The Beatles Anthology

Dir: Kevin Godley, Bob Smeaton, Geoff Wonfor, 1995. Starring: P, McCartney, G. Harrison, J. Lennon, R, Starr, George Martin.
The Beatles Anthology

The Beatles Anthology is everything you need to know about The Beatles. For die-hard fan it seems to have a clip from almost every recorded performance of theirs. And for the casual fan it tells the Fab Four’s back-story and then that incredible run of music from ’63 to ’70, it’s such a huge story for only seven years of life. The three surviving Beatles - Paul McCartney, Ringo Starr, and George Harrison - are exhaustedly interviewed with very candid memories (Harrison passed away after this was made), and preexisting interviews with John Lennon are incorporated. Also of interest, adding to the conversation is their long time producer George Martin who seems to set the record straight when the boys are confused about a recording fact. It really is amazing that these four lads from modest backgrounds in Liverpool, England were able to have such a giant impact on popular culture all over the world and create some of the still greatest music in rock 'n roll history.

Originally airing on television, The Beatles Anthology was released in conjunction with a massive book and CD set covering the same ground. The documentary is told in eight episodes, each covering a year or two and each running over an hour, putting the whole thing at over ten hours long. Like a Ken Burns film (The Civil War, Baseball), it uses still photos and archival footage to set up The Beatles in their youth, but quickly jumps right into the formation of the band and their early career playing Hamburg nightspots. The first two episodes may be for the fanatics as there is a lot of rare material (recording demos and British television appearances) but by the end of Episode Two the Beatles have become a phenomenon in the UK. Then Episode Three begins with their famous landing at JFK and first appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show; their conquering of America is when things get really fun.

Inspired by the more mature and complicated lyrics of Bob Dylan, social upheaval, and the use of marijuana, The Beatles evolved from the world’s most popular boy band to a more complicated song writing style with songs like “Norwegian Wood,” eventually really hitting their stride by Episode Five with two albums back-to-back, Revolver and Rubber Soul. Of course they would follow them with a number of landmark albums, including Sgt. Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band (which was originally going to be a concept album of them playing completely other characters, as was the case on “With A Little Help From My Friends”). The White Album is also discussed in great detail, was the double album too long? Too many songs? Finally Paul declares, “Who cares? It’s the bloody Beatles White Album”. For Beatlephiles the recording sessions of all of their final albums are discussed with rich detail.

Perhaps most interesting though are when things didn’t go according to plans. Their mistakes or near failures make for fascinating stories. Episode Six begins with their trouble in the Philippines, with the perceived snubbing of the Marcos family. Later they finally gave up on touring, both exhausted by it and even fearing for their lives. John’s “bigger than Jesus” comment got them in some hot water (mostly in the American South). The death of their manager Brian Epstein lead to a number of financial problems including the eventual failure of their Apple store and label. And of course the band's eventual demise is explained thoroughly.

The Beatles' trip to India as followers of The Maharishi makes for some great stories (and footage). As does the making of their lousy mini film, The Magical Mystery Tour, though Paul may slightly push its scope claiming that Steven Spielberg declared it an influence when he was at film school (I could be wrong but I believe that Spielberg didn’t actually go to film school). Their wonderful early film, A Hard Day’s Night, is covered, as is their animated flick, The Yellow Submarine, while their underrated James Bond spoof Help! is barely mentioned (though the song opens each episode). Though John’s controversial relationship with Yoko Ono is discussed most of the other Beatles' personal relationships in this period are not talked about. One interesting point that is not covered is the further influence on pop culture The Beatles had, how a television-created spoof band, The Monkees, became just as popular as The Beatles at one point.

The final recording sessions for their last album, Abbey Road, in ’69 bring the story to a close. Instead of going into their later solo work and the assassination of John Lennon, the film ends with a music video for a then newly recorded song, “Free As A Bird” - the three surviving Beatles added their parts to some existing John Lennon demos. It was produced by Jeff Lynne, which explains why it sounds more like his band Electric Light Orchestra than The Beatles (a better follow up may be the 2006 documentary The U.S. Vs. John Lennon, which covers his post Beatles political activism in the '70s).

The Beatles Anthology is technically so well made and obvious time and care was put into crafting it. It really is a shocking amount of information, to cover such a short time period. It’s too bad all the major bands of that era can’t get this kind of film. Bob Dylan was the subject of Martin Scorsese’s excellent documentary No Direction Home: Bob Dylan, which exhaustedly covered his childhood and early part of his career. I was excited to learn that Scorsese was next going to cover The Rolling Stones, a group that has been the center of a number of interesting docs like Gimmie Shelter, but not a quality all consuming one to tie the smaller docs together. Unfortunately Scorsese chose to just shoot a new Rolling Stones concert film, the last thing anyone needs to see. Perhaps Ken Burns could do a Rolling Stones doc. As The Beatles' biggest rival in the '60s it would be nice if they now had something to rival the brilliance of The Beatles Anthology.

Posted by:
Sean Sweeney
Apr 28, 2011 10:24am
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