The Beatles: Sgt Pepper and Beyond 01.06.17
Is The Beatles' 'Sgt Pepper' album the greatest ever made? Is it even the greatest album The Beatles ever made? Better than Rubber Soul or Revolver? Better than the flawlessly diverse Abbey Road? Perhaps let's just agree that Sgt Pepper is an album worth celebrating, fifty year after its release.
To some, in fact, a second Beatles documentary may seem unnecessary in the space of the year, following last year's successful 8 Days a Week directed by Ron Howard. Yet this remains one of the twentieth century's most important group of artists, and I was feeling a listless need to lose myself in something. As it turned out to my luck, the director of this latest Beatles offering, Alan G Parker, was present at the Cameo cinema screening to answer audience questions at the film's end.
What to say of the doc' itself? Unsanctioned by the people who own The Beatles' rights, TB:SPAB did not have interviews with the band's remaining members Paul or Ringo. It did, though, talk with the former drummer Pete Best, who had been famously denied fame and fortune when he was dropped by producer George Martin just as The Beatles were becoming famous. As such, this is much more a 'Pete Best' kind of documentary than a Ringo one, featuring talks with former roadies and associates who were airbrushed out of last year's more highly publicised doc.
Lower budget, then, but put together by a Beatles obsessive (Parker) who had the nous to chase up footage unseen since original broadcasts in the 1960s.
There are two particular highlights with this doc: the appearance of Best, who increasingly makes for a fascinating character as one of pop culture's 'never was' heroes – the not-quite Beatle – who it turns out finally received massive royalties in the late 1990s for his studio drumming in the 'Beatles: Anthology' (£5.3 million for drumming on seven songs). He has a heart-warming, family-related story, connecting him with John Lennon, which ties him to the Sgt Pepper album. The other, more haunting story involves the former Beatles manager Brian Epstein, who died mysteriously in the 1960s. In this documentary, you find out exactly what happened, from a one-time handsome associate.
A likeable documentary, then, that touches upon The Beatles' flirtation with transcendental spirituality and modern art. You don't learn much about the music – which has in fairness been covered by other documentaries involving the producer George Martin. The dichotomy of Lennon as the 'experimentalist' and McCartney as middle-of-the-road is convincingly challenged, and like last year's 8 Days a Week, it's also difficult to comprehend how these four young men managed to keep their humour and down-to-earth perspectives in the face of all the jarring idolization.
But is Sgt Pepper the greatest album ever made? One journalist and associate says the thing I've often thought: if only The Beatles had included Strawberry Fields and Penny Lane on the album, instead of releasing them separately as singles. Because the album has one or two weak tracks; had they been replaced by two of The Beatles' most iconic songs, I don't think there'd be much discussion about best ever album. A small tragedy for the album, but I think it's fair to say the album and the band did okay, regardless.