If you are a Hulu subscriber, then right now, you can watch a new documentary from Ron Howard about The Beatles. It is also playing in select theatres for a few days and yesterday I was lucky enough to see it at The Violet Crown in Charlottesville with fellow Beatles fanatic Dana. (I’m not sure why Richmond was skipped when they picked cities to screen the film, but that’s a story for another time.)
When this film was announced earlier this year, I was all at once excited and skeptical. Excited because, the prospect of being able to manipulate the original audio from The Beatles’ live concert recordings so that the band could actually be heard was a very intriguing prospect; and skeptical because with over fifty years of hindsight, any interview given by the remaining band members (Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr) were bound to be layered with an almost sickening coat of nostalgia with none of the immediacy or intensity that is found in the archived live recordings.
I wanted to see this in the theatre because I wanted to see on the big screen, for the first time, how great John, Paul, George and Ringo were as a live unit. Yes the band changed popular music forever and they get lauded for their many studio inventions that have now become standard, but often overlooked is how tight and sharp they were onstage. Seeing ‘Twist and Shout’ from the Royal Variety Show in 1963, ‘All My Loving’ from their appearance on Ed Sullivan in February 1964, and especially the performances from Shea Stadium in 1965, I was thrilled that the crackle and excitement from those performances still transcends time and they hold up remarkably well. They are timeless. Seeing the live footage was worth the price of the ticket alone.
One point I have to mention: Every once in a while, an artist gets tagged as “The Biggest Since The Beatles”; for a time it was Michael Jackson, New Kids on the Block got the moniker in the late 80s, Bieber has been called that recently. Really, there’s no true comparison between the domination The Beatles had in America and the world in 1964 and whatever and whoever came next. This movie drives that point home without stating it explicitly.
The interviews with contemporaries are good for the most part, but one stands alone as being great; that’s Larry Kane. Kane traveled with the band during their second US tour in 1964 (“Twenty-five cities in thirty days” laments a tired Ringo in 1964 as the tour begins) and Kane was there again in 1965 (where he soon found that the lads had discovered marijuana). Kane’s recollections are vivid and sincere and, since I haven’t read any of his three Beatle-themed books, they were one of the few items in the film that was new to me.
And that’s the huge drawback with this documentary. It feels like I have seen this before, and, for the most part, I have. In 1995, The Beatles released a 10-hour documentary series called ‘Anthology’ which a lot (I reiterate a lot) of the material used in this film is lifted from. So, since The Beatles have already told their story before, there’s really nothing new here.
That doesn’t mean this film isn’t worth seeing. The live performances are breathtaking, and this film should remove any doubt anyone ever had that The Beatles were not a great live band. In the end, the film serves as a love note to Ringo, who has never really gotten his due. As I watched the footage from Shea Stadium, I was awestruck. Remember, The Beatles invented ‘Stadium Rock’ before the technology could actually support them. There was no PA system (save for what the stadium announcer used to announce baseball games), so none of the four on that stage could hear anything at all, except the screams of 56,000 fans. Ringo had to keep the band in time, and he did it all by watching choreography cues and hand gestures!! As Lennon once said in an interview (not included in the film) ‘The Beatles were the best f***in’ group in the goddamn world!’ That assertion makes Ringo circa 1966, the best drummer on the planet. Those who are quick to dismiss him as ‘only the drummer’ and the writer who gave us ‘Octopus’s Garden’, I hope they have their minds changed by watching this film.
Two quick notes in closing: The film does include some studio recordings, and it was a joy to hear the interplay between Paul and John while recording ‘Eight Days A Week’ and ‘A Day In The Life.’ There may not be many things left in the archive to release for public consumption, but I for one would love to see a two-disc set of studio banter and outtakes from The Beatles Recording Sessions released. It may suit a niche audience, but I would love to have that.
And, the film has many scenes that I have seen before, which allowed me to concentrate on miniscule nuances. Example: As the band plays Shea Stadium, it comes time for John to introduce the next number, which is ‘Dizzy Miss Lizzy.’ He begins his intro, ‘We’d like to do a song…’ and then in a split second he blanks, looks back at Ringo and says off mic ‘F**k, what’s next?’ That moment (included in the film and repeated again in the complete Shea Stadium concert that airs in theatres after the documentary ends) was one that cracked me up. That show was a blur for them, so to see him forget his next line was no surprise, but it was very real.
If you are a longtime Beatles fan, you’ll see this movie. Don’t expect much of anything new, unless you’re a fan who has not yet seen ‘Anthology’; those fans (if there’s anyone who hasn’t seen Anthology yet) will love every minute of this movie. For the rest of us, we’ve seen this before, but this is a repeat no one will mind watching again…and again.
Word of advice from someone who saw it in a theatre: When watching at home, I suggest you turn the volume up very loud.