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COMPOSING THE BEATLES SONGBOOK

Review by Mark Wiechman

Stars:  Barry Miles, Klans Voorman, Maureen Cleaver, Alan Moore, Chris Ingham, Robert Christgau, Anthony DeCurtis, