephia Symphony under the guidance of Leopold Stowkowski was a milestone in sound, as it was the first motion picture soundtrack recorded in stereophonic sound, termed "Fantasound" by the Disney Studios. The assembly of these short animated films into one whole motion picture is quite similar to the use of recorded modules by Brian Wilson in cutting the Smile album. That Disney Studios and Brian used the concept of modular pieces being assembled into an artistic whole is somewhat coincidental, but is also stunning. To conceive of Smile without its modular construction is to ignore one of the most dynamic features of Smile's creation. Fantasia, as a series of unified animated short films making a more satisfying whole motion picture, gives Disney Studios the credit such an artistic risk deserves that was unthinkable prior to its release. Fantasia and Smile, as modular works making a larger whole, introduce new innovations in film and music production that were novel to them as artistic projects.
The basis of the two works in mythology is also undeniable. Fantasia's remarkable short films base their content upon some of the themes in past cultural themes such as Greek Mythology, sorcery, ancient dieties representing good and evil, and stories in sound based upon ancient folk stories and melodies. In particular, the Nutcracker short film is based in ancient folk tales and songs. The last segment of the 1940 Fantasia, a pairing of works by Mussorgsky and Schubert, are particularly related to Smile. as a studious listen will reveal. Mussorgsky's Night On Bald Mountain is a composition that literally exudes the feeling of destruction that evil or random actions bring. Readers are referred to youtube to see the entire animated segment accompanying the piece. Walt Disney himself is quoted in John Culhane's book on Fantasia 1940 as seeing the segment representing the war between good and evil. As an evil Slavic god named Chernobog hears the sounds of church bells ring, he retreats back into the mountain from which he emerged, overcome by the beautiful sounds of Schubert's Ave Maria, represented visually by a line of worshippers carrying candles to a cathedral. Smile's ending, as finished by Brian Wilson in 2004, has the element representing Fire, Mrs. O'Leary's Cow, followed by a Water tune, In Blue Hawaii, describing the cleansing action of water, not unlike the holy water of some churches. The theme of cleansing and prayer is continued by a reprise of Our Prayer, returning the listener back to the secular at its conclusion with Good Vibrations.
Another element that Smile and Fantasia have in common is the presence of humor interspersing other themes in the music. That Disney became known for happy, upbeat full length animated features is to ignore the deep pathos of Disney villains from Snow White's stepmother through Peter Pan's Captain Hook and on into such nasties as Ursula from The Little Mermaid. The fight between what is good and what is evil is an essential element of Disney's animation. Also present is a theme of finding the most deeply human emotions, including humor. In Fantasia, the various short films that are included have humor woven into their stories, excluding Night On Bald Mountain/Ave Maria and Stravinsky's Rite of Spring. Mickey's appearance in The Sorcerer's Apprentice is a mixture of humor and chastening. The various characters in Dance of the Hours such as the hippos, alligators, and so forth are all based in humor. The humor in Smile is in the music itself, helped by Van Dyke Parks' lyrics, full of double and triple meanings, present in songs like Vegetables, On a Holiday, I'm In Great Shape, and Heroes and Villains....puns abound. The humor in Fantasia is visual, whereas in Smile it is aural. Clearly the power of Smile and Fantasia to evoke a powerful range of emotions is remarkable.
Another theme present in both Smile and Fantasia is the theme of life and hope being able to overcome death and despair. The presence of the worshipers at the end of Fantasia parallels the solemnity of Our Prayer followed by the hope of Good Vibrations. This characteristic in Walt Disney's films and Brian Wilson's music is what has helped so many people worldwide find hope and good in the face of powerful despair and death throughout life's experience. Both mens' desires to bring hope and goodness to their followers in the face of obvious forces of death and destruction has made their work treasured by several generations of humanity. The ability to laugh when facing adversity in life is a trait most of us admire whenever we see it.
When we examine the dynamics behind Smile and Fantasia, we find that both men created these works in a time of difficult tumult in the world. Smile was to come out as the USA was in the throes of a deeply unpopular war, protest on campuses throughout the country, racial discrimination being confronted with laws and riots, and violence claiming some of the most revered figures of the period. That its message was needed was not in question. Fantasia lost money upon its first release, and was so outside the norm of Disney movies as to be misunderstood by many of the critics of the time. World War 2 sealed its initial retreat from presentation. Many of Walt Disney's friends of the time say he was deeply saddened by the reception it received. That Mr. Disney was a creative force in film akin to Brian Wilson in recording is important to grasp. Mr. Disney was a person who his staff hated to disappoint. Mr. Disney kept Fantasia out of circulation for 16 years until 1956, when the world finally seemed ready for understanding its depth and beauty. Brian Wilson's shelving of Smile was first countered by the Zen like intricacy of Smiley Smile, which had all of the humor of Smile without the dramatic production characteristics that the initial Smile tracks had. Mr. Disney's love of experimentation was somewhat curtailed after the initial reception that Fantasia had. Never again in his lifetime did Mr. Disney release an animated feature like Fantasia, although it was his intention to keep adding and subtracting pieces when Fantasia was being developed. Two segments were finished, Saludos Amigos and Peter and the Wolf. It was not until the early 1990s that Mr. Disney's brother Roy proposed a new Fantasia, which ultimately became Fantasia 2000.
Poster Artwork for Fantasia 2000
Perhaps as Disney Studios were able to recover the spirit of Fantasia and put together Fantasia 2000, Brian Wilson was able to look at his work on Smile and see it having potential in a new context, a piece written for live performance. Thus was born Brian Wilson Presents Smile, a much anticipated world premiere in London which this author was able to attend. The band Brian had were entirely capable of performing all of the complex Smile tunes, both new and old. As Fantasia had vindicated itself the world over, becoming one of Disney Studio's most high grossing pictures historically, Smile became a best selling album and concert piece at a time when the record industry was dying. Critically, both Mr. Disney and Brian Wilson's creative visions had become vindicated full circle, artistically, critically, and financially. Experimentation and visionary work of both men triumphed in the end.
Mark London's 2004 Artwork for Brian Wilson Presents Smile
As Roy Disney once said about Fantasia can also be true of Smile..."It's a giant human collage, a musical mosaic." Music and animation have the power to heal the wounds humans experience. The world will always need men with the creative vision of Walt Disney and Brian Wilson.
Text copyright 2014 by Peter Reum-All Rights Reserved
This author is indebted to John Culhane's two excellent works covering Fantasia 1940 and Fantasia 2000. The reader is referred to both works for exceptionally clear presentations of the conceptual, musical, and animation development of both Disney Studio Motion Pictures.