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The kaleidoscopic baroque-and-roll masterwork that elevated The Beatles from pop stars to multimedia conceptual artists, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Heart Club Band celebrates its 50th anniversary in June. Arriving in U.K. cinemas later this month to coincide with a feast of deluxe album repackages, Alan G. Parker’s cumbersomely titled documentary It Was Fifty Years Ago Today! The Beatles: Sgt. Pepper and Beyond frames the Fab Four’s psychedelic 1967 game-changer within a turbulent 18-month period when they stopped playing live, flirted with Eastern religion, popularized LSD, suffered the tragic loss of manager Brian Epstein and launched their avant garde arts organization Apple.
A London music industry veteran turned filmmaker, Parker’s previous projects include the Emmy-nominated 2009 documentary Monty Python: Almost The Truth. But even blessed with such a rich subject and vast reserves of archive footage, It Was Fifty Years Ago Today! still has the threadbare feel of an unauthorized cash-in. Destined for home viewing formats soon after its limited theatrical launch, this functional exercise in Swinging Sixties nostalgia will most likely appeal to insatiable Beatles nerds only. Fortunately for Parker and his team, this still adds up to a potential audience in the millions.
RELEASE DATE May 26, 2017
In a market already saturated with Beatles memorabilia, documentary makers need passion, imagination and lateral thinking to justify revisiting such familiar material. But Parker opts for yet another dry talking-heads chronology which lacks inspiration or revelation. Crucially, he secures no new first-hand interviews with Paul McCartney, Ringo Starr, Yoko Ono or any of the band’s surviving inner circle. Instead, we hear from fringe figures including former Apple head Tony Bramwell, ex-fan cub secretary Freda Kelly, biographers Philip Norman and Ray Connolly, plus minor musical peers from the Cavern Club days.
A few share fond personal memories, notably the band’s first drummer Pete Best, whose grandfather supplied the military medals pictured on the Sgt. Pepper album sleeve, and John Lennon’s half-sister Julia Baird. But most of the interviewees can muster little more than banal generalizations. “Four guys, it just worked, and the talent was there” is one of the riveting observations that miraculously survived the editing process.
Most glaringly, the filmmakers have failed to license a single note of original Fab Four music. Instead, Parker enlists Andre Jerreau, a former member of long-running Fabs tribute act the Bootleg Beatles, to compose a pastiche score that plays constantly in the background like lightly psychedelic muzak. This embarrassing absence may also explain why the film contains surprisingly scant detail on the actual recording of Sgt. Pepper, a fascinating and revolutionary studio creation. Instead, Parker mostly concentrates on the broader social, emotional and personal context behind the album.
In fairness, It Was Fifty Years Ago Today! is not wholly devoid of interest, especially for forensic Fab Four fans. Lengthy archive newsreel clips give an intriguing sense of life inside the Beatlemania bubble just as the band were in transition from moptop pop minstrels to planet-shaking rock aristocrats. The chapter on Epstein’s death also has a pleasing journalistic rigor that is lacking elsewhere. Yanked out of a meditation retreat with the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi to hear the news, Lennon’s shell-shocked reaction still feels raw five decades later. “There’s no such thing as death anyway,” George Harrison argues. “There’s death on a physical level, but life goes on everywhere.”
More earthly insights into Epstein’s death come in a contemporary interview with Simon Napier-Bell, a budding pop impresario in Sixties London who later went on to manage Wham! and many other artists. After spurning repeated sexual advances from Epstein, Napier-Bell came home from a weekend in Dublin to find several bleary messages that the tormented Beatles manager had left on his prototype answerphone machine the very night he died. “I did the stupid, British, correct thing and immediately erased the tape,” Napier-Bell says ruefully.
In visual terms, Parker tries to compensate for a dearth of fresh Beatles material with small stylistic flourishes. Trippy animated credits invoke the surreal look of Yellow Submarine while fleeting live-action vignettes dramatize lyrical fragments from “Penny Lane,” “Lovely Rita” and other songs. But these feel like half-hearted efforts to enliven a pedestrian trip down memory lane which never does full justice to the richness, depth or magical mystery of its subject.
Production companies: A Geezer and a Blonde, Ren/Oir Productions
Director-screenwriter: Alan G. Parker
Producers: Reynold D’Silva, Alexa Morris
Cinematographer: Steve Kendrick
Editor: Ian Farr
Music: Andre Barreau, Evan Jolly
Sales company: Primal Screen
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