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Did Brian Epstein rob an obscure Liverpudlian of the chance to be known as “the man who broke the Beatles”? That’s the contention of The Sixth Beatle, Tony Guma and John Rose’s amiable rocknerdumentary about Sam Leach, a promoter who put on some of the band’s most important early shows. Leach, a very likeable old character who claims his is “the last untold story of the Beatles,” is not the only colorful interviewee here, and for stretches the doc conjures Liverpool’s Merseybeat scene in a way that will enchant fans. But questions of factuality may dog this revisionist doc, which doesn’t hear a peep from either Paul McCartney or Ringo Starr and contradicts the established origin story. It’s likely to attract attention on video, and to be discussed by rock-history obsessives. But with a flashy Ron Howard Beatles film arriving later this month, one wonders how many related docs the theatrical marketplace can support.
The film’s TIFF premiere started with lengthy onscreen titles hinting at one of those hurdles, saying that a key interviewee, Beatles historian Mark Lewisohn, disputes some claims made in the movie and has requested that he be edited out of the final version. The doc’s reps can’t be specific about his complaints, but what he says onscreen seems to back up the doc’s main assertions, which are summed up by American journalist Larry Kane: “Probably without Sam, they wouldn’t have made it.”
The most enjoyable chunks of this film come when it’s simply telling its part of the story without feeling the need to dismantle a legend. Ryan White’s charming Good Ol‘ Freda showed how that’s done in 2013, by introducing us to Freda Kelly, the band’s secretary and fan-club manager, who until then had been silent about her behind-the-scenes experiences. (Kelly appears here.) But Rose and Guma carry chips on their shoulders on behalf of Leach, and the pic suffers for it in its final third.
Still, it’s a treat to meet Leach, painted here as too nice a guy to succeed in the music biz. Assorted old members of Merseybeat bands (The Undertakers, The Searchers, Kingsize Taylor and the Dominoes) remember him as an unusual promoter: A genuine fan who both liked and understood rock-and-roll, in contrast to the old guys who just wanted to make some money off a teen fad. Leach and the group’s unofficial early manager Allan Williams piece together some details of the group’s very early days, ignoring some bits (if early Beatle Stuart Sutcliffe is even mentioned, it’s quick) while establishing the importance of others: Operation Big Beat, for instance, one of the many gigs at New Brighton’s Tower Ballroom that helped make them giants on the Liverpool music scene before that smoothie Brian Epstein ever met them.
Equally interesting is the attention paid to Pete Best, the drummer who lost his gig to Ringo after slogging through hard months with the band in Hamburg. Best speaks at length here, and while he displays little bitterness about his own unexplained firing, he clearly resents the way history treated his mom: Mona Best, who started the Casbah Coffee Club so her son would have a place to play, is depicted here as crucial to the Beatles’ success, and as another victim of Epstein’s control-hungry style.
Leach tells a plausible-sounding story about his interactions with Epstein, who reportedly hustled Leach (and the Bests) out of the picture as quickly as he could. But Sixth Beatle cares a whole lot more than most viewers will about when Epstein got wind of the group, and is much more indignant about how he took credit.
Tech elements are generally acceptable, barring a few bits of stock and online-sourced footage that are embarrassingly crude. The first-time filmmakers have lots of great old pictures, but distractingly use them over and over. As for the many literary quotes they employ to lend weight to the story, these could easily be tossed away when Lewisohn’s interviews are edited out.
Production company: Guma/Rose Telefilm
Directors: Tony Guma, John Rose
Producers: John Rose, Tony Guma, Anthony Hardwick
Director of photography: Anthony Hardwick
Editor: Edward Osei-Gyimah
Venue: Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF Docs)
Sales: Josh Braun, Submarine
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