(2016) Musical Documentary (Abramorama) Paul McCartney, Ringo Starr, George Harrison, John Lennon, Whoopi Goldberg, Richard Lester, George Martin, Elvis Costello, Larry Kane, Eddie Izzard, Sigourney Weaver, Neil Aspinall, Richard Curtis, Brian Epstein, Kitty Oliver, Howard Goodall, Jon Savage, Debbie Gendler. Directed by Ron Howard
It is safe to say that the Beatles are one of the pop culture touchstones of the 20th century. Their influence on music and the world in general is incalculable. It has been half a century since the Fab Four played a live show and generations have been born since, some not even knowing who they are but regardless feeling the effects of their contribution on popular music.
Beatlemania is something we’re not likely to see again; the emotional effect that the Beatles had on their female fans was something that the world hadn’t seen prior to that (except maybe for Elvis) and not really since; girls would scream nearly non-stop in their presence and faint from the emotional outpouring. It was a phenomenon that had to be experienced to be believed and even just having seen it as I did on this documentary it still doesn’t carry the impact it must have to be in that presence.
Their popularity can’t be underestimated either. They are the only band to hold the top five position on the Billboard singles chart in the same week and given how the music industry is today that is extremely unlikely to ever happen again. They ushered in the British invasion and paved the way for bands like the Rolling Stones and the Who, among others.
The Beatles had a very limited shelf life; essentially they were only making a global impact for seven years before going their separate ways. They only toured for four of those years, and after giving up touring only played together publicly just once – on the rooftop of their Apple Records office in London, which the film appropriately closes with.
Still their touring years were some of their most productive and it was a grueling schedule. They made two movies during those years on top of the grueling tour schedules that would take them to 25 cities in 30 days. It was certainly a different era; their concerts generally lasted about 30 minutes long, including encores. They were the first band to play in stadium-sized venues and often their amplifiers went through the stadium sound system. The screaming of their female fans would be so loud that the band couldn’t hear themselves play; drummer Ringo Starr kept the beat by watching his bandmates sway at the microphone so that he’d know where they were in the song.
Director Ron Howard, an Oscar winner in his own right, has compiled archival interviews as well as contemporary ones with the surviving Beatles (Starr and McCartney) and with celebrities like Whoopi Goldberg and Sigourney Weaver, both of whom were at the historic 1966 Shea Stadium concert in New York City – Goldberg recalls not thinking of the band in terms of black or white but just as “guys” who gave her a feeling of empowerment that helped her determine her course in life. New Wave legend Elvis Costello remembers not liking the Rubber Soul album because it didn’t sound anything like their previous music, only appreciating what it represented years after the fact. Some of the best insights though come from Larry Kane, a Miami-based reporter who accompanied the band on two of their tours and filed regular reports from the front lines of Beatlemania. His take on the phenomenon is fascinating to say the least.
There is also home movies that the Beatles themselves took, backstage and rehearsal studio audio that shows us how some of their classic songs evolved. And of course plenty of concert footage; we never get a sense at how accomplished musicians they were (and Starr and Harrison were both much underrated in that regard) but we get more of a sense of the power they had over their audience. That power was considerable, too; the band was literally under siege from the press, their fans and their record label for that entire period. Starr remembers not getting a moment to relax for three years and the toll it took, but nearly everyone who was there comments on how unified the band was and how they looked after each other like brothers. That was a far cry from how they ended up, acrimonious and sniping at one another through the press.
I will admit that this is a bit of a puff piece. There isn’t a lot here that is negative and maybe it wasn’t Howard’s intention to look at the band objectively. We do get a sense of their impish sense of humor as well as their resolve; when they found out that the venue in Jacksonville they were going to play at was segregated, they refused to play unless it was full integrated. Manager Brian Epstein had that written into all of their performing contracts from that point forward. They were one of the first performers in history to make that a standard clause in their contract.
Their last concert other than the one-off Apple rooftop concert was at Candlestick Park in San Francisco. The band was tired and frustrated; Harrison had been expressing dissatisfaction with the live shows and now all of them were picking up on it. They were taken out of their last concert in an armored car with no seats in the back. As the car drove recklessly out of the park the band were jostled about in the back and that was the final straw; they chose as a group to stop touring, even though that was their primary source of income. Canny Brian Epstein, their manager, formed a corporation with him and his four charges as co-chairs; it was the first of its kind and would set the stage for other artist-owned production companies in the performing arts. They would get more control over their career than any entertainer before them.
I will admit to having been a fan of the Beatles since childhood; my parents listened to their music and they were my favorite group from day one. This is a film tailor-made for fans like me and if you love the Beatles, this is pretty much required viewing. It gives you a bit of an insight as to the pressures they were under, their lives on the road and how it drew them closer together. It’s no coincidence that the band began to fracture only after they stopped touring. Still, this is a reminder of a much simpler era, when something like this could happen. We will never see the like of the Beatles again.
REASONS TO GO: Definitely will send you on a trip down memory lane. Amazing footage and amazing music throughout the film. There are some insights into Beatlemania that you may not have had otherwise.
REASONS TO STAY: It is something of a puff piece.
FAMILY VALUES: There are a few drug references.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The digital remastering of the songs for the soundtrack was engineered by Giles Martin, son of the legendary George Martin who produced the Beatles.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Hulu
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/19/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 96% positive reviews. Metacritic: 72/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Last Waltz
FINAL RATING: 8/10