Rock music documentaries seem to have a difficult time breaking out of a formulaic mode. They all have the obligatory history, concert footage, interviews with band members, agents, and managers, and some obligatory trivia that true fans wouldn’t find surprising.
The Emerson, Lake and Palmer Beyond the Beginning DVD contains some great material, but stays within the standard format. There are moments that are instructional and even captivating, but much of the material presented is either incomplete, edited poorly, or out of synchronization. Still, hyper-fans of the ex-super group will find much of Beyond the Beginning worth viewing if only for the 1974 California Jam footage alone.
The documentary begins with videos culled from vocalist/guitarist Greg Lake’s brief tenure with King Crimson, a small bit of Keith Emerson’s work with The Nice, and a rather annoying performance from The Crazy World of Arthur Brown featuring Carl Palmer on drums. Emerson, Lake, Palmer provide voice-over commentary to these sequences which unintentionally reveal the reason behind Lake and Emerson’s departures from their groups, and why Palmer went on to found Atomic Rooster.
The visuals of ELP in concert are also revealing. The comments of the band and tour manager delve into the repetitive and exhaustive European and Asian tours ELP embarked upon. But the various camera zoom-ins on the performers’ faces during these tours speak much louder to the frustrations and frazzling the band experienced during their years on the road.
What distinguishes this documentary is much of the bonus footage included. There are some tremendous shots of the band during a 1973 rehearsal, where we see how ELP worked to bring their fresh approach on classical standards. Emerson clearly is in the lead here, and his communication with Palmer in coordinating the percussive parts with the keyboards is truly a fascinating look at how two top-tiered musicians weave intricate tones together into an amazing mix of sounds.
An interview with Bob Moog is also an inspired ten minutes in which Moog talks about how he worked with Emerson to create the famed electronic “switchboard” that allowed him myriad sound choices in a live environment. Less inspired is the sequence on the album covers. Little is said about the artists’ inspiration, only the trouble the band and the artists suffered after the album covers were made. Perhaps the filmmakers were trying to craft a bit of mystery here, because many of the artists died shortly after the covers were made.
But more mysterious was the filmmaker’s choice to include a promotional sequence of ELP racing cars entitled “ELP at Brand’s Hatch.” At first glance, one would think this would be another concert, but the band members don’t play with anything here but stock cars.
However, this odd choice can be forgiven considering the inclusion of the 1974 California Jam concert. While much of the concert has been edited, is out of sequence, and is haphazardly put together, there are moments of pure joy when the band completely lose themselves in the music and allow the momentum of what they’ve created lead them into tremendous experiments in sound.
Beyond the Beginning has the feel of a diehard fan’s so-so addition to a complete collection. In ways, the commentary is directed towards those who have a fairly good knowledge of the band and have perhaps a behind-the-scenes awareness of how much of what is seen here unfolded. There’s nothing wrong with that. Sadly, there is so much more that could have been done with this material.