Tuesday, September 15, 2009

On DVD: "The Beatles: Rare and Unseen"

It’s a great time to be a Beatles fan, that’s for sure. Followers of the Fab Four have all sorts of ways to spend their hard-earned coin this month: there’s the all-Beatles version of Rock Band, the long-awaited CD remasters of the entire discography (in both stereo and mono), and… um… well then there’s The Beatles: Rare and Unseen, a new “unauthorized” documentary from the folks at (I’m not making this name up) Weinerworld Limited, an outfit specializing in these grade-Z music discs (their catalogue includes the previous Beatle cheapies Magical Mystery Tour Memories and The Beatles: Destination Hamburg, as well as all those horrible Bob Dylan docs.)

If you’ve seen one of these, you’ve seen them all: new interviews with peripheral figures and hangers-on, poorly preserved archival footage, and sound-alike music—since, of course, licensing actual Beatles music would be prohibitively expensive, and why would we actually need to hear the amazing music we’re being told about? Those general complaints aside (and they’re clearly moot—they wouldn’t keep cranking these discs out if diehard fans didn’t keep buying them), I will grant Rare and Unseen this: there are a couple of good finds here, and some of the interviews are enlightening. It’s still pretty terrible, but it’s the best of the bunch to date.

Let’s get the bad out of the way first, however, and there is plenty of it. The most egregious offender is the jive narration, which includes such bloviations as “This is the story of four people in an extraordinary situation!” Is it, now? The third-tier interview subjects have little to say of note; they include such perpetual “unauthorized” interview subjects as their early tour manager Sam Leach, former press officer Tony Barrow, original manager Allan Williams, and road manager Tony Bramwell. Some of their stories are interesting, but all of their anecdotes have been trotted out countless times before, and the new additions this go-round (such as the Len Goodman, “former British champion ballroom dancer and Beatle fan”) are pretty lightweight. The much-heralded rare footage is good, but often incongruent; the section dealing with their first big hit, in 1962, is accompanied by footage of the boys performing in 1964, when Beatlemania was at an entirely different stage. And the documentary’s apparent roots as a television special are made glaringly obvious by the bumpers between its five “parts”—“Coming up next!” the narrator announces at one point, “after the break!” at another.

There are a couple of gems here, however. That “rare and unseen” footage, some shot by the band, some by tourmates like musician Mickey Jones, is quite good; the performance footage is fun, and the home movies of them goofing off poolside while on tour shows the lads as we’d most like to remember them: impossibly young, full of joy. (The behind-the-scenes footage from the Magical Mystery Tour shoot is all recycled from the company’s Magical Mystery Tour Memories disc.) The voices of those on the inside are often sorely missed in these films, but producer/director Chris Cowie got his hands on a rare interview that John Lennon shot for French TV in 1975; the clips are sparse, but valuable. And while the interviews with the bystanders are mostly a bust, they do include some interesting pontificating by British cultural critics, who add some genuine analysis of the music, the power of the lyrics, and the group’s influence and influences.

As useful as those bits are, the film is ultimately sidetracked by its own baffling structure; the first four “parts” give us an exhaustively detailed account of the formation of the group and their first success, ending as they are about to go appear on The Ed Sullivan Show and conquer America. After a “commercial break,” the narrator is suddenly talking about Magical Mystery Tour. I ran the disc back (and went to the chapter menu) to make sure I hadn’t missed anything, but I didn’t—apparently lacking footage or relevant interviews, the film simply skips ahead from 1964 to 1967, and basically spends its final nine minutes slapping together random thoughts on the last three years of the group. It’s a jarring shift from the itemized play-by-play of the film to that point, but I guess that’s how it goes with a documentary like this: they have to take whatever they can get.

Hardcore Beatle maniacs will find a few nuggets of gold—the Lennon interview, the home movie footage, the flashes of analysis—buried deep in The Beatles: Rare and Unseen. But it still falls prey to the pitfalls of the unauthorized music documentary, and although this particular example is the most watchable one I’ve seen, that’s somewhat akin to being the leper with the most fingers.

"The Beatles: Rare and Unseen" is now available on DVD.

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