Thursday, October 28, 2010

Rock on film Pt 2: The Beatles

Didn't want to even start this. Too much to say. Too little. In the end I couldn't avoid it so I thought I'd get it out of the way. I'll try to offer only opinions rather than give backstory. Also, not much on the films as films. More on the depiction of rock bands on film.


John and Stu share a joke
 I saw this new at the cinema. I was happy to sit through something tryhard and naff as long as it had ok music and made a fair stab at evoking the era. I didn't expect a well rounded drama, bursting with atmosphere and a seriousness that eclipsed its occasional false steps. What's good about this film is that it doesn't have to be about the Beatles.

By centring the story on the friendship between John Lennon and Stuart Sutcliffe the film starts out with a purpose beyond that of a plain biopic. Lennon's resistance to losing his best friend's attention to a woman is a poignant story knowable to just about everyone in the audience. There is an increased poignancy, given that they are the Beatles, in that it could be easily claimed of Lennon that he did the same towards the end of the group's initial life.

Also, the fact that these characters future is known by the audience and we really only see them in obscurity and five minutes past it adds a lot of weight to the tale. It still doesn't have to be about the Beatles, it's just richer that it is.

There are problems with this, though. There's a scene in the bar where the band are taking a break between the gruellingly long sets they were required to play in the Hamburg dives. Lennon is complaining about the hours and the exhaustion. He says something along these lines: "I'm talking about being on stage for four hours straight, I'm talking about dying for a piss..." and closes with, "I'm talking about a hard day's night." Now, I don't care if it was Ringo who came up with that or not. I do care that the audience already knows the phrase and probably also know it's being used here is way out of time and is being plonked in there for the sake of cuteness. It strikes me that it was probably just something that wasn't deleted from the screenplay after everyone had had a little old laugh about it at the first reading. Whatever, the line serves no purpose and pushes the viewer away for a moment. Why? Some Brecthian assault on the fourth wall? Nah. Someone just thought it was cute. The problem is that film not only doesn't need cuteness, it's considerably hampered by it. The scene ends with one of the regulars (probably a hooker) offers the lads some speed. Cut to close up of Lennon looking like he's about to explode while screaming Dizzy Miss Lizzy on stage. In another scene Paul complains to John that Stu can't play. John says: "we know you're a better bass player than Stu, we all know that." Scuse? There isn't a guitarist in any rock band in history that would campaign to give it up for bass. It shows an annoying gap in the understanding of the writer. That's not trainspotting, by the way. Ask any rock bass player what they started on and see what they say. (Exception: John Entwistle) Sigh. Imagine a parent videoing his toddler's first steps. Now imagine dad puts an elf hat on the kid.

Apart from such lapses (and there are a few), Backbeat delivers a strong story of fractured friendship, youthful loyalty (such as it is), the sheer energy of people who are determined to succeed (especially as a rock band, a cultural unit typically riddled by grossly unrepresentative self-fervour) and the inevitable stretches of discomfort and boredom that starting at the bottom can offer the keen. It's not "this is how the Beatles started" but "hey, even the Beatles started like this." That's what's really good about Backbeat, it gets the age right.

Ian Hart and Stephen Dorf are superb as Lennon and Sutcliffe respectively.


John and Brian share a joke
Not an attempt to explain or in any way prove the Beatles, this cinematised play rises above its frequent awkward moments to achieve something quite fine. The story is based on the holiday Brian Epstein shared with John Lennon in Spain in 1963. The characters could almost be anybody but it is important that the younger man be beholden to the elder and that the swelling celebrity offscreen has made the younger man brattish and demanding. If you will, it's about a client managing his manager. Epstein's frustrated love for Lennon is centre screen and Lennon's various toying with it is largely the plot.

There are major events suggested without full disclosure which serves the quiet power of the piece. Much of the dialogue is on the one hand too theatrical for the screen but on the other might well serve to illustrate a kind of formal common ground for the two players where they could speak without ambiguity or with candour.

The best sequence is not between these two but involves the reappearence of an air hostess from the opening scene. She shows up unexpectedly at their hotel and Lennon claims the suite to enjoy her while his manager sulks in the lobby, filling up on sangria. The dialogue between the stewardess and Lennon shows him one unit shy of command over any woman he meets and develops into an interesting compromise. This is the best acting in the film.

On the performances, David Angus as Epstein is frequently stilted and theatrical, apparently informed by film interviews with the original (what else would there have been?). Ian Hart as Lennon owns the film, though, as he would soon after in Backbeat.

At around an hour of screentime, this won't break your attention budget and holds rewards for the open minded viewer (fabs fan or not).


A big canvas movie in the same neighbourhood as American Graffiti, this comedy of chaos is set during the Beatles first momentous US tour and their performance on the Ed Sullivan show. It's not about the Beatles, though, it's about the fans and their attempts to get in to see the show. Ultimately it's a feelgood piece which ends in a lot of resolution you can predict as soon as you get the initial character keynotes. Still there are one or two moments that have the kind of tang that American moves were allowed in the 70s. See it if on tv.


The early Beatles share a joke
Of its time which means that it couches a cute scousey laddism in some late 70s grimness. The actor playing Lennon does pretty well but looks about 30 when he should be 21 or so. Brian Epstein is a little too insubstantial for someone who would have used his class status and commercial clout locally to rope the Beatles into his corrall. American filmmaking in the 70s is a mixed bag where depictions of homosexuality are concerned. It can be as frightened as it was in Papillion or as celebratory as Rocky Horror. Here it is expressed by personal timidity that "makes sense" in a later scene of gay bashing. From memory, that incident is handled pretty well without being cloying but its appearence as a major part of the narrative seems to have commanded a particular performance style from the actor playing Epstein at odds with what he needed to be in the light of history. Just sayin'...

The Beatles themselves wanted this film prevented (The Abortion of the Beatles?) and you might wonder why, on seeing it, but if you read the credits you might get a clue when you see that Pete Best was the chief consultant. Well he was there, wasn't he? Yes he was and famously he was rejected by them at the point of their lift off into the celestium. He wasn't invited. Ringo was. So we get Pete Best as the great misunderstood genius who brought them all together and drove them to stardom. I'm exaggerating here but you won't find another account that suggests that George Martin liked Best's drumming.

Some of the hijinks are Cliff and The Shadows ish but the 70s grey carpet underneath allows a little control to provide a serious attempt at telling the well worn story plausibly. Ends on the eve of the US tour with a brief portentous exchange between Lennon and Epstein.


Paul McGann (I in Withnail and I) plays Lennon. The non-John fabs are all money grubbing grumblers driving the sole godlike genius from the garden. Goes up to the murder of one of the title characters. Does what it says on the tin.



The Fabs in the 80s
By today's post Anthology standards this is slim pickings but, coming as it did pre-MTV and Rage, it offered a well-rounded history which included song clips not seen for decades (eg Strawberry Fields Forever), incompletely but they were there. Rendered invisible by Anthology.

School photo
On the Twentieth anniversary of Sgt Pepper, this celebratory outing included the surviving Beatles and George Martin along with a crew of ... anyone else they could find who had been alive and not comatose at the time. First hearing for me of the unmixed recordings. Also, eclipsed by Anthology (cds as well as documentary), this was a very welcome addition at the time.


One of the finest records of a band at the door of worldwide fame. From this point on, the Beatles were the most recognisable musicmakers on the planet. How many other bands' bass players can you name (it won't be none but it won't be many: few people would nominate Brian Wilson, for example)? Anyway, here they were, having legitimately broken and entered American culture. We follow them through interviews, photoshoots, being bored in hotel rooms, playing to huge venues and on tv and most memorably, being funny for the camera on an interstate train (watch it with Hard Day's Night). The publicity machine was of course old and grizzled by this stage but you get the distinct feeling here that it's about to change, that its objects were going to start taking more than their share.

This is joyous documentary making. It was made by the Maysles brothers, a team whose documentary career remains exemplary for its candour, depth and power. Whether its Grey Gardens about a pair of old New England aristocrats decaying as certainly as the old mansion they live in, or Salesman an account of the life of a door to door bible salesman which is as funny as it is depressing, a Maysles film will reward your attention long after you've spent it. There are always approaches and ideas that lift their films above the generic grind and in The Beatles 1st US Visit it's a doozy. They were not allowed to film in the studio during the momentous Ed Sullivan Show performance so they arranged to visit some friends with teenage daughters who would be watching it (ie teenage daughters). So instead of turning the cameras in the direction all the other ones were they showed that the reaction however muted by distance was still intense and portentous. The DVD release "corrects" this with inserted footage from the show so the effect is muted.  This also detracts from the stolen feel to the live concert footage later in the piece. As for the fabs themselves, the Maysles picked up pretty soon that they needed to do little more than point and shoot. Tellingly, during the spontaneous-feeling hijinks on the train, the lens lights on an unsmiling Paul who says to it: "I'm not even in a laughing mood." Probably the last time that was allowed to happen.

Having introduced the flavour of 1960s rock to the world, the Maysles showed its demise with Gimme Shelter (which deserves its own entry), a post Woodstock journey into the hell on the other side of hippiedom.

Utterly recommended even to non fans (see also, Let it Be)



Playwright Alun Owen followed them around for weeks, wrote the kind of things he heard into a plot more or less about the real band going for fast paced comedy. The fabs take the train to London and appear on a tv show. Plot generator is provided by the character of Paul's grandfather who mucks up continually. It's fun. John Lennon at one point is handed a small bottle of Coke. During the dialogue between the others he quietly puts the nozzle to each nostril and sniffs it deeply. It's one of a host of jokes for the adept that pepper this movie and keep it from being a Cliff and the Shadows show of sexless mania. Seeing the Maysles Bros. film of the 1st US Visit, particularly the train sequences, I can't believe Owen and Lester didn't also see it before this went into production. Watch one then the other, either order. The tight similarity is testament to the quality of both films, as far as I can see.

Final point that I haven't seen anyone else make: I recall all the other Beatle films apart from Let it Be as a series of clips joined by dialogue. I remember A Hard Day's Night as a film and THEN recall that it has songs in it.


The story with this one is that from the top of Mount Fame the Beatles couldn't be bothered but were still contractually bound. This meant that Dick Lester had no co operation of the level he'd enjoyed on the previous one that had allowed it such energy and fun. The end result has a kind of accelerating hollowness as though it's being eaten from within. That's before you get to the cringey Brit Character actors in blackface doing Goon show Indian stereotypes. This is countered a little (a very little) by the local villans who are just as bumbling. Victor Spinetti, in one of the few genuninely funny bits, keeps cursing his ever failing equipment for being British.

I first saw this film when I was about thirteen and loved it. I also loved Benny Hill and Dick Emery. The side of me that revered Monty Python might well have been sleeping that day as, if awake, it would have slapped me around the head until I left the cinema. When I saw it much later on tv I cringed.

What's good? The songs and their clips, particularly You've Got to Hide Your Love Away.

George finds friends to play with
You know the story. Brian dies and Paul takes over. At his insistence they make another film ... by themselves. It is shown in black and white on Boxing Day when its audience is dozing off on yesterday's plum pudding and has little tolerance for anything more difficult than the St Trinian's movie rerun. Result, universal ridicule and the fabs take their first real punch on the jaw. No wonder they fled to India.

So what's it like. It's gibberish with a few good video clips of some fine pyschedlic era songs. It's the result of people being dragged out of bed at six in the morning and told to be whacky so it's about as funny as a joke prefaced with "this'll make you laugh" and as surreal as an op shop copy of a Dali painting. But then what wasn't from that era? Here We Go Round the Mulberry Bush, The Knack, Suppose They Gave a War and Nobody Came Magical Mystery Tour were all try hard cringeworthy rubbish that attempted to encapsulate something of their time but could only stay encased in it for all time. is no worse than that but it is also a little better as it includes a number of what would otherwise be video clips for some great Beatle songs like Fool on the Hill and (best of all) I Am the Walrus. Compare either of these to the Strawberry Fields Forever clip and they'll stand proudly beside it.


The mid 70s was a strange time in the Beatleverse as, being the period immediately following the band's demise, far more attention was given to the individual's careers (at the somewhat unsurprising insistance of the individuals themselves) and it would have seemed like old news anyway. So in the Christmas holidays of 1975 when I stumbled on a broadcast of Yellow Submarine I had no idea that it was an official product of the Beatles machine. I thought it was just a feature length Japanese cartoon. I sat back and enjoyed it.

The year to come brought the rumour of the reunion and stories of insane sums of money being offered to them for one final concert. There was another story doing the rounds that they all happened to find themselves together in New York when a Saturday Night Live skit put the request out. Supposedly, they all thought why not but couldn't get through due to traffic. Yeah right. Anyway, that kind of thing was in the air. A few compilations were released which spread the Beatle meme like superpollen throughout the teenage world and the second generation of Beatle fans arose from the fertile ground. From then on the brand settled into its cushions at the top of Merch Mountain where it remains unassailed to this day.

So what's it like?

First up, the fabs themselves had almost no involvement with the film, no writing or acting beyond the final sequence when they appear in a live action coda which includes a mimed performance of Paul's Althogether Now. Second, there is a lot of psychedelic imagery in this film but it's only drug related if you are making the association yourself. If you look at it as a fantasy film it suits an under ten audience pretty well. I was only a little over ten when I saw it and I loved the whimsy and Christmas cracker jokes and the sheer colour assault along with the Sgt Pepper era songs that fill it to the brim. There's nothing remotely as risque as the coke bottle bit in Hard Day's Night. It declares its hand early and keeps it on the helm. If Magical Mystery Tour had this kind of discipline this film wouldn't have been made. As such, it's rendered essential, if only as a thing to put in front of Magical Mystery Tour and Help when you have visitors.


Well, like it or not, this is at least an authentic document of a working band at the end of its life as a unit. As such it works perfectly, offering a dreariness to the rehearsals which now and then breaks into conflict (the infamous Paul vs George argument) and then rising to a kind of joy as the momentum builds for the rooftop concert. I can't say what non fans would make of most of it. Even as one who doesn't like the songs on the resulting album very much I still find the tension of the strained friendships on screen compelling. Would I watch the same thing if it were a band like ... Hootie and the Blowfish? Maybe, if the drama was there ... once. If you want to see what the most successful rock band of all time was like just before it jumped off the roof here it is, yawns and all. Intriguing but trying. I love it.


The closest thing you're going to get to the real story with the involement of its principal players. Masses of archival images, film and video footage and interviews with people surrounding a given passage of the history. Lennon is represented through archival interviews. The DVD box set of this television documentary includes the extensions of the home video version as well as an extras disc. For the anorak fan there is much left unaired in the interviews but the good thing about this is that we are presented with what the people who were there could recall when asked. But what was left on the cutting room floor, hmmmm? Couldn't care less. What I have is a thoroughly enjoyable history of a thoroughly enjoyable band in a thoroughly enjoyable package. Any shortfalls can be bridged with the various accounts that have appeared since the mid 70s boom-that-never-ended. Beyond that, there are a number of fine albums to enjoy while planning urban renewal schemes or doing the dishes.

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