Saturday, August 21, 2010

Now I've Seen Everything Department: The Beatles

Last year, it was Michael Jackson's Summer, as everyone was listening to his music, realizing what we lost.  This year, for me, it's been The Beatles (John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison, "Ringo" Starr).  I've been listening to them intently, the old mixes and the re-masters of the British releases, the "ghosts" of the American releases on Capitol Records re-inserting themselves in my memory of their track orders.

And the music still amazes, and the lads who made them with their own individual talents coalescing into a musical unit.  That they were scruffy natural entertainers with an absurd sense of humor just made them more endearing to audiences (if not their parents, necessarily...), and after the doo-wop 50's, The Beatles were "Something New," even though they were raised on that music, copying, re-interpreting, improving those songs being produced in America.  A disc-jockey friend (who produces his own Beatles program locally) recently opined to me that they were "the perfect storm of talent and personality."

Just so.

And they were so popular—such a commodity—that they couldn't be confined in the music industry to merely being recording artists;  they were producing music videos (they didn't invent the form, but the current crop owes them a stylistic debt), and movies to extend their fame and satisfy the market and their own artistic visions.

And they produced a body of positive work from their early "Yeah, yeah, yeahs" to their last recorded utterance:  "And, in the end, the love you take is equal to the love you make" (and then one final joke-song).

Here's a brief overview of the major entries in their forays into all media...except, of course, mp3's...yet.

A Hard Day's Night, 1964 I went to the premiere of this in Seattle (thanks for buying the tickets, Dad), and it was a wild affair with screams from ardent fans at the craven images of The Beatles projected 40 feet across the screen. Below are the first ecstatic minutes of "A Hard Day's Night" (sans audience accompaniment, but still with plenty of screams), one of the initial attempts to expand the group's reach into all media. They couldn't have had a better start. Richard Lester had worked with Beatles faves, the Goons, and brought a fresh anarchic air to the film, which apart from the bit about Paul's larcenous, lecherous grandfather, sticks pretty close to life as the Beatles knew it--in perpetual transit.* Life for the Beatles must have seemed absolutely mad, with the hysteria from all sides focused on them like sunlight through a magnifying glass, while they were being shipped like freight from one performance to the next. On the clip, check out Lennon's clever bit with the Pepsi bottle.

Help!, 1966 Richard Lester again, with color film and a bigger budget, Lennon in his self-described "fat Elvis" period and a daft story full of good bits and gags, but dripping with paranoia. It's not just the fans out to get the boys this time, it's an Eastern cult trying to get a sacred sacrificial ring, sent to Ringo, by any mean necessary. Spoofs of Bond, Hammer-horror and adventure movies with the Beatles particularly loose--they were recently introduced to marijuana by Bob Dylan and higher than kites during filming. If the whole thing seems to hang together without a care to structure or plot (the resolution of the conflict, which, like "A Hard Day's Night," entails the group coming together to save Ringo, is thrown away-literally), that's why. After years of restoration work, "Help!" has a fine, cracking presentation on DVD that's a wonderful companion piece to Miramax's "Hard Days Night" box, only this one's released by the Beatles' own multi-media company, Apple. Well done. It's the first time that you can see David Watkins' stellar color cinematography (the first time he'd worked in color!) in all its beauty. The Features are nice, too, with Richard Lester contributing to a documentary.** His comments are invaluable. Here's my favorite part of the film-the weirdly anarchic and trippy end-credits with improvised Beatles overlay, finished by a hacking cough.

Yellow Submarine, 1968 An experimental cartoon built loosely around several Beatles songs in and around the Sgt. Pepper period. Not much Beatles content (although they appear at the end)--they didn't even provide the voices--but the techniques and the imagination behind it (directed by George Dunning, written by several folks including Erich "Love Story" Segal-egad!) are awe-inspiring. Yes, it's silly ("Frankenstein?!" "I used to date his sister, Phyllis.."), but this Peter Max influenced collage-fest is still a wonder to see.

