The movie title is not exactly catchy. It Was Fifty Years Ago Today! The Beatles: Sgt. Pepper & Beyond.
But, then again, the original LP it documents, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, was not the snappiest either and one of the more wordy titles by the Beatles. Long band names were getting to be very in vogue in 1967.
This new 2017 film does pretty much what it says on the tin and it covers a period of a little over a year in the life of the greatest rock band of all time. Actually events are touched on with a 14-month span, leaving aside flashbacks to school and forward to John Lennon’s murder, but what a tumultuous time it was.
Let’s start with the plus side.
There is a lot to enjoy, especially for aficionados of Beatles music. The film by director Alan G. Parker, a real “Beatlehead” himself, promises some eye-opening insights into the Fab Four by some of those who knew them.
This is the story of the end of most live concerts and all touring amid violence, tensions, security fears in the Philippines and outrage over Lennon’s often misunderstood comments that the Beatles were bigger than Jesus. From here we rapidly move into the side-lining of manager Brian Epstein who feels redundant with the band ruling out further touring engagements and then his death from an overdose. The band falls in love with Indian guru the Maharishi and then falls out of love him very publicly. We see the disaster of the short lived Apple Boutique, Lennon meeting Yoko Ono, the Summer of Love and a growing fascination with illegal drugs. All this is counterpointed against the brilliance of Sgt Pepper.
Along the way there is plenty of video footage not seen in decades. Parker and his team are walking encyclopaedias of everything seen and unseen so can be sure that some of this archive footage is unique. An immense amount of detective work has been employed.
Parker also promises that the unofficial nature of this labour of love gives him greater latitude to include critical or contentious comment without needing clearance by the surviving Beatles, Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr, as well as Apple, and Beatle widows Olivia Harrison and Yoko Ono.
So far, so very good, especially given that this movie is aimed particularly at the most fanatical fans, rather than those who may just be casually interested.
Now for a few reservations, with the chief one being the lack of Beatles music throughout the runtime. With Apple not being behind the project there was no access to materials such as the official videos to Penny Lane, Strawberry Fields Forever or A Day In the Life. As Parker rightly says, most fans will know these tracks to death anyway and he is concentrating on the human back story more than the music itself. Instead we have an orchestrated soundtrack with composition from a guy who was in the Bootleg Beatles for many years. It is sympathetic and blends well. Because the story bowls along so quickly it is rarely a concern, although there are plenty of critics who are appalled at the idea of Beatles movie, even an unofficial one, with no Beatles music as such. Given the Apple custodianship of all things Beatles, one might say that such permission would have been prohibitively expensive or impossible to gain. Sure; still a few fragments would have assisted in an ideal world.
The story often veers away from Sgt Pepper, which obviously provides the news angle for the movie. Arguably one will learn more about the creation of one of rock’s greatest albums by viewing material such as the Beatles own Anthology series and The Making of Sgt Pepper, a previously unreleased movie included in the super deluxe version of the new official anniversary box set. These have plenty of more recent interviews with the Beatles, as well as Sir George Martin in the studio patiently and eloquently explaining the genesis of the tracks.
Parker and his team instead unearth many ancient clips with the main participants at the time the record was coming together. There are endless rushed interviews with them hurriedly entering or leaving the Abbey Road studios and facing repeated questions on whether there are any plans to tour again. George Harrison stops log enough to brightly deny the band is breaking up, and then carries on; Ringo thinks it is time for a cup of tea.
We do not have the thoughts of Starr and McCartney giving a 50-year perspective, although there are some classic TV interviews such as one in which an unrepentant McCartney admits to taking drugs and denies being irresponsible. He says that it is the responsibility of the interviewing broadcaster who can decide simply not to show the tape if it is judged to be showing a bad example to Beatles fans.
Towards the beginning of the film there is mention of the advent of colour television and psychedelia transcending the black-and-white scene for decades, although a lot of the following rare images are indeed monochrome.
Parker can be proud to have revealed stories either previously untold or little known. I particularly like former Beatle Pete Best, a late arrival in the movie, for saying that his grandfather’s war medals found their way onto the Pepper cover. Beatles official biographer Hunter Davies tells of how the band, which did not carry money, ran into trouble about payment in an Indian restaurant when visiting the Maharishi in Wales. Harrison had bought some expensive shoes which according to folklore should have money sewn into their soles as a symbol of good luck and finally he used a knife to split them open and retrieve the cash from inside to settle the bill. The staff did not know that they had famous multimillionaires dining there, only they came from Liverpool, and Liverpudlians were said to have a bad record of payment at that eatery. The waiters were not impressed by Davies’s assurance that he was a journalist on The Sunday Times and would return the next day to settle in full.
There is also the tragic story from Simon Napier-Bell who recounts how Epstein tried to woo him. At the weekend of Epstein’s death, the manager left a series of messages on Napier Bell’s new answerphone pleading for him to visit. The messages gradually got more slurred as Epstein became intoxicated and overdosed.
The details of Epstein’s death do add information, but there is no one killer revelation – say, that Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds really is about LSD, as long assumed, or that the other Beatles were not so keen on Harrison’s Within You, Without You as sometimes reported. Some of the interviewees are Beatles friends, but not directly involved in the creative process or the 1966-68 period. Some of the talking heads include Steve Diggle of the Buzzcocks, a long-time fan and name musician but not in any way an intimate of the band.
The film is already long enough at 114 minutes though it might have been helped to give context if something more had been said about the Magical Mystery Tour film, EP and LP as well as the impact of All You Need Is Love, arguably the band’s most famous song of the period.
This is not a film for Beatles beginners – but those who are already familiar with the music and basic story will find much to admire. There are lots of little tales which are in the public domain but are fully explained such as Paul’s moped accident that he had in Liverpool. He chipped a front tooth, was left with a scar, and started to grow moustache to cover it up. This little incident had all sorts of consequences, not least in all members of the band growing moustaches. It also played into the later “Paul is dead” myth and had an impact on the song A Day In the Life, since the moped crash happened when Paul was with Tara Browne, the Guinness heir who shortly after died in a London car crash himself and becomes “a lucky man who made the grade.”
In short this is a remarkably impressive film given the huge number of restraints imposed upon it. Anyone with a liking for Sgt. Pepper is likely to find it of some appeal and marvel at the amount discovered. The reaction of many people after seeing it will be to turn to the original albums of the time and especially the 50th anniversary reissue now out.
The film opened in the U.K. on May 26 with the DVD and Blu-ray on June 5. It opens in the U.S. in August via Bob Frank Entertainment with Netflix release and Japanese release to follow.