Here’s a question: has there ever been a really good Beatles film? Now, wait, before you post. Not just “good” as in entertaining, or interesting. But definitive. Definite. Iconic. Not just a great film starring The Beatles. But a film that’s the last word on them.
I ask because Liam Gallagher is about to unveil his new Beatles film in Cannes – an adaptation of the book ‘The Longest Cocktail Party: An Insider’s Diary Of The Beatles, Their Million Dollar Apple Empire And Its Wild Rise And Fall’, which the ex-Oasis man is producing.
Rightly, the first reaction to this is “buuuuwwwwwhahahahhaaha!”. The second, more reasoned, reaction is this: is a man with a lifelong John Lennon obsession, who named his son Lennon, who once claimed to be John Lennon re-incarnated, really the best person to tell a balanced account of the Beatles’ break-up?
But get past that, and there’s another thought. And this more scary than any other. What if it’s good? What if it’s more than good. What if – whisper it – it ends up being on of the best films made about the Beatles – ever?
Unlikely, perhaps. But look through the roster of Beatles films, and there’s actually not much competition.
Which isn’t, of course, to say there haven’t been some great movies. A film like A Hard Day’s Night is as iconic as they come. But it was a mock-doc “comic fantasia” by the guy who was to later direct Superman II, not a definitive account. The plot of Help! saw a far Eastern cult chase Ringo for a sacrificial ring, and included mad scientists, pink guns, and a brief game of curling. I still don’t know what Magical Mystery Tour was about, just that is was so bad Paul McCartney felt the need to apologise for it.
Of the films The Beatles made themselves, Let It Be comes closest to getting at the heart of the band. Initially conceived as a TV documentary showing them making what would be their last studio album, it was to accompany a concert broadcast. That was soon scrapped, and while the film – which still hasn’t been released on DVD – showed the cracks that were later to split the band apart, it hardly focused on them.
Their own films aside, then, film-makers have come up against an old problem with The Beatles. Namely: where the hell do you start? There’s too much, they’re too big, their influence has been too vast. It’s not hard to argue a “definitive” version is impossible.
Leaving aside a documentary series like The Beetles Anthology – clocking in at just over 11 hours, can you blame me? – most films have focused on specific angles and time periods. But what are we left with?
The Birth of the Beatles in 1979 told of the band’s early days up to their first No1, but essentially from the perspective of original drummer Pete Best (who was the technical advisor). The film suggested Best was sacked because of resentment at how popular he was in Liverpool at the time, and not because – as has been thoroughly documented – he was really crap at the drums.
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There was Backbeat in 1994, which tried to capture the essence of The Beatles through a more minor tale – the relationship between Stuart Sutcliffe (Stephen Dorff) and John Lennon (Ian Hart) during the Beatles’ early days in Germany. McCartney hated it, saying “they’ve actually taken my rock ‘n’ rollness off me. It’s like the Buddy Holly and Glenn Miller stories. The Buddy Holly Story does not even mention Norman Petty, and The Glenn Miller Story is a sugarcoated version of his life. Now Backbeat has done the same thing to the story of The Beatles.”
Again and again – we get slithers of The Beatles. Films focusing on incidents, on people, on moments. The Hours and Times in 1991 was a fictionalized account of a real holiday taken by Lennon and Beatles manager Brian Epstein in 1963. Two of Us in 2000 imagined a meeting between McCartney and Lennon six years after the band split, pondering a $300,000 offer from Saturday Night Live to reunite. The recent Nowhere Boy – boasting a great central performance by Aaron Johnson – focused on Lennon’s late teens. All see the bigger picture glimpsed through the smaller one.
Unlike Bob Dylan or The Rolling Stones, The Beatles never did a proper tour documentary (The Beatles at Shea Stadium, which covered the highlight of their 1965 tour, is the closest they came).
Unlike Control (on Joy Division), Sid and Nancy (The Sex Pistols), or Walk The Line (on Johnny Cash), has there really been a film that’s captured them? That’s come to define them on screen?
I’d suggest not. And if we park our cynicism for a moment, you never know. Liam just might be the man to do it.