The Compleat Beatles (1982, Patrick Montgomery)
[Part of a continuing series on the Beatles’ cinematic legacy, meant to complement my series on their musical output at my other blog. Watch in the next couple of months for my huge Beatles discography and introduction over there that will tie it all together.]
As with the now-obscure Bugs Bunny Superstar, my affection for and history with this documentary, a onetime VHS staple in my room growing up, probably far outweighs its importance and utility in the world — though I will make the case here that it’s something big Beatles fans too young to have seen it in the ’80s or ’90s should really check out if given the (probably illegal) opportunity. At the outset, however, let me say that along with the kids’ biography The Boys from Liverpool (written by Nicholas Schaffner, one of this film’s interviewees), this film was my real introduction to the remarkable narrative of the Beatles, the twentieth century story that has beguiled, obsessed and tormented me more than any other (even Watergate!) for most of my life now. I watched it over and over again and it was really my roadmap to understanding the entire mythos; seeing it today, it helps that its accuracy is basically sound and that it’s sympathetic to the Beatles’ cause and their art without feeling excessively sycophantic toward them. That narrative, of course, is so inherently riveting that it does much of the movie’s work for it, but this remains an atypically concise and well-told version of it, not least because it features deeply engaging narration by Malcolm McDowell — sounding worlds more dignified and erudite than he did in A Clockwork Orange all of a decade earlier.
Being a movie about the Beatles, Compleat is a feast for the eyes and ears by default — these four men looked and sounded truly great and unique at every phase of their career — but it does far more than you might expect with the limited material at its disposal, and with no participation from any actual band members. That last point requires us to compare this to the “canon” Beatles documentary, the ten-hour Beatles Anthology from 1995, which told the tale in the words of the band and a trio of insiders, the only overlap between the two projects being George Martin; that’s a primary source and it’s indispensable, but there are a number of reasons it does not supersede or replace The Compleat Beatles even though it’s done so in the minds of many scholars and viewers. If Anthology explored the Beatles’ history from the inside, Compleat regales us with the phenomenon as it was experienced by the public and by the first layer of protection around them, as a cultural tornado within the context of the ’60s, and as a unique and singular moment; it does not strain for this with excessive context — the focus is always on the music, the things it synthesized — but the whole world seems to be within this film in a manner that just doesn’t happen with Anthology.
One reason for this is that the way it’s shot and edited — mostly on 16mm it appears, though IMDB says 35 — lends itself to a kind of seriousness that we’d be hard pressed to find in a modern documentary, or certainly one from the era in which Anthology came to pass; film as opposed to video makes these things more elevated and artful, even when all they’re doing is zooming into or scrolling across still images (hundreds of them here, joined by original and stock footage with a few live performances). Director Patrick Montgomery, who hailed from an archivist background, takes a similar approach to that of his engrossing, informative film about the great silent cinema maverick Erich von Stroheim, The Man You Loved to Hate, and proves equally adept here at providing straightforward education about cultural titans without any sense of condescension; both Montgomery’s films are as compelling if you’re intimately familiar with the subject at hand as they are if you’re hearing these tales for the first time. The superb script for McDowall’s narration, by one David Silver, is impressive in just how broadly correct it is in its interpretations of the band’s history and music, which have a distinct and occasionally idiosyncratic point of view without pushing any sort of an agenda — it’s smart, thorough and surprisingly touching.
In the case of the Beatles, Montgomery makes use of newsreel footage and archive and publicity materials that would one day form the nucleus of any number of dreaded bargain-bin DVD documentaries about the group, but his and editor Pamela Page’s use of this motherlode is vastly more resourceful, and narratively persuasive, than the norm. McDowell’s narration, the Beatles’ music and a few pieces of atmospheric scoring coalesce into what is at times an almost lyrical exploration of the Beatles and their era in which the occasional disconnection — and what some might term the uninspired nature of the visuals themselves, as with the repeated motif of Montgomery and his camera crew shooting closeups of album tracklists — can take ages to even notice and often doesn’t matter, at least to the sheer power and enjoyment of the experience, when one does. There’s one remarkably insane moment when Revolver and its relationship to LSD is being discussed, and the filmmakers throw a bit of “Tomorrow Never Knows” over about thirty seconds of wild, psychedlic new footage… of the album cover. The camera whips around, twirls, and wobbles like it’s zooming in on the statue from Jules and Jim, but all you’re seeing is a copy of Revolver sitting on the floor; and somehow, the results are wildly evocative. (When I was a kid, this portion of the film so piqued my imagination I’m amazed I never had the inclination to try what McDowell’s narration calls “mind-expanding chemicals.”)
Perhaps even more impressive an act of emblazoning history on viewers’ heads is the way that Montgomery and company convey the misery of the Beatles’ life on the road in 1966, which is done by joining relatively innocuous footage of the group landing at an airport and weaving through a mob of fans with extremely ominous music and an elegy of sorts in voiceover from George Martin; this gets the strangeness and claustrophobia of this era in the Beatles’ history more elegantly than even the Anthology, with the band’s direct input, manages… and all through the magic of editing. You could make a similar argument for the montage about the breakup that peaks with a fracturing portrait of the band to the irony-free strains of “I’m So Tired,” for the harrowing exploration of the U.S. backlash and record-burnings (a remarkable collection of footage) after John’s Jesus remarks melded with the scenes of chaos in Vancouver and a relatively minor furor over rock star hotel business in Minneapolis, or certainly for the rather poetic scene-setting of Hamburg in the first and strongest portion of the film. Regardless of where “there” is at any given moment, the film seems to capture it, as much with ambient sound and montage as with music. And all this is done with scarcely any unique footage; it’s simply put together that intelligently. (To be fair, the clip of nude mud wrestling on the Reeperbahn doesn’t show up in most Beatles documentaries.)
All that said, Montgomery does glean some rather astounding original footage, and it’s for this reason that the film constitutes a major untapped source for Beatles scholars, and causes one to hope that a treasure trove of additional material exists somewhere. (In an old forum comment, Montgomery claimed that his first cut ran four hours!) The interviews Montgomery manages to pick up are almost uniformly impressive, and generally are of peripheral figures who seldom spoke at such length about their relationship to the band on camera. Among the provocative interview subjects are Allan Williams (their first manager and a pivotal figure in their early history), Tony Sheridan (vocalist on their first publicly released recording “My Bonnie,” seen here in a long-haired phase), Bill Harry (editor of the Liverpool music rag Mersey Beat), Horst Fascher (former boxer, bouncer and house manager at the Star Club, audible on the 1977 live album recorded at that club in ’62 singing “Hallelujah, I Love Her So”), Liverpool scenesters and later semi-rock stars Gary Marsden and Billy J. Kramer, Cavern DJ Bob Wooler (famously beaten to a pulp by John Lennon, an incident unmentioned here), the great Billy Preston and Marianne Faithfull, and most invaluably, George Martin in one of the most wide-ranging and insightful interviews he ever gave. (His diagnosis of why the Beatles were successful is the most eloquent I’ve ever heard.) There are also cultural commentators ranging from Lenny Kaye to the aforementioned Nicholas Schaffner to honorary Beach Boy Bruce Johnston to musicologist Wilfred Mellers, who wrote a highrow music theory tome about the band’s output called Twilight of the Gods, which judging by his remarks in the film is likely as pretentious as its title. For the Sheridan and Williams talking-head sequences alone, Compleat is a riveting source of oft-forgotten angles of the Beatles’ story rivaled only by Mark Lewisohn’s book Tune In; it would be wonderful to see the full breadth of what they had to say, all of it shot quite impeccably on film to boot.
None of this is to argue that Compleat is a major work outside Beatle context, that it lacks flaws or that it doesn’t suffer in some respects when compared to the length and breadth of Anthology. There are a few moments when the mismatches of footage to narrative content are rather egregious, as when Ringo appears drumming at the Cavern Club before he has even been introduced to the plot, or when various songs (including the Royal Variety Command Performance) are laid over different performances of different songs. The women in the Beatles’ orbit are virtually ignored until (inevitably) the appearance of Yoko Ono — who’s treated, credit where it’s due, with respect by both the narration and by Billy Preston, the only interviewee who mentions her — and indeed fellow Maharishi acolyte Mia Farrow merits more of a mention than Cynthia Powell (completely absent), or Patti Boyd or Maureen Cox (seen in photos, names unstated). While Julia Lennon is referenced at the outset, her death is never addressed. Later: the sequence on the White Album is absurdly dismissive, though somewhat amusing, labeling it “disorganized” while “Why Don’t We Do It in the Road?” blares on the soundtrack. Yellow Submarine isn’t really a matter of enough importance to the Beatles themselves, great as it is, to justify the time spent on dutifully explaining it here. The film generally is much more fascinating and informative in regard to the early, pre-Beatlemania years than it is when exploring stardom and bold artistic leaps. There’s more inherent excitement to watching them emerge from the strange context of skiffle in England, hurled into the exotic sensuality of the Reeperbahn. This is a problem that occurs with many Beatles narratives, in part because the basic touchstones of their major label career have been covered so endlessly; but what specifically hurts here is that, aside from George Martin, we find ourselves suddenly left with few outside perspectives, and the film becomes in structural terms a routine hitting of the highlights, despite remarkable clips of press conferences and the like. If one isn’t familiar with the band’s history backwards and forwards, the midsection of the film will obviously hold more appeal. Finally, it must be said: this has perhaps the dumbest title of any motion picture in the annals of cinema. It’s meant to be a pun, but that certainly is setting the bar low.
Released initially onto videotape and laserdisc after Montgomery cut it down to an acceptable two hours, The Compleat Beatles proved so successful that it was picked up by MGM/UA (!) and released theatrically, then remained in print on home video for over a decade before Paul McCartney and/or Apple (accounts differ) purchased the rights and the negative, apparently in order to keep it out of circulation. Montgomery says this was to avoid competition with The Beatles Anthology, although one naturally wonders if Paul objected to something in the film. Either way, it’s a pity; the film is successfuly suppressed from most of the popular video upload sites and the version that circulates as a torrent is ripped from a clearly degrading VHS tape. You can buy used copies cheaply, but most of them are also VHS and therefore not necessarily a major improvement on the download; there are also bootleg DVD copies, and if they are sourced from the laserdisc version, that may be the best way to see this in decent quality short of picking up the laserdisc (and a laserdisc player) yourself. I would stop short of saying it is as essential to fans as any of the films the Beatles were actually involved in making, or even Anthology, but if you like the Beatles even casually, I think you’d get quite a lot out of it — and in contrast to its replacement, it’s something you can actually watch in one sitting. When I personally look at it now in all its appropriate drama and its determination to take the Beatles’ legacy seriously, I get a lot of joy out of remembering all the mysteries it unraveled for me, the new questions it gave me and the curiosities it left me with, setting me on a lifelong journey that still continues.