Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (July
For many years, a program such as The Beatles Anthology sounded like a great idea that would never come to fruition. As I recall, throughout the Eighties the surviving Fabs occasionally discussed that they’d eventually produce an authorized documentary called The Long and Winding Road. However, largely due to various legal issues – always a huge bugaboo in the world of the Beatles – it seemed unlikely to me that this project would ever see the light of day.
They changed the name, but this piece finally hit the small screen in late 1995 when ABC televised The Beatles Anthology. Spread over a few nights, the roughly five-hour program gave us a more comprehensive examination of the Beatles than I ever dreamed back when I heard of The Long and Winding Road. Combined with three separate two-CD Beatles Anthology releases of rare music,
And that was just the beginning. The following September, we got the home video release of The Beatles Anthology, and it came in a radically extended version. The laserdisc and VHS program almost doubled the original televised edition, and it created a better-realized experience.
Six and a half years later, we finally get a DVD edition of The Beatles Anthology. (DVD didn’t exist as a commercial entity in September 1996, as the first releases came out in March 1997.) Was it worth the wait? Unquestionably, as this package provides a terrific Beatles set.
The Beatles Anthology traces the band’s roots from the birth of eldest Fab Ringo Starr in July 1940, and it proceeds through their break-up in April 1970. It breaks into eight volumes and mixes modern interviews with scads of archival materials. Each program includes Nineties-vintage comments from the three then-surviving Beatles: Paul McCartney, George Harrison, and Ringo. Usually they appear solo, but we find a few shots of those three chatting together. John Lennon shows up in a mix of older interviews, as do the other Fabs at times, though most of their remarks come from the new clips.
Volume 1 covers July 1940 to March 1963. In addition to the interviews with the Beatles, we hear from schoolmate (and future band assistant) Neil Aspinall, producer George Martin, and manager Brian Epstein (in Sixties clips). We learn about the various Beatle parents and childhood memories. The guys cover the early impact of rock on them and other musical influences and trace how they got to know each other and join the same group. We hear parts of their first recording (“That’ll Be the Day”/“In Spite of All the Danger”) and other very preliminary performances. We learn about early Beatles Stuart Sutcliffe and Pete Best, the origins of the band’s name, early management and gigs, experiences in Hamburg, their return to Liverpool and rising popularity, their failed audition for Decca Records and successful test for EMI, Brian Epstein’s arrival as manager, Ringo’s recruitment into the group and Best’s departure, their first sessions with George Martin, the release of their first single (“Love Me Do”), the band’s insistence that they play their own material and the recording of “Please Please Me”, and that single’s success.
Because it concentrates on their pre-Fab years, “Volume 1” doesn’t include a lot of performance material from the Beatles. We get a Nineties solo rendition of “Twenty Flight Rock” from Paul as well as a complete band versions of “Some Other Guy” from the Cavern, a lip-synch take on “Love Me Do” from TV, and a live TV clip of “Please Please Me”. (Much more music appears in the Anthology, of course, but I’ll only list bits in which we see the Beatles perform, whether in concert or on TV.)
Volume 2 goes from March 1963 to February 1964. It includes remarks from the Beatles, Aspinall, Martin, and press officer Derek Taylor. Volume 2 starts with burgeoning Beatlemania, early UK tours, recording the Please Please Me album, playing with Roy Orbison and other tour memories plus the acquisition of road manager Mal Evans, pressures to produce new material, creating “She Loves You”, leaving Liverpool for London, Sunday Night at the London Palladium performance, dealing with fame, Royal Variety Show performance, creation of With the Beatles and its cover, and finally breaking into America.
For full performances, we find more than a handful of bits. We get a live montage of “Twist and Shout” synched with the studio recording, “She Loves You” in concern, a “This Boy” lip-synched with some montage elements, “I Saw Her Standing There” and “Long Tall Sally” live on Swedish TV, “From Me to You”, “Til There Was You” and “Twist and Shout” live from the Royal Variety Show, “Please Mr. Postman” lip-synched on TV (nearly complete), “Roll Over Beethoven” live on TV (nearly complete with narration over the end), and a TV lip-synch performance of “I Want to Hold Your Hand”. We also get partial snippets of a lip-synched “From Me to You” lip-synch, both the Stones’ and the Beatles’ “I Wanna Be Your Man”; the former’s truly live, while the latter’s a lip-synched TV rendition. The episode tosses in some audio outtakes from the recording studio plus a clip from the band’s skits on the Morecambe and Wise TV show.
Volume 3 features the shortest period of the various shows as it ranges over February 1964 to July 1964. It provides interviews with the Beatles plus Epstein, Aspinall, Taylor, and Martin. It starts with the band’s arrival in the US and follows their famous New York press conference, full-blown Beatlemania, their legendary appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show, their trip to DC and their first US concert, various American experiences and their second Sullivan performance from Miami, the creation of A Hard Day’s Night, Lennon’s In His Own Write book, the brief tour without Ringo and with Jimmy Nicol on drums, and finally the premiere of A Hard Day’s Night and its reception.
For performances, we get full renditions of “She Loves You”, “I Saw Her Standing There”, “Please Please Me” from the first concert in DC, “If I Fell” from A Hard Day’s Night, “Long Tall Sally” lip-synched on Dutch TV with Jimmy Nicol on drums, and “You Can’t Do That” live in Australia (with Ringo back on the skins). Partial bits show “All My Loving” from the first Sullivan show, “This Boy” off of the Miami Sullivan broadcast, “Can’t Buy Me Love” live at the NME poll winner’s concert, and “All My Loving” live in Australia.
For Volume 4, we move from August 1964 to August 1965. This program provides Beatle interviews and comments from Martin, Aspinall, and Taylor. It starts with the band’s second tour of the US and the continued Beatlemania and goes through attempts to make a live album at the Hollywood Bowl, meeting their idols in America, Dylan’s influence and the band’s real introduction to pot, pressures to work all the time, recording “I Feel Fine”, making Help!, the progressive influence of drugs, the specific creation of “Help!” and “Yesterday”, George’s struggles to write his own songs, and their receipt of their MBEs. Volume 4 finishes with a bit of a teaser, as it ends right before the band’s legendary performance at Shea Stadium.
Musically, Volume 4 includes full versions of “All My Loving” live at the Hollywood Bowl, “I Feel Fine” lip-synched on TV, “Kansas City” live on Shindig (nearly complete), “I’m a Loser” and “Everybody’s Trying to Be My Baby” live in Paris, “You’re Going to Lose That Girl” and “You’ve Got to Hide Your Love Away” lip-synched from Help!, and “Help!”, “Yesterday”, and “Act Naturally” live. As for partial clips, we get lives snippets of “I’m Down”, “I Feel Fine”, and “She’s A Woman”. In addition, we find a rendition of “Ticket to Ride” that starts live and almost finishes that way, but it switches to a lip-synch version at the end.
Given the end of Volume 4, it doesn’t surprise me that Volume 5 starts with the band’s show at Shea Stadium in August 1965. It progresses through July 1966 and features comments from the Beatles, Aspinall and Martin. It opens with coverage of the Shea concert and then leads though the band’s meeting with Elvis, frustrations with the limitations of the road, increased experimentation in the studio with Rubber Soul and Revolver, George’s interest in Indian music and the sitar, their introduction to LSD, early attempts at music videos, and issues related to playing in Japan in 1966.
For complete music clips, we hear “Twist and Shout”, “I Feel Fine”, “Baby’s In Black”, “I’m Down”, and “Help!” at Shea, “Nowhere Man” live in Munich, “We Can Work It Out” lip-synched on TV, and both “Rock ‘n’ Roll Music” and “Yesterday” live in Japan. We get partially complete music videos for “Paperback Writer” and “Rain” and also parts of “Day Tripper” lip-synched on TV and “Paperback Writer” live in Japan.
Volume 6 traces the band from July 1966 to June 1967. We hear from the Beatles, Aspinall, and Martin. This episode discusses issues during their trip to the Philippines, the controversy over John’s “bigger than Jesus” statement, the end of touring, John’s acting in How I Won the War, George’s trip to India, Paul’s score for The Family Way, the development and recording of “Strawberry Fields Forever” and “Penny Lane”, the gestation and creation of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Heart’s Club Band and its reception, and the reaction to Paul’s admission of drug use.
Since the band left the road early in Volume 6, we get no live performance clips from the era. The only complete piece comes from the “Penny Lane” music video. We get most but not all of the “Strawberry Fields Forever” video, and we also find parts of a modern McCartney rendition of “Eleanor Rigby”.
Volume 7 picks up in June 1967 and continues to July 1968. We get remarks from the Beatles, Martin, Aspinall and Taylor. It opens with the worldwide broadcast of “All You Need Is Love” and then proceeds through the Summer of Love and the band’s interest in the Maharishi, Brian Epstein’s death and dealing with self-management after that, making Magical Mystery Tour, the opening of the Apple boutique, the trip to India to visit the Maharishi, the development of Apple, the Yellow Submarine film, John’s growing involvement with Yoko Ono, and the infamous Two Virgins album cover.
Volume 7 includes only one full performance clip: the music video for “Hello Goodbye”. We get most of the “All You Need Is Love” broadcast plus parts of “Your Mother Should Know” and “I Am the Walrus” from Magical Mystery Tour. Finally, we see a Nineties-era casual performance of the unreleased “Dera Dhun” from George accompanied by ukulele.
Volume 8 goes from July 1968 to The End and presents interviews with the Beatles, Martin, Aspinall, and Taylor. It begins with Ringo’s attempted departure from the band, and then follows the recording The Beatles, the closing of the Apple boutique, creating “Hey Jude”, the Get Back film sessions and all its tensions, recording what became Let It Be, unfulfilled concert discussions and the legendary rooftop performance, Paul’s wedding, George’s drug bust, John’s wedding, feelings that the end was near, issues related to the lack of firm management and the introduction of Allen Klein, making Abbey Road and the band’s end. The program concludes with the music video for “Free As a Bird”.
In addition to that complete clip, we get full renditions of “Revolution” from the Frost on Sunday TV show (entire but interrupted by a little Lennon dialogue in the middle) plus “The Long and Winding Road” and “Let It Be” from Let It Be. Partial clips appear for “Hey Jude” from Frost, recording takes of “For You Blue” and “Get Back”, and rooftop renditions of “Get Back” and “Don’t Let Me Down”. We also hear some outtakes from The Beatles.
An undeniably ambitious piece, The Beatles Anthology succeeds largely because it has something nobody else could enjoy: easy access to the then-surviving Beatles and the Apple vaults. As an authorized program, its creators had the ability to dig into those depths much more readily than others. Of course, this comes with the moderate loss of control that stems from its authorized status, but the pros far outweigh the cons in this case.
To say that the Anthology includes a treasure trove of materials would be an understatement. I became a Beatles fan right before my 12th birthday in 1979. In those primitive days, VCRs were rare and we had little access to older musical performances on film. Heck, I endured a two AM sleet-affected drive-in screening of Let It Be when I was 13 just because it was then or never.
The inner 12-year-old in me gets shaky at the knees when confronted with this cornucopia. You have to understand: I was so desperate for Beatles scraps that if a short clip appeared on TV, I’d use my Super 8 camera and film it silently to try to watch later! The concept of something like the Anthology would have kept me giddy for weeks.
Decades later, it remains a trip to get to see these things. All the pieces I dreamt about as kid are here. From the Sullivan performances to the first concert in DC to Shea to the primitive music videos, we watch tons of stuff I knew about at the time plus plenty that was unknown to me. Foreign concerts, promotional appearances, and other stuff; we get lots of wonderful material in this show.
Unfortunately, the producers of the Anthology don’t always let it be. The documentation above notes how many songs are complete and how many get interrupted, and the balance does favor the latter pretty heavily. However, it’s not heavy enough, as I don’t think any of the music should be affected by verbal comments. There’s too much priceless footage here to have a song marred by some statement or an early ending.
My least favorite moment happens during the semi-live “Revolution”. I love that version of the song. Yeah, it’s the same instrumental track from the single, but the live vocals give it a real kick, especially since Paul and George toss in the “shoo-be-doo-wops” from The Beatles’ “Revolution 1”. Unfortunately, some mook decided to plop a soundbite from John right in the middle of the guitar break! It keeps this excellent rendition from being pristine, and it drives me nuts.
Despite the occasional maddening decision like that, the Anthology usually does things correctly. Admittedly, I’d like more performance footage and less yakking, though the latter elements are usually quite interesting. The Anthlogy really cuts to the core of the subject. I was surprised that it included only the six interview participants plus archival clips with Lennon and Epstein. Granted, some likely parties like Mal Evans have since passed on, which left them out of the mix, but I still thought we might get some remarks from relatives or wives. The absence of the latter seems especially disappointing; frankly, I’d prefer to hear the viewpoint of Yoko, Linda, Patti, Maureen or Cynthia – wives who were around while the band was still together – over the smooth nothings of Derek Taylor or the fatuous blather of Aspinall.
Which reminds me of my other main Anthology-related pet peeve: Aspinall’s insistence of referring to the Beatles as “we”. Granted, he mostly (always?) does this when he was involved in the situation. For example, he might tell of road experiences. He doesn’t make it sound like he played drums on “Back in the USSR” or anything like that. Nonetheless, there’s something off-putting about this tendency. It feels like an attempt to inflate his worth in the scheme of things, and it continues to irritate me.
As for the others, Martin – who could use “we” to refer to the creation of the music but doesn’t – seems understated and tasteful, and the three remaining Fabs offer quite a lot of good content. Beatle people will likely already know a lot of the tales, but the guys cover the territory well. George comes across the best, as his wry and sardonic tone puts events into perspective and provides humorous moments. Some of the better moments occur when we see different viewpoints butt up against each other. For example, the filmmakers contrast various memories about “All You Need Is Love” via some deft editing.
The Anthlogy moves at a good clip. As you’ll notice from the breakdown of episodes listed above, the first few years dominate the running time, but that’s somewhat deceptive. 1963 to 1966 featured the band on the road much of the time, so we get lots of live clips from that era. Once they stopped touring, there was much less performance material to show. Other than some TV clips and Let It Be, the producers had less to work with for that period, so those episodes go more quickly. In addition, since the Beatles put out fewer albums between 1967 and 1970, that also limited the subject matter.
In any case, the balance seems fine to me. The later years clearly get their due, though I think we don’t hear enough about Abbey Road. This seems to affect almost all projects related to the Beatles. They always dedicate tons of time to the Get Back debacle but then rush through Abbey Road. That makes some sense, as the tension spawned in early 1969 is much more interesting than the apparently smooth creation of Road, but given the latter’s stature, I’d sure like to know more about it. And as we’ll see when we discuss the supplements, the Beatles themselves seem more than willing to discuss its recording; they don’t appear to be the reason why we don’t know more about it.
While I clearly have my complaints about The Beatles Anthology, take them as the idle ramblings of a nearly life-long fan. I’d love to have more, but this set remains a real find, as it includes scads of simply wonderful materials. It presents a pretty solid history of the band and does so in a smooth and entertaining manner. It’s not perfect, but it remains a real treasure.