If you’re looking for documentaries on the Beatles, you don’t have a shortage of options, with two of the splashier offerings being, of course, the Anthology series, and Ron Howard’s Eight Days a Week.
The latter is blessed with rich, high-quality, color footage of the years when the Beatles went global, a band as world-brightening rocket that would sometimes pause itself to blast out 30 minutes’ worth of songs on a stage. The Anthology boasted amusing, fulsome commentary from the surviving Beatles, with John Lennon piped in from archival recordings. It was as close as you got to the four men sitting down for a repast, post-1970, and sharing what it had all been like.
But one Beatles doc you might not know – and its cause has not been helped by not having an authorized DVD release yet – is 1982’s The Compleat Beatles, written by David Silver, directed by Patrick Montgomery, and narrated by Malcolm McDowell, chief droog from Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange. Clocking in at two hours – and titled in the spirit of The Compleat Angler, England’s definitive book on fishing, from 1653 – The Compleat Beatles tells the band’s entire story, from pre-fame days, with checkpoints at each album, right up through the breakup. It’s brimming with keen musical analysis, and a coterie of voices you normally don’t get with a Beatles documentary.
For a long time, in the VHS era, it was a staple of high-school music teachers, starting 25 years ago in the summer and fall of ’82. If you were lucky enough to have had the TV set wheeled in by a Beatles-mad instructor, you know this is a special film.
Here are 10 reasons to check out this overlooked masterwork of the Beatles’ cinematic canon.
1. Writer David Silver had a pitch-perfect understanding of the Beatles’ career arc – and importance in their time and beyond. “Poets of a generation, heroes of an era,” The Compleat Beatles begins, with Malcolm McDowell reciting Silver’s lines with Shakespearean gravity. This is to be a proper assessment of a band that was so much more than a rock & roll collective, something we’re made to feel immediately. “Like all poets and heroes, they reflected the spirt of their times.” The early sequences in the film present footage of a bygone Liverpool, which looks pretty grim, as if nothing mercurial could emerge from this seaport. When the opening chords of the Beatles’ cover of Chuck Berry’s “Rock and Roll Music” kick in, the film itself seems to pop with possibility, as if infused with Beatle-esque spirit. There was nothing the band couldn’t do, and now there will be nothing this movie can’t do.
2. Gerry Marsden was an ace witness to what the Beatles were doing. The leader of Gerry and the Pacemakers, perpetual Liverpudlian also-rans, Gerry Marsden was always broad-spirited when it came to talking about the band that so outpaced his own, but you don’t get to hear him very much on film. Here he explains how the Liverpool acts were able to transform skiffle into something far grittier from what he terms the “ackky dacky” sounds of Lonnie Donegan. First he whips out a guitar to show how Donegan would play “Jambalaya,” before remarking “we’d get the record and we’d rock it up a little bit,” entering forth into a cool little demonstration. It’s a great primer for how the Northern bands were able to develop their own sound from what was a reductive, chipper genre in skiffle.
3. Early manager Allan Williams was quite the character. Williams liked his tall tales, and the Beatles basically screwed the guy over after he hooked them up with Hamburg and they jumped ship for Brian Epstein, but Williams clearly loved reminiscing about his relationship with the band, which would continue on for a while still. (And resurface later when the legality of the Hamburg Star Club tapes was in dispute.) He describes a letter from Howie Casey of Derry and the Seniors begging him not to send “that bum group the Beatles” over to Hamburg, for fear that this would mess up everyone else’s good thing. Williams then goes on to (accurately) describe the style of then-drummer Pete Best as not very clever. Hardly a feeling-sparer, which is probably why the likes of John Lennon liked him – at least for a while.
4. George Harrison’s mom deserves serious props. The Compleat Beatles does an excellent job of synthesizing how the Beatles came together in their pre-fame years (complete with an image of John Lennon’s report card decrying his “insolence”), with a clear, concise chronology, and valuable insight directed towards the subject of George Harrison and his mother. Most Beatles studies focus, in terms of maternal subjects, on Lennon and his mother, Julia, and Paul McCartney and his late mother, Mary, but Mrs. Harrison knew a thing or two about rocking out. “To his classmates, George Harrison was the boy whose father drove the bus they all rode to school,” McDowell states. “His mother sat up with him night after night as he taught himself how to play Buddy Holly songs,” with his inclusion in the Quarrymen assured because “his mother could tolerate their noisy rehearsals.” Way to go, Mrs. H.