Magical Mystery Tour, 1967 May you never suffer through this mess of a film, self-indulgently directed by The Beatles themselves. A holiday trip manufactured by the group is the thinnest of excuses to string song-videos. In "The Beatles Anthology," McCartney claims that they study it in film-schools (in a cautionary way, I'm sure) and that Spielberg thinks its brilliant! *Sigh* *** At least it has a performance of "I am the Walrus," which you can see here without watching the rest of the wretched thing.

Let it Be, 1970 My admiration for the Beatles knows little bounds, but this film nearly destroyed them in my eyes forever. It's a documentary with grandiose intentions: The Beatles rehearse in a studio, then perform a concert in some incredible location, but things don't turn out so well: Paul gets bossy; George turns diffident; Ringo sulks and John's strung out and passive-aggressive. You come out of this thing really liking Yoko (she's so damned patient)...and Billy Preston, whom George brings into the fold to keep everyone on their best behavior. Paul plays to the camera, and the rehearsals are dismal. Then, instead of some big foreign extravaganza, they just go up to the roof for an impromptu concert to get the damned thing over with...and they're brilliant (the filmmakers must have missed the parts where it all came together!), then the police come and say, "What's all this, then, eh?" Here's George presenting "I Me Mine" for group consideration (while John and Yoko and, of course, Henry the Horse, dances the waltz), George's "12-Bar Blues," and the boys (well...just Paul and John, ignoring the others) fooling around with one of their first rehearsal songs, "Besame Mucho."

The Beatles Anthology, 1995 The surviving Beatles, with pithy recordings from Lennon, tell the story of the Beatles--to a certain extent. When its best you get a sense of what it was like to be in the eye of the Beatlemania hurricane. At its worst its an opportunity for McCartney to spin-doctor--the project was his idea, after all. George and Ringo's interviews are in studio or their backyards, but Paul talks in the woods in the warm wrinkle-reducing glow of a fire or, most bizarrely, driving a tug-boat! No discussion of relationships--except for Yoko--but there is a lot of talk of how they worked so well against the world in the wild concert days and how they splintered in the studio. But, the best thing--the most brilliant thing--is the visual summing-up of The Beatles phenomenon in the perfect 20-seconds animation that began each episode: you can see it in the first moments here--a pull back from the Beatles performing "Help!" as they disappear from view and their music is overwhelmed by screams--and the individuals are dwarfed by "The Beatles" as a phenomenon far bigger than they are.

"I'm Down" from the first Shea Stadium concert, 1965 This is my favorite Beatles clip. Its a hot August night in New York and the four are performing their first concert in an outside sports stadium. During this song, John, feeling slightly uncomfortable with no guitar and playing organ, realizes that it doesn't matter what he does on stage. No one can hear him. No one cares, they're screaming their lungs out. They're little dots in the middle of the field, and their music is coming through the stadium PA. No one can hear them! And John goes just a little...crazy, then brings George into it, then Paul, and they're carried away by the absurdity of the situation. There's a joy here, a madness, that epitomized the Beatles, that overcame any scary situation. But it was the beginning of the end for the concert tours: they became pointless with all the screams; they couldn't play well with all the noise; their music was getting more complicated and harder to duplicate live. After a particularly scary world tour, The Beatles retreated to the studio and their individual efforts.

* When asked how he liked a particular country on a tour Lennon responded, "It was a limousine, a hotel room, a sandwich and another limousine ride" and on Beatlemania in general "It was like being in the eye of a hurricane. You'd wake up in a concert and think, Wow, how did I get here?"

** One nice "inside" bit is Elanor Bron revealing a nervous tic while filming--she would blink...a lot (Lester does a nice slow zoom on her during one of her eye-batting moments). And all of the Beatles take turns blinking excessively at her to throw her off. Combined with the already-established winking between her and Paul (and the consternation by George: "I'm getting winked at by ladies a lot these days--used to be you, Paul"), there's a lot of fluttering going on.

*** I throw a lot of sarcastic comments about Paul McCartney in this, but the man is some sort of genius, making his craft seem easy...maybe too easy.    And he was the guy who kept the group together as long as they were.  Ironically, his leaving the band is what caused it to break up.

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