Monday, September 28, 2009

Beyond Beatlemania

There is something of a modern iteration of Beatlemania happening these days, at least on the commercial front, thanks to the long-awaited release of the newly remastered CDs of the band’s entire catalog and the much-hyped Beatles edition of the Rock Band video game.

So with Beatles on my mind, I recently watched Composing the Beatles Songbook, a documentary on the songwriting of John Lennon and Paul McCartney during the 1966-1970 period. This film came out in 2008 to universal, if not high-profile, acclaim.

As a connoisseur of music documentaries, I’m fascinated by in-depth looks at some of the greatest music of our lifetime. Prior to watching this one, I thought I knew quite a bit about The Beatles, but I learned a great deal. It features some real revelations about the music the band produced during its most creative period – particularly on the landmark Revolver and Sgt. Pepper albums.

A half-dozen or so legitimate authorities (music critics, friends of the band and musical associates) offer expert analysis and thoughtful interpretations of The Beatles music. This is no hackneyed “unauthorized critical review” with C-grade sources – a genre that has proliferated in recent years. Nor is it exactly one of the highly reputable “The Making of … [Insert Classic Album Name Here]” films in which producers, engineers and artists revisit the master tapes of epic works and reminisce about how they were made. Both entertaining and credible, Composing the Beatles Songbook offers a nice balance between mainstream appeal and enough musical detail to sate musical obsessives like me. It covers the evolution of the Lennon/McCartney songwriting partnership over a number of years, not just on one classic release. Of course, with The Beatles’ albums during this period, they’re all classic releases. But they’re also quite different from one another, which makes the story behind the songs all the more interesting.

This film puts each release in the context of the times, circumstance and sensibilities of the artists. In so doing, it does a wonderful job of giving McCartney his due. In most histories of The Beatles, John typically gets all the credit as the edgier, boundary-pushing “artiste,” while Paul is depicted as a talented, but schmaltzy, pop tunesmith. This film, however, portrays McCartney as the enthusiastic, driven, profusely creative and widely varied composer that he was, and casts Lennon as the witty and brilliant, but increasingly distracted/disinterested, artist that he was.

The film starts with a few brief references to 1965’s Rubber Soul, in many ways the last completely collaborative Beatles album, and then digs deeply into the subsequent albums, dissecting key songs from each. Rubber Soul and 1966’s Revolver are portrayed as evidence of Bob Dylan’s influence on The Beatles, particularly on Lennon’s lyrics. After hearing Dylan, John realized that artists could now write about anything.

By the time of Revolver, my favorite Beatles LP, the band had become rich and powerful enough to do whatever they wanted artistically and get away with it. So they did. Meanwhile, Lennon had begun taking LSD, and his altered sense of consciousness crept into his compositions. McCartney, on the other hand, had yet to dabble in the drug (he would get to that later), but he had become fully immersed in the bohemian life of Swinging London, especially avant-garde music.

In examining Revolver, the cast of experts explores the methods and messages behind Paul’s emotive storytelling on “For No One” and “Eleanor Rigby,” with its resonant strings and English literariness, as well as John’s “I’m Only Sleeping” and his genre-pushing “Tomorrow Never Knows,” on which Paul is the one actually responsible for the “trippy” tape loops and sound effects.

One of the most interesting segments in the film is the examination of the band’s 1967 double A side single “Strawberry Fields Forever”/“Penny Lane” – the bridge between the Revolver and Sgt. Pepper albums. We learn that the two songs represent different takes on the changing world and youth viewed in acid-vision (McCartney had now turned on, too) – with John’s “Strawberry Fields” haltingly “stumbling to some kind of truth” about self and Paul’s “Penny Lane” presenting a surrealistic view of the Liverpool of his youth in which “even ordinary things are glittering with possibility.” The music geek in me was fascinated by the explanation that the two different perspectives (current and reflective) in McCartney’s jaunty pop song are tied to the tune’s change in key from B to A. That Paul knew what he was doing!

The band’s next album, the much-analyzed Sgt. Pepper, is depicted as essentially McCartney’s album. While Sgt. Pepper does mark the beginning of Lennon’s retreat from the band, he certainly still had some major contributions to make. Even in his “throwaway” Sgt. Pepper songs – the “found lyricism” of “Good Morning, Good Morning” (inspired by a cereal box) and “Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite” (derived from an antique circus poster) – the assembled experts illuminate John’s “last creative genius.”

They also note that while LSD may have inspired Lennon to look inward, that was not the case with Paul. For example, on “When I’m Sixty-Four” (with its old music hall reference points), McCartney’s focus is on history amidst a world of change. The film even manages to offer new insights on the epic “A Day in the Life,” considered by many to be the band’s ultimate achievement and the two songwriters’ last true co-write. The experts discuss how this “great fusion” married Lennon’s newsy observations with Paul’s unique ability to fill the interstitial spaces in big concepts. The result: a greater, astonishing whole.

The documentary breezes through the Magical Mystery Tour album and the Yellow Submarine soundtrack to arrive at the 1968 recording sessions for The White Album, which were marred by mounting tensions within the band (they were growing up, out and away from the original band concept, according to John). The resulting album was more a collection of individually composed songs (some of which were still remarkable) than the band collaborations of yore. There’s interesting analyses of Paul’s “Hey Jude,” revealed to be more than just a song about John’s young son Julian, and “Helter Skelter” McCartney’s railing against his image as the light pop songsmith of the band (which I knew), as well as his reaction to The Who’s contemporary “I Can See for Miles” single (which I didn’t know).

Yet, despite their drifting apart, the musicians still put in the effort to work as a band on occasion, as evidenced by their slogging through 97 takes of John’s “Happiness Is a Warm Gun.” And while Lennon’s “Revolution No. 9” was clearly the result of Yoko Ono’s avant-garde influence, it is pointed out that McCartney had composed a similar noise experiment two years earlier (remember the “Tomorrow Never Knows” period?).

In early 1969, Paul led the ill-fated “Get Back” sessions in an effort to reclaim the band’s roots as a live band (hence the famous London rooftop appearance), but by then it was obvious that John was no longer in team spirit. Then, finally, there’s Abbey Road, during which the other three Beatles essentially just tolerated Lennon’s distracted self-absorption. Nevertheless, John brought two strong songs [“Come Together” and “I Want You (She’s So Heavy)”] to the effort, while Paul and producer George Martin crafted the famous suite that makes up the second side of the album.

Unfortunately, there is little reference throughout the film to George or Ringo beyond a brief nod to the influence of band members (versus hired sidemen) on the recording process. Harrison’s notable, if few, compositions fall outside the scope of the film, though there is recognition that by the time of Abbey Road he had assumed as much compositional weight as Lennon in the band, notably contributing “Something” and “Here Comes the Sun” to The Beatles’ final studio effort (it was recorded after, though released before Let It Be).

What does appear to be more of an oversight is the utter absence of George Martin in the film, either as a subject of the discussion or as one of the experts. As the producer and widely recognized fifth Beatle, his role in the renowned compositions of this fertile period undoubtedly merit more mention, if not full examination. (After all, who do you think scored all those orchestral segments on Revolver and Sgt. Pepper?)

I’m not sure if you can get Composing the Beatles Songbook: Lennon and McCartney 1966-1970 on NetFlix etc., I got mine from Amazon. But either way, if you are interested in The Beatles, or even just an examination of song writing, it’s worth checking out this inspired documentary.

Note: There is a companion DVD to this release that covers the band’s earlier years (1957-1965). I have not seen that. It seems less intriguing since, despite their phenomenal popularity, the band was not quite as trailblazing compositionally during those years. Nevertheless, the quality of the second volume suggests that the first one may be worth checking out, too.

1 comment:

  1. I have since viewed and written a post about part one of this two- documentary set, which examines the Lennon/McCartney partnership from 1957 through 1965. It was better than I expected.

    You can read my post here: