For my inaugural column for Popdose, I thought I’d serve up a double-size helping of Beatle-y goodness, and take a look at what was, for many children of Boomer parents (like me), our first look at the Beatles’ story: The Compleat Beatles.
In the murky days before cable TV and cheap digital video equipment, the music documentary was still a fairly exotic beast. There had been D.A. Pennebaker’s pioneering Dont Look Back in 1965, and then Gimme Shelter, Let It Be, The Kids are Alright, This Is Elvis. You actually had to traipse down to your local multiplex to see these movies, stand in line for tickets, buy popcorn, the whole bit. What you saw tended to be a mix of vintage performances, newsreel-style clips, talking-head interviews and even, in the case of This Is Elvis, staged reenactments in which actors are called in to provide footage for key missing chapters in the story. You saw rock stars drunk, peevish, aloof or just not giving a damn. Gimme Shelter shows a guy getting killed — actually stabbed to death, right there on the screen — and This Is Elvis includes the famous scene of Presley dropping a hotel bellhop with a karate chop to the throat, although in fairness I probably just made that up.
In that context, the most surprising thing about The Compleat Beatles is how sedate and proper it is — a harbinger of the careful stage management of the Beatles’ reputation that has been ongoing ever since. This is not fly-on-the-wall drama, not that it ever could have been, given that the Beatles had been broken up for more than 10 years. We’d had our helping of dirty Beatle laundry with Let It Be a decade earlier, and no one wanted to sit through another movie like that. What we got instead was a studious effort to fix the Beatles’ story in the popular mind, to coalesce the memories of a generation of Baby Boomers, still distantly reeling from John Lennon’s murder (the film was released in 1982), around a narrative that showed the group both steering and reflecting their times. The Compleat Beatles established the narrative shorthand that would define the Beatles from then on, a tidy story of hard work, early success, artistic triumph and a final, dispiriting slide into bitterness and disillusionment, all in the space of a single decade.
While it may lack fireworks or a great many surprises, what The Compleat Beatles does have are performances that had rarely been seen before, interviews with some key players in the Beatles’ early years (along with a people who don’t seem to belong there at all — more on that anon) and, in what would now be an impossibility for a third-party production, actual Beatles music, chosen with a surprisingly acute and sympathetic ear. And it has Malcolm McDowell, who provides the closest thing the movie has to a unifying mood. Sounding serious and slightly morose, as if the whole story kind of gets him down, McDowell bestows on The Compleat Beatles a sense of gravitas befitting its generation-defining subject while establishing kinship with the viewer. There were any number of older, pompous-sounding Brits the producers could have tapped for a narrator, but McDowell is a cohort of the Beatles and their audience, as well as a product of the liberating effect they had on the British cultural scene. And if on the off chance you got bored, you could always shout “Me glazzies!” at the screen.
I like that the film takes the time for a close look at the musical scene in which the Beatles grew up, when their adolescent ears were filled with early pioneers of rock n’ roll and its gawky, knobby-kneed British counterpart, skiffle. Soon we meet our guides to the Liverpool beat music scene: Gerry Marsden, Allan Williams, Bill Harry, Billy J. Kramer and Tony Sheridan. In contrast to much of the later portions of the film, these interviewees knew the Beatles personally and have good stories to tell. I love Marsden’s brief lesson in turning a Cajun folk song into an R&B tune worthy of a Liverpool dance hall, and especially his contemptuous imitation of Cliff Richard:
The biggest hurdle the filmmakers needed to overcome was the lack of participation by the Beatles themselves, and without George Martin, The Compleat Beatles would have been doomed. Martin is our guide through most of the middle part of the story, commenting on the relentless pressures of Beatlemania as well as the group’s increasing songwriting and recording prowess. I’m guessing many a fan got their first glimpse of Martin through seeing this film, and his reputation for gentlemanliness is well-earned: he’s thoughtful and generous, with a rebellious streak lying not too far beneath that placid surface. Everyone knows the story of how “Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite!” was created, but watch Martin’s self-conscious giggle as he relates the story:
I have no beef with the first half of The Compleat Beatles. We’ve gotten a good look at where the Beatles came from. We’ve heard some nice tunes — is there a better accompaniment to a Beatlemania montage than “It Won’t Be Long”? — and seen things both familiar (I think even in 1982 the “people in the cheaper seats” bit had been shown to death) and off-beat, including this interview with a young artist and Beatles fan, who is so cute it almost makes me explode:
Then we get to Revolver, and here I have issues.
First of all, this is a major milestone in the Beatles’ artistic development and in popular music in general, and it is given tragically short shrift here. (The film adds insult to injury by showing the sleeve of the Capitol pressing, with three of John’s songs omitted.) “Tomorrow Never Knows” was like nothing any pop group had even conceived before. So what does George Martin have to say about this, or about “Eleanor Rigby” or “Love You To” or “Got to Get You into My Life”? Curiously nothing. Instead, we have Nicholas Schaffner reciting critical boilerplate, followed by a spinning album cover that smacks of an end-of-semester, forgot-we-had-a-term-paper-due rush job. Seriously, this was the best the filmmakers could come up with? Hell, put Wilfred Mellers on the screen to talk about pan-diatonic clusters (or was that William Mann?), or even Billy J. Kramer to talk about whatever he can talk about — just don’t give us a 30-second student film.
And that leads to my next beef, one that I might sum up as “Who are these people?” The Liverpool contingent leaves the story at this point, and we can’t expect George Martin to carry the entire movie himself, and so we meet a new cast of regulars, including the aforementioned Nicholas Schaffner, Marianne Faithfull, Billy Preston and Lenny Kaye. While Preston has every right to be there, there is a serious lack of firsthand insight on offer from most of these experts. Faithfull’s relationship with the Beatles was largely of the friend-of-a-friend type, Schaffner was an author who doesn’t have anything to say that wouldn’t fit as well in McDowell’s narration and Lenny Kaye … well, to this day I don’t know why Lenny Kaye is in this film. The filmmakers could have asked Glyn Johns, Geoff Emerick, Chris Thomas or even Alan Parsons to provide insight into the Beatles’ latter-day recording process; instead we hear from Patti Smith’s guitar player. I don’t get it.
This being said, the film does a good job with very limited means of depicting the fractiousness of the Beatles’ final days. Check out this sequence on Let It Be, in which some George Martin narration and a few choice photographs tell a story of four people driving each other crazy:
That last photo, in which Paul McCartney appears to be lunging at Ringo Starr while George Martin glumly wishes he were somewhere else, is priceless.
I mentioned earlier that the music is generally well chosen. This is one area in which I think The Compleat Beatles has it all over its officially sanctioned successor, The Beatles Anthology, which suffered from having to pimp the off-cuts and outtakes offered in the CD sets. In addition to the aforementioned “It Won’t Be Long,” I like the way “Norwegian Wood” is used to introduce the more mature and introspective Beatles of late ’65; I find “Mother Nature’s Son” an oddly unsettling choice to set up the White Album sessions; and “I’ve Got a Feeling” in the above clip sounds a lot more desperate and unhinged when shown against a backdrop of disaffected Beatles working in a gloomy film studio. Lastly, there is no song more sweetly appropriate to end on than “Blackbird,” with its contrasting images of renewal and dark, black nights.
So despite some unfortunate choices in its interview subjects, The Compleat Beatles holds up very well for a 30-year-old effort. I think it’s a shame that it’s been banished to a permanent copyright purgatory, because it’s still probably the best overview of the Beatles’ career you can get in one sitting. At the very least, it would have made a great bonus feature on the Anthology DVD set.
Next month: A review of Recording the Beatles, for those of you who have somehow managed to live without it thus far.
Hat-tip to RandomVHSRippedStuff for the original YouTube uploads.