I got excited from the very cueing of the orchestra for It Was Fifty Years Ago Today! The Beatles: Sgt. Pepper & Beyond. All those strings and horns tuning up brought me immediately to the opening sequence of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, minus the coughing. I was a little let down that the music being played wasn’t Beatles music. Other musicians like Andre Barreau, good, but not Beatles, are playing it in that canned Mersey and pseudo-psychedelic knockoffs that show up in all Beatle documentaries except Anthology. That’s not why people should watch this film.
The documentary It Was Fifty Years Ago Today! The Beatles: Sgt. Pepper & Beyond is a must see for die-hard Beatles fans. While you’ve heard most of the stories before, there are still a few personal nuggets that never made the billions of pages and miles of footage written on the band. It’s taking me everything I have not to print them and spoil them for you, so I’ll share one that didn’t make the film. On the Sgt. Pepper cover, upper right hand side, you see a picture of Dead End kids’, East Side Kids’ and Bowery Boys’ second banana Huntz Hall. Next to him is a patch of blue where Leo Gorcey, the leader of the gang after Billy Halop left, is standing in proof photos. It’s gotten around that Gorcey wouldn’t let the Beatles use his image unless he was paid. While this is true, but also being a huge Dead End and sundry fan, I feel obligated to clear something up. Gorcey, who was in one of the original teen idol groupings, wasn’t being difficult, as it sometimes sounds. He would have been happy to be on the album and always regretted that, according to an quotes I think I read in his autobiography Dead End Yells, Wedding Bells, Cockle Shells, and Dizzy Spells. But he really needed the cash. The band, he thought was great, as did Huntz Hall, who said so on shows like David Letterman’s Late Night.
The 1967 album is one of the main reason the Beatles are considered great, and not just another talented quartet. It followed a controversial tour, which would be their last, that saw the four scruffs being manhandled in the Philippines, condemned in the Bible Belt, and facing crowds that were too loud to let them hear themselves play.
It Was Fifty Years Ago Today! The Beatles: Sgt. Pepper & Beyond isn’t exactly what the title promises. Yes, the album is the central subject of the film, but the bulk of the material is actually an almost full history of the band. That’s because Alan G. Parker who directed Monty Python: Almost The Truth, Rebel Truce: The Story of The Clash, Hello Quo, Never Mind the Sex Pistols and Who Killed Nancy, is a very thorough documentarian who doesn’t want to leave anything out. The movie is really about how everything in the Beatles career led up to Sgt. Pepper, and everything after is just their long and winding road to a breakup.
The film’s central focus is the year 1967 when the Beatles became a full-time studio band. They told Brian Epstein they would no longer tour in August 1966. It is set in Swinging London during the Summer Of Love, and the band took on the alias identity of the album title. It started out as a concept album, left out the centerpiece songs “Strawberry Fields Forever” and “Penny Lane,” which were released as singles, but the idea was scrapped
The documentary goes through some of the recording at EMI’s Abbey Road Studios, but also takes on the death of Beatles manager, Brian Epstein and his declining influence, Apple Records and their trip to India to study Transcendental Meditation under the auspices of the auspicious giggling guru, the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi.
Parker interviews The Beatles’ original mean, moody and magnificent drummer Pete Best, who the doc doesn’t mention was known for his thunderous beat in the band’s early live days. McCartney asked him to join The Beatles in August 1960, and Brian asked him to move over for Ringo in in August 1962. Best talks about a particular medal that Lennon wears on the album cover.
The doc also hears stories from John Lennon’s sister Julia Baird, Beatles’ manager Brian Epstein’s secretary Barbara O’Donnell, Steve Diggle of the Buzzcocks, Beatles associate Tony Bramwell, Pattie Boyd’s sister Jenny Boyd, Beatles biographer Hunter Davies, Simon Napier-Bell, Ray Connolly, Merseybeat newspaper editor Bill Harry, author Philip Norman, Steve Turner, BBC Radio’s Andy Peebles, fan club founder Freda Kelly, who is the “Freda” the Beatles yell about in their Christmas messages, and The Merseybeats, not all of them, just Tony Crane and Billy Kinsley.
We also hear stories from Tony Bramwell, who headed Apple Films and Apple Records; Simon Napier-Bell, who co-wrote the Dusty Springfield it “You Don’t Have To Say You Love Me,” and managed The Yardbirds. Ray Connolly, who wrote the film That’ll Be The Day, which starred Starr, chimes in, as does Bill Harry, who went to Liverpool College Of Art with Lennon and published the Mersey Beat newspaper. He is the author of numerous books about the group.
The stories are fun. The Beatles archival footage keeps them eternally young. The main problem is lack of access to the actual songs, but the stories keep you interested. There is a lot of internal drama in the band, and their manager, which resonates socially today. We hear stories of how Brian liked “rough trade,” and the problems of the segregated south, the thriller of Manila, and why rock stars spend so lavishly on their kids birthday presents.
The Beatles: Sgt. Pepper & Beyond hits VOD and DVD on September 8, 2017.