For those of you who don’t already know, I consider The Beatles to be the greatest band to have ever played a song. Their music helped to redefine pop music during the 60s and the way John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Ringo Starr worked off each other helped create some all time classic music. Yesterday (at the time of writing this review) saw the 50th anniversary of the release of what many consider to be their magnum opus: Sgt Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band. Whilst it’s not my favourite Beatles album, that would be Magical Mystery Tour (mainly because it has more of my favourite Beatles songs on it), the impact of Sgt Peppers cannot be understated. To capitalise on the 50th anniversary, a documentary about the album was released from Alan G Parker, who has had success with documentaries on Status Quo, The Clash, Kiss and, probably his best achievement, a 6 hour long documentary on Monty Python. However, with this film there was a massive hurdle: he didn’t have permission to use the music. The result makes it a pretty messy film.
In terms of a timeline for this film, it covers the period from the controversy over John Lennon’s ‘Bigger Than Jesus’ comments to the death of Brian Epstein, covering events such as the recording of Sgt Peppers, the release of the double A side single of Strawberry Fields Forever and Penny Lane, The Beatles time with Maharishi and the setting up of Apple Corps. Now there are a few interesting stories in the film covering the work of the Beatles, although since this is an unofficial film, we don’t get stories from Paul McCartney or Ringo Starr for example. The most prominent figures related to The Beatles who we hear stories from in this film are Brian Epstein’s secretary, the official, biographer for the band, John Lennon’s sister and Pete Best. The best parts of the film though are not with the interviews recorded for the film but with the archival footage of The Beatles. These pieces of footage give a good insight into the personalities of each of The Beatles, particularly a bit where each member of the band is interviewed individually about rumours of a break up, mainly in the different ways they respond, and, thankfully, most of the film is made up of this footage. When the film moves away from footage of The Beatles though, it does suffer, mainly as there is little corroborating evidence for what the interviewees are saying, some of it feeling like conjecture or exaggeration. There also seem to be parts where some elements of the band aren’t covered in as much detail as they could have been, mainly the songwriting relationship between John Lennon and Paul McCartney and the way their personalities played off each other, the whole contributions of George Harrison and Ringo Starr and the importance of George Martin, with there only being a few stories surrounding Martin.
However, the biggest problem with the film comes from it not having the rights to use the music of The Beatles or even the cover for Sgt Peppers. There are many moments in the film where the interviewees gush over the brilliance of the music, how revolutionary it was for the time and the power of the lyrics, but without being able to actually hear the music, all of the words that can be said about the film are meaningless. This even goes to not having the rights to use the album cover for Sgt Peppers. A good chunk of the film is given over to analysing the cover but without being able to show the cover and who’s on it, the meaning of what is being said is lost. Say what you will about Ron Howard’s documentary Eight Days a Week: The Touring Years, it was at least able to use the music of The Beatles (and brilliantly remastered it).
Overall, It Was Fifty Years Ago Today is a weird film. Without having the right to use the music of The Beatles, there isn’t really much point for this film to exist, feeling like a quick cash in for the 50th anniversary, rather than working with Apple Corps and the surviving Beatles to create the definitive documentary about the album. If you want my advice, just watch Ron Howard’s documentary instead, it’s more insightful into the music of the Beatles, the atmosphere of the time and it uses the music of The Beatles.
My Rating: 2.5/5