THE UNSEEN BEATLES
director: Barry Hood
review by J.C. Hartley
Clever play on words in the title of this repackaged BBC 2 Timewatch documentary, in that the film contains 'unseen' footage of the Fab Four, and engages with the reason behind their refusal to tour after 1966, rendering it impossible to see a live performance unless you were in the vicinity of the Apple building in Savile Row in 1969. The suggestion that there is some mystery about their refusal to play live is however quite spurious, as anyone who knows their Beatles knows that they became cheesed off with the fact that the general hysteria surrounding their live appearances rendered any meaningful performance unintelligible.
In Tom Wolfe's hallucinogenic rendering of the career of writer Ken Kesey and The Merry Pranksters, in The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, Kesey and his circle go to the Beatles gig at the Cow Palace in the outskirts of San Francisco where, freaked-out on LSD and in an oppressive venue, they see the concert as a horror-show in which the audience is a cancerous colony organism controlled by the band at its oblivious head, and watching this film something of that revelation seems pertinent, as the Beatles seem alternately bemused and alarmed at the outpouring of emotion they are responsible for.
The film follows the group from their innocent early endeavours at obtaining a niche in the pop charts, via their gruelling national tours, to the eventual explosion of fame and controversy as they became "more popular than Jesus." Maureen Cleave, the journalist responsible for the John Lennon article in which he made his comparison with Our Lord, suggests that British audiences were unfazed by Lennon's remarks, and that it was only in the USA that objections were raised, but I can remember as an eight-year-old boy being more than somewhat disturbed by Lennon's statement, and my grandma was positively livid. It is interesting in the context of the film to see the reaction in America, the cover of a teenage fanzine Datebook features Lennon wondering which will last longer Christianity or rock 'n' roll, below McCartney's observation that "It's a lousy country where anyone black is a dirty nigger"; the next piece of newsreel shows a member of the Ku Klux Klan in full regalia promising a reporter that they will disrupt Beatles gigs in order to uphold Christian values.
The Beatles international tours were shambolic affairs; manager Epstein was clearly out of his depth and despite the huge revenues to be made seemed parsimonious about transport and accommodation for his charges when he could have pretty much demanded whatever he and they wanted. An unsubstantiated story some years back suggested Epstein's death by suicide was not brought on by depression occasioned by his homosexuality and alleged rejection by Lennon, but was in fact a cleverly contrived mob 'hit', in revenge for his over-indulgence in selling Beatles' percentages and the resulting financial chaos.
The film captures the musicians' growing disillusionment with their goldfish bowl existence, while going some way to support the notion that they remained a bunch of ordinary lads attempting to come to terms with being the most famous people in the world. There remains something inspiring in the stills and movie footage of hysterical girls abandoning the reserve of their postwar upbringing in an almost magical unleashing of tears and screaming.
The film ends rather disappointingly by declaring that the low-tech, under-funded, and definitely unsafe concerts performed by the Beatles in the USA were the prompt for the military-style logistical operations that put a band on the road today, and celebrating the fact that these four musicians gave youth culture its voice, as if some kind of conclusive summing-up were really necessary. When I was at primary school myself and three other boys would pretend to play She Loves You in the playground and then leg it pursued by a horde of screaming girls, now that's cultural resonance.
The modest extras package includes home-movie footage of the boys relaxing while on a tour of Jersey, a stills photo gallery, and extended interviews with Maureen Cleave, road manager Tony Bramwell, journalist Larry Kane, and others.