5. Reeperbahn mainstay Horst Fascher was one badass MF. The Compleat Beatles makes commendable use of the underrated Star Club material to soundtrack several scenes, and it’s a delight when self-professed Beatles protector Horst Fascher turns up on camera. He made sure that they didn’t get in too much distress on their first Reeperbahn forays, or, as he puts it in the film, “If you are in trouble with some girls who are prostitutes, and you don’t know the girls are prostitutes, and the pimps find out, you can get in a lot of trouble,” which made Horst the guy to seek out to cure your ills and keep your ass intact, given that he was a former boxer who had been booted from competition for killing a sailor in a street fight. Ah, Hamburg.
6. The Litherland Town Hall show from December 27th, 1960, was the watershed gig of the Beatles’ career. The film also features a number of segments with Bill Harry, a friend of the band who was instrumental in spreading the good word about them in Liverpool – even before they deserved it – with his Mersey Beat magazine, which documented the comings and goings of life on the local beat scene. Harry gives the backstory for the gig that would change the Beatles’ career. “They came back from Hamburg still as an unknown band,” Harry remembers, but he promoted they hell out of them, “because they were close friends of mine.” This got a promoter to book them at Litherland Town Hall, shortly following Christmas in 1960. Allan Williams was there, too. “The moment the Beatles struck up and did their stomping, every kid froze, and then they ran to the stage and started screaming.” That would be the gist of a lot of what was to follow.
7. According to George Martin, “Yesterday” was the crucial pivot point for the band’s sonic development. Martin is eloquent throughout The Compleat Beatles: erudite, dapper, utterly sure of himself, being interviewed in a recording studio by his console, with no Beatles intruding with misremembered bits of info, something that dogged the Anthology. It’s just Martin, holding a master class in what it was like from his end to work with these guys. “They always wanted to have new ideas and sounds coming through. I found that they were almost more inquisitive than I was. In fact, in the end, it kind of exhausted me. Sometimes they knew what they wanted to do, but more often than not, they didn’t,” coming across like Yoda both frustrated and blown away by the gifts of Luke Skywalker. Regarding “Yesterday”: “It isn’t really a Beatles song,” Martin remembers saying to McCartney, then goes through how he made his pitch for the Beatles to forsake their standard drum-bass-guitar attack, which would become, through various methods, the mode of the future.
8. The doc features the coolest, trippiest, most cost-effective visual evocation of “Tomorrow Never Knows” ever filmed. McDowell’s narration intones that “Two of John’s songs ‘She Said She Said’ and ‘Tomorrow Never Knows’ were the results of his recent experiments with drugs” – fair enough – as a quick tour of Revolver begins, but what follows is brilliant: Using only the cover of the album, director Montgomery, through a series of sweeps, pans and fast dissolves, gives us something of a visual acid trip, as “Tomorrow Never Knows” blasts from the soundtrack. Once you see the effect, it’s hard to disgorge it from your mind each time going forward that you hear that mindblower of a track.
9. The band’s final world tour was pure terror, and no film better evokes it. With a collage of on-the-street interviews, footage from Beatles record burnings and people getting hurt at shows as frantic MCs plead for calm, The Compleat Beatles provides a strong sense of why touring had to stop for the band. As the footage unfurls, there’s a low droning figure in the soundtrack, sort of like the protracted hum of the final chord on the Sgt. Pepper album stretched out for several minutes. We also get a self-righteous cop in Minneapolis who goes on at some length about how much he hates the Beatles: “As far as Beatle music, I could care about it not one bit personally … one of their group, with the British accent, told us they would never come back to Minneapolis, and I told him that would be too soon for me.”
10. In Martin’s view, the Beatles were fated to become huge. George Martin has a lot of key lines regarding his four upstarts and their career. At one point he states, “Without Brian Epstein, the Beatles wouldn’t have existed,” by which he means that success would not have come to them and they would not be the galvanic entity we all know. But Martin is in downright Socratic mode, though, when he ventures towards a larger explanation for that success. “I think that the great thing about the Beatles was that they were of their time, their timing was right. They didn’t choose it – someone chose it for them. But the timing was right, and they left their mark in history because of it.”