In the midst of reviving my Beatles blog this summer, I’ve also been on a bit of a Beatles kick in another notable way. This past month, I finally sat down and watched all eight episodes of The Beatles Anthology series, plus the “Special Features” DVD. For those of you who are unaware, The Beatles Anthology was a massive project undertaken in the 1990s by the entire Beatles camp to tell the Beatles’ story from their own perspective. This project took several forms: three Anthology CDs containing live performances and studio outtakes, a beautiful coffee table book, and an eight-part TV documentary.
I already have all three Anthology CDs in my iTunes library, and I own and have read the entire Anthology book, but a recent conversation with a friend reminded me that I somehow had never seen the documentary. Once I got home for the summer, I immediately went to my local library to see if they had the Anthology series on DVD and, sure enough, they did. Several DVDs later, I’ve finally finished the whole thing.
Anthology takes you through the Beatles’ entire story, from when they were kids growing up in Liverpool to when they called it quits. It contains lots of performance footage and interviews with all four Beatles, as well as extensive interviews with other notable members of the Beatles’ family such as Neil Aspinall (driver, then roadie, then director of Apple), Derek Taylor (at one point the Beatles’ press officer), and George Martin (their producer, but you knew that). I was quite pleased at how much airtime Anthology gave to these important figures, though it makes sense when you consider that Neil was heavily involved in making the documentary and George Martin oversaw the Anthology CD project. I also learned several new tidbits from their interviews; apparently Neil Aspinall came up with the idea to reprise the opening track on Sgt. Pepper at the end of the album, to make it feel more like a complete listening experience.
One of my other favorite parts of Anthology was how much airtime it gave to the earlier years of the Beatles. I was worried that the first few years of their success, namely 1962 and 1963, would get short shrift, but I was pleasantly surprised that two whole episodes of Anthology focused on the period of the Beatles before they really made it big in 1964. With that said, there was also a lot of interesting footage from their later years that enriched the series. The clips of the Beatles’ trip to India were particularly fascinating, as many of them I had never seen before, and that whole period of their history got more airtime than I was expecting. I also appreciate that Anthology gives basically equal billing to all four Beatles, even though obviously all of John’s interview footage was from before he died, long before the Anthology series was put together.
Watching Anthology also confirmed one of my theories about the Beatles, which I’m sure is held by many; their breakup did not result from one single event, but came about due to a series of events starting in about 1966. The interviews with the Beatles regarding their later years seem to imply that the first major catalyst en route to their break up was the decision to stop touring in 1966, which effectively ended their life as a traditional “band” and began their time together as “artists.” The other major events in this chain seem to be the death of Brian Epstein in August 1967, the trip to India in early 1968, John and Paul’s decision to start Apple, Yoko’s introduction into John’s life, and filming all rehearsals for Let It Be as part of a movie project.
Anthology portrays the Beatles’ breakup probably as it actually was, an inevitable end to a landmark moment in music history that simply outgrew the restrictions given to it by fame. It’s sad, but by the time the January 1969 rooftop concert appears in Anthology, I found myself thinking, “Good lord, how have the Beatles not broken up yet, with all of this tension and chaos happening?” Obviously, if things had been perfect and all of the Beatles still wanted to continue, it would have been wonderful for all of their fans for years to come. However, for the Beatles’ sake and the sake of their music, I am honestly glad that they broke up when they did. If Anthology showed me anything, it revealed that nostalgia and sentimentality for the Beatles can easily be revived at any time, since the worldwide love for the group is so strong.
My one critique of the Anthology series is that if you’re a relatively big Beatles fan and have read the Anthology book already, you won’t learn tons of new information by watching the series. That’s not to say that it’s not worth watching; it absolutely is! But I feel that the strength of the series really lies in the video clips and footage that it contains, and not in the actual amount of new information. The interviews added insightful context to many events in the Beatles’ history, but Anthology clearly prioritizes showing a remastered five-to-seven minute clip from the Shea Stadium concert over including a never-before-heard anecdote about what happened backstage at that concert. One isn’t necessarily better than the other, but for me personally, I would have liked more never-before-heard anecdotes.
This might be why I enjoyed the special features DVD so much. It included a 15 minute clip of Paul, George, and Ringo playing music at George’s house and reminiscing about the Beatle days, and there were a lot of fun stories in there that they had never discussed in other contexts. I also really enjoyed the clips of Paul, George, Ringo, and George Martin in Abbey Road Studios listening to some of the outtakes on Anthology, as well as the footage of the surviving Beatles recording “Free as a Bird” and “Real Love.” I do understand that these clips were probably left off of the official documentary because they don’t neatly fit into the timeline of the Beatles’ story. However, I wish that Anthology had a bit more of this spontaneous energy from the special features, the kind of energy that fueled the Beatles’ most innovative creations.
I could go on, but this post has already gone on for longer than I anticipated, so I think I’ll leave my thoughts there. If you have access to a library with the Anthology DVDs, I highly recommend checking them out or finding them somewhere online to watch. You’ll walk away with a more realistic and contextualized picture of the Beatle years, and no doubt will fall back in love with any treasured Beatle songs that you’d forgotten about.