The Unseen Beatles is a 65-minute documentary feature shot by the BBC that seeks to answer one simple question. Why did the Beatles, at the height of its popularity as the biggest band in the world — indeed the biggest band in history — suddenly, and without warning decide to stop performing live concerts following their third American tour in 1966?
Using previously unseen footage (presumably from the BBC archives), as well as interviews with some of those who were closest to the Beatles during those heady years in the early '60s, this is a film that will only be of interest to the most dedicated Beatles fan. There is no Beatles music included, which automatically gives it that cheesy quality of other "unauthorized" accounts. Even the interview clips are frustratingly brief.
Still, there is something about this film that sets it apart from the various other unauthorized accounts out there.
First and foremost, is the fact that despite this film's use of the same sort of canned music and grainy images that "distinguish" other such unauthorized documentaries, the stamp of the BBC gives this one an odd air of authenticity. Even the grainy film footage — when combined with the deadly, to the point of being borderline humorous, seriousness of the narration — gives this film a quality of "newsworthiness." Granted, the authentic feel still comes in the sort of nostalgic sense of a theatre newsreel feature.
Beyond that, perhaps the biggest surprise of all is that this film actually does a fairly good job of answering just why the Beatles stopped performing. The usual reasons that are a matter of historic record — the band's desire to grow as musicians in the recording studio, the increasing frustration over the poor quality of the concerts themselves, and the overall craziness involved at the time — are all cited here.
But far more surprising are some of the insights offered by the people who actually lived the chaotic experience of Beatlemania on the road firsthand. The interviews given here range from Tony Bramwell, who was the Beatles road manager at the time, to members of support acts like the Remains and Sounds Incorporated, to journalist Maureen Cleave — who actually wrote the story where John Lennon claimed the Beatles were bigger than Jesus on the eve of their third, and ultimately final, American tour.
Hearing the firsthand accounts of the security problems which plagued tours of Japan (where the security was particularly heavy-handed after the band received death threats) and the Phillippines (where the Marcos family may have ordered the Beatles to be harassed by goons on the government payroll) is an absolute eye-opener.
Equally fascinating, is hearing just how amateurishly the tours themselves were being run, especially given the fact that this was the single biggest band on earth.
At a concert in St. Louis for example, the promoter refuses to pay $400 for a tarp to cover the stage during a rain-soaked outdoor concert. Paul McCartney bravely played the show anyway, despite receiving several shocks from a live microphone.
Even more frightening is the description of a flight out of Minneapolis where the pilots were drinking Jack Daniels, while an engine is seen "in a flash of light" from the window of the plane as clearly being on fire.
By the time of the Beatles final 1966 concert at Candlestick Park in San Francisco, at the end of a tour where Lennon's Jesus remark had resulted in everything from radio boycotts to record burnings to death threats, the Beatles clearly had seen enough. Already frustrated by the amateurish tour conditions, as well as their own inability to successfully recreate the music onstage in the chaotic environment of live Beatlemania, the band simply walked away, and retreated forever into the recording studio.
What happened next of course altered culture and ultimately made history.
Most of this is already common knowledge to most Beatles fans. Still, I found myself quite compelled by the first hand accounts of the unfolding chaos as told in this film. The never before seen footage — mostly pictures of the Beatles doing things like goofing off near a hotel swimming pool — is also, while nothing particularly special, another reminder of just why these four lads from Liverpool so charmed the world.
While The Unseen Beatles is hardly what I would call an essential documentary, it does provide insights that will be of interest to the hardcore fan. For those looking for those additional goodies, the DVD extras offered here are minimal. What you see is pretty much what you get.
Personally, I'm looking far more forward to the DVD release of Help! in just a few weeks.