As a card-carrying late-period baby boomer, I never thought I’d be able to know enough about the Beatles. After a week spent pleasantly slogging through The Beatles Anthology, I can say, without hesitation, that I know more than enough about the Beatles. In fact, I’m ready for Herman’s Hermits Anthology right about now.
You’re thinking that you already saw all 4 1/2 hours of Anthology when it was televised on ABC over three nights last fall. But you didn’t: This 8-tape boxed set contains the original 10-hour version that was subsequently edited down for U.S. television. In essence, it was the documentary we were supposed to see all along. As series director Bob Smeaton says: ”The TV version was like an EP or a single. This video is the album.”
So what’s new? A lot. Not only does the home-video version offer more footage throughout, but the whole shape of the thing is different. Where the televised Anthology jumped quickly to the group’s first burst of fame, the video carefully delineates the guys’ childhoods, adolescences, and musical influences; the years pounding away on the Hamburg circuit and at Liverpool’s Cavern Club; manager Brian Epstein’s tireless wooing of the record labels. In fact, it’s the later Beatles that get short shrift here. While 1964 is covered in Vols. 2 through 4, Vol. 8 jams the group’s final 4 1/2 years into a comparatively lickety-split 81 minutes.
Thankfully, where the televised version truncated performance footage in the interest of moving things along, the home-video Anthology lets the music play. In particular, there are astounding moments from a 1964 Sydney concert — John howling out a ferocious ”You Can’t Do That” into a torrential downpour — that never made it to the TV version at all. There are also goodies from the later studio period, among them a head-spinning promotional video for ”Rain” and home-movie outtakes from Magical Mystery Tour. And both the sound and video quality are startlingly clear throughout.
It’s all there and then some — so why does one stagger away from this smorgasbord feeling curiously hungry? The unsettling fact is that Anthology’s central conceit — to let the Beatles tell their own story, using studio outtakes and film footage that have been gathering dust in the vaults — can’t help but backfire. Sure, it’s gratifying to see Paul, George, and Ringo set the record straight in newly filmed interviews — and to hear the late John Lennon’s acerbic reminiscences in voice-over — but the one item missing from this project is perspective. Aside from a few shots of Mick Jagger, you wouldn’t know the Rolling Stones or the rest of the British Invasion existed. Apart from a concert snippet of Hendrix playing ”Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band,” you wouldn’t know that the U.S. had a musical revolution of its own.
The Beatles didn’t exist in a vacuum, of course. Their very sound was the product of a generational shift in musical tastes (which Anthology notes) and social attitudes (which it pointedly ignores). Moreover, the Beatles became the flashpoint for the greater changes of the ’60s. From long hair to sitars to LSD, if they did it, everyone else wanted to. Yet by limiting the interviews to the remaining Fab Three, record producer George Martin, publicist Derek Taylor, and longtime Beatles confrere Neil Aspinall (the executive producer of Anthology, although it’s clear the Beatles themselves had creative control), the filmmakers have delivered, in essence, an Apple vanity project. Yoko Ono declined to sit before the cameras (although she contributed materials and offscreen advice), but it would have been nice to hear from, say, Pete Best, or Cynthia Lennon, or Eric Clapton, or Billy Preston, or even Jimmy Nichol, the guy who sat in on drums in 1964 when Ringo was getting his tonsils yanked. Without those outside voices, Anthology never delivers the insights that 1982’s The Compleat Beatles packs into its relatively blitzkrieg two hours.
The voice we want more of, certainly, is Lennon’s. The tart, insistent sound bites from interviews past don’t quite cut the yellow-matter custard, especially when they’re laid over glutinous slow-motion footage of the man. Lennon dearly loved dispelling the myths that encrusted the Beatles, and you may find yourself craving one of his caustic blasts during Anthology’s more starry-eyed moments. At the very least, he would have had some choice bile for the ”new” Beatles song ”Free As a Bird” — as ghoulish an example of overhyped pop bathos as can be imagined — that is tacked onto the end of the final tape. Lennon brays, ”You can’t do that,” all right, but it’s history now, and it’s not enough. B