Thursday, May 21, 2009

Strawberry Fields Forever

Beatles: From Liverpool To San Francisco
Eagle Rock Entertainment // 2005 // 66 Minutes // Not Rated

Reviewed by Steve Evans

Opening Shot
Four working-class boys from Liverpool become musical icons and engineer a profound transformation of popular culture as The Beatles.

What’s on the Disc, Steve?
I’ll tell ya. The short documentaries on this DVD follow the Beatles in their heyday, before clashing personalities, tangled business deals, and money squabbles broke up the band. The disc features rare interviews and newsreel footage, complemented by an informative narrative track and timelines that provide context and insight into the phenomenon that was Beatlemania.

Please be aware that there is not a single note of Beatles music in any of the documentaries; the disc serves mainly as a history lesson on the career of a fantastic rock band. This is not a document of the group's music, which is best represented on the records themselves and The Beatles Anthology DVD boxed set.

As an assemblage of television interviews and public-domain video clips, the disc offers a decent chronicle of the Beatles’ brief career (12 years if we begin with their formation; a mere seven years if we count only their halcyon days). The main documentary suggests that the Beatles' astonishing creative output was fueled by a grueling and ultimately exhausting work schedule. Perhaps this led to disillusionment among the band members. Allegations of fraud and thievery by managers also crushed the Beatles' innocence and apparently made them wary of each other when it came to divvying up the mountains of cash pouring in from concerts, singles and album sales, film deals, and an incredible merchandising effort that saw the Beatles’ smiling faces plastered on any commodity a fan might conceivably buy.

In the interviews on this disc, spanning roughly 1963-69, John, Paul, George, and Ringo occasionally reveal the strain of their celebrity. This is evident not so much in their words, but in their tones of voice and weary expressions. It's easy to believe that these impossibly young-looking lads would gladly shuck the burden of international idolatry and just focus on their music. Footage of barely pubescent girls screeching and swooning at any glimpse of the musicians is both astonishing and frightening in terms of the power four guys from Liverpool were able to wield — apparently effortlessly. The fearful aspect of these squealing kids, played out in scenes that would be repeated again and again throughout the world, is that at times the band members and their fans appear to be in real danger. One breach in the police line and possibly hundreds of people could have been crushed to death at any of the scores of concerts before the Beatles stopped touring. And given the hysteria associated with any Beatle sighting, it's not hard to imagine these musicians being torn to pieces by rabid fans.

This rare look at the Beatles as an anthropological phenomenon is perhaps the real value offered by the disc.

The producers of the DVD pose intriguing questions: "What was so special about them that they could fill concert halls and airports from Tokyo to New York with thousands of fans? Why did the dream die and what have The Fab Four left behind? In short, who were the Beatles and how did they conquer the world?" The answers remain elusive. The Beatles themselves seem bemused by all the fuss.

Supplemental materials include the 22-minute Beatles Across America Rockumentary, which consists of interviews with an odd mix of individuals, from a disgruntled DJ upset with John Lennon's notorious 1966 remark that the Beatles were more popular than Jesus, to a Ku Klux Klansman in Alabama who grins behind sunglasses as he threatens to disrupt a Beatles concert. Again, the value of this material is that it demonstrates (but does not explain) how a quartet of working-class Britons could elicit such profound reactions wherever they went or by whatever they said.

And in the end, viewers might finish the documentary with a vague feeling of sadness. We're left with the unshakable sense that all John, Paul, George, and Ringo ever really wanted to do was sing their brilliantly crafted songs about peace, love, sex, drugs, and the transcendental power of rock and roll. Fame sometimes got in the way of that goal, as the documentaries on this disc demonstrate convincingly.

Still, they did it all and they did it well. Though it was devastating to their fans when the group disbanded in 1969, the band members had clearly said everything they needed to say as a collective. Their musical legacy is lasting because the Beatles remain far greater than the sum of their four parts. Four decades later, it seems clear that we will not see or hear anything as phenomenal ever again.

Copyright © 2009 by Cinematic Cteve // dba Cinema Uprising. All rights reserved.

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