Unseen Beatles (DVD)
By 1966 the Beatles had played over 1400 gigs, released 15 Number 1 singles, made 7 albums, toured the world 4 times and sold the equivalent of 200 million records. At the height of their popularity, without warning, they pulled the plug. They would never tour again. Previously unseen archive footage, photographs, personal home movies and interviews with those who accompanied the Beatles on tour tell the inside story of Beatlemania, its rise and fall. Touching and intimate, it's a story of chaos and comedy, of death threats, plane crashes, diplomatic wrangles, and ultimately disillusionment.
There are a couple of surprises in store for amateur historians of Beatlemania on The Unseen Beatles, particularly home-movie footage by a fan who attended the band's famously final concert in San Francisco's Candlestick Park, 1966. The images seen here don't show the Beatles playing so much as they underscore how primitive the group's concert preparations were for such a sizable performance space. Received wisdom throughout many decades since the Beatles played live is that the disgruntled group couldn't hear itself over the screaming masses. The Unseen Beatles suggests, alternatively, that the band's management and general touring operation were well behind the demands of shows held in large arenas and stadiums.
Anyone with a passing knowledge of Beatles lore will recall that the group decided in 1966 to stop its many years of relentless touring with a final swing through America, focusing thereafter on increasingly experimental and accomplished work in the studio. The Unseen Beatles revisits the trail of life-threatening disasters that led them to give up the road for good, drawing on interviews with the Fab Four's associates (road manager Tony Bramwell, press officer Tony Barrow) and gathering a wealth of archival and personal film material. Various and familiar harrowing incidents--including stifling security measures in Japan to protect the Beatles from assassins and the group's nightmarish experience in the Philippines after enraging Imelda Marcos--are impressionistically recounted here. Perhaps more unique to Beatles fans is this BBC documentary's assertion that manager Brian Epstein could have handled touring resources better and been more creative about putting on safe, musically satisfying concerts attended by tens of thousands of people.
At times, the 50-minute The Unseen Beatles is too ambitious for its own good. Inadequate profiles of the personalities of John, Paul, George, and Ringo suggest how the Beatles grew apart as men. But in a show focused on the end of the band as a live act, The Unseen Beatles doesn't say enough about how the group's decision to end touring was fueled in part by individual needs for domestic life and to privately engage in intellectual, artistic, and religious pursuits. The program's musical score, including some of the most funereal sounds of Chopin and Mozart, is truly bizarre (occasional snatches of a generic Merseybeat sound are more appropriate). Famous faces from the Beatles' career--such as A Hard Day's Night director Richard Lester--linger on screen without even brief identification or acknowledgement. But despite these minor problems, The Unseen Beatles has a significant contribution to make toward understanding why the Beatles altered their priorities mid-career and freed themselves to make the likes of Revolver and Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. --Tom Keogh