In the 1960s, the Beatles exploded on to the public scene, seemingly out of nowhere as the band's formative years of constant performing at home and in Hamburg, and Brian Epstein's grooming, finally paid off beyond their wildest dreams. Accompanying new interviews of the remaining Beatles, their associates and fans as well as archival interviews of the late ones, this film features footage of the heady concert years of 1963 to 66 when the band became a worldwide cultural phenomena topping them all. Furthermore, it also follows how the Fab Four began to change and grow while the excitement of Beatlemania began to sour their lives into an intolerable slog they needed to escape from to become more than what their fans wanted.Written by
Kenneth Chisholm (firstname.lastname@example.org)
A very good thumbnail sketch of The Beatles, from The Quarrymen to Sgt. Pepper 90%
Even though I regard The Beatles as the greatest musical act of all time, I haven't really delved into the minutiae of their history. So, as someone who has watched the odd documentary about them and listened to stories about them on the radio, I have to say that Ron Howard's documentary here was very good in that it covers much of the band's history and covers some of the landmark incidents that the band is famous (or infamous) for.
That being said, the revelations in this documentary are rather anodyne, compared with the startling revelations of the ABC TV (Australia) documentary "When The Beatles drove us wild", especially with regards to what band members got up to sexually during their tour of Australia in 1964, when the promoter lucked onto signing them for a bargain-basement price (just before they became a worldwide phenomenon). There are no stories of their sexual exploits in Howard's film and you wonder how the band could have survived if their debauchery in Australia (and elsewhere, no doubt), had been covered by the media. The ABC documentary suggested – from memory – that there was a kind of "understanding" between the band and the media in Australia not to cover those kinds of sexual activities.
What you do get in Howard's documentary is lots of photos and film of the band, including their time in previous bands, like The Quarrymen (which featured John Lennon, later joined by Paul McCartney and later still, George Harrison). There are also photos and film of The Beatles' early days in Hamburg and The Cavern. All the band members feature in current interviews or old interviews with those members who have died before the making of this documentary. The significant figures involved with the band are also featured (briefly) in interviews, people like their manager Brian Epstein and record producer George Martin ("The fifth Beatle").
Throughout the film, there are quite a few songs by the band which get played. Most of the time you don't hear the entire song, but it's long enough to be enjoyable. You also get to hear demo versions of songs or rehearsals or out-takes from recording sessions.
If you're obsessive about The Beatles, there might not be too much that is novel for you in this film but for the uninitiated there are lots of topics which get raised which the studious types can further research at their leisure. Personally speaking, some of the topics raised here I was already familiar with but may have forgotten about, meaning that I enjoyed being reminded about it. For instance, I was vaguely aware of some incident involving Imelda Marcos, the First Lady of the Philippines when The Beatles toured there. Other topics were new to me, like the protests arising from the band being booked to play at the Budokan stadium in Japan. Sometimes what I thought I knew was challenged. For instance, I thought that The Beatles' concert at Shea Stadium marked the end of their touring career because the crowd noise was so excessive that the band never wanted to have to deal with that again (the bonus feature at the end has reasonable sound quality for that concert). In the documentary, however, it's mentioned that their concert at Candlestick Park in the US was their last ever proper concert.
The landmark controversies do feature in this documentary, including the band's infamous "butcher cover" artwork for their single release "Yesterday and today" as well as John Lennon's notorious "bigger than Jesus" utterance which seemed capable of derailing their success...well, at least in their biggest market, the US.
An interesting aspect to this documentary is the focus on the many firsts that the band achieved, including being the first band to play stadiums (Shea Stadium), John Lennon accidentally inventing the use of backward played tape on albums, The Beatles being the first act to have the top 5 selling songs in the US singles chart and most noteworthy of all (and a surprise to me) was that The Beatles collectively overturned America's apartheid policy in the South to have non-segregated seating for their concerts there.
Lastly (as far as the documentary proper goes), it was interesting to hear that the band weren't always confident that they would be successful...they had their doubts, and John would go through a motivational chant to lift their spirits. Also, maybe it seems obvious, but I wasn't aware how autobiographical (and literal) Lennon's song "Help!" was. No other songs are discussed in this manner. I do have vague memories of a story on FM radio about their song "If I fell" (from memory) being autobiographical too...a song secretly intended to communicate with Lennon's lover, as he contemplated leaving his wife, I believe.
The only "complaint" I have of this documentary is that it would have been good to have revisited some clips from previous documentaries. E.g. there was one which featured Lennon talking to a fan, I believe, who was convinced that The Beatles had written a song about him...Lennon had to explain to him, like Jesus to a child, that that couldn't possibly be true (if I recall). One Australian documentary I saw had footage of one of their Australian concerts (Festival Hall, Melbourne?), where I heard an undiscovered gem of a song "It won't be long". Nothing like that in Howard's documentary. I do remember one "Parkinson" interview, I think, with Paul McCartney where he asked Paul about their songwriting influences. Paul mentioned their education, which was interesting...until Parkinson unfortunately changed the subject.
It was great to be reminded of the wit of the band in their press conferences...some funny comments from them.
A soccer crowd at Anfield spontaneously singing a Beatles song during a game.
Footage of Ringo really hammering the drums enthusiastically.
The band were mostly stoned when shooting their film "Help!".
Their record deal was lousy.
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