Film Review

It Was Fifty Years Ago Today! The Beatles: Sgt. Pepper & Beyond (dir. Alan G. Parker)

It’s easy to sneer at The Beatles, for a lot of people at least. Pop music for people who don’t like pop music. A band who were more than the sum of their parts (reinforced by several decades of four very very variable solo careers). A band who were too successful for their own good, and everyone else’s, with the regards that their back catalogue is constantly repackaged and their story constantly retold, without (m)any new angles. 

There are, of course, some people who delight in sacrificing sacred cows, to the point that such an activity is as clichéd as those they believe they are attacking. But life is too short to deal with such idiocy.

The Beatles’ eighth studio album, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, will celebrate its 50th anniversary on June 1. That’s how old it is now, and it still has a hold on people. Why is it so lauded? Because it was groundbreaking in so many ways, in which this documentary explains.

In many ways – and I mean this with the greatest respect to all involved – it continues this important story where Ron Howard’s excellent documentary from last year Eight Days A Week: The Touring Years reached. It starts off with the Beatles  about to go off to the US on what would be their final tour. This was against a backdrop of protests in the Bible Belt of religious objections to John Lennon’s remarks that the Beatles were now bigger than Christ. This included record burnings in Memphis, and Lennon having to apologise and explain his remarks.

This was a time of transition. Though the most recent Beatles studio albums – 1965’s Rubber Soul and 1966’s Revolver had seen them up their game, they were still looking to take their music further. Yet much of these albums weren’t played on the tour as it was felt that they couldn’t be replicated live.They were talking about quitting live performance, something that worried manager Brian Epstein, who was in his element organising tours. His death, a matter of months after the album’s release is handled sensitively.

The musical world was changing. There’s exploration of the move from being described as pop to rock, notion of long term rather than disposable. This wasn’t some controversy along the lines of Dylan going electric, but certainly musically and lyrically the band had left three chord tunes about love far behind them.

This documentary explores the making of the album, the response and what followed. It transpires that ‘When I’m 64’ had been played by McCartney at the cavern back in ’63. EMI were somewhat aghast at how much the album cost and how long it took to make. Three months and £25,000 on one album were unthinkable for the time.

The documentary is a mixture of archived footage with the Beatles and new interviews with associates. The latter include their authorised biographer Hunter Davies and Jenny Boyd (sister of Patti, George Harrison’s first wife). They explore how The Beatles were pushing back against the image of the ‘loveable moptops.’ Not for the first time, the theory is pushed again that it was McCartney not Lennon who was the avant-garde one.

Sure, much of the story may be familiar. But it’s beautifully told and explored, and far from a cash-in or rehash. Given that there were still a few more chapters to be written, I hope that Alan G. Parker will get the opportunity to explore this for us, too.

 

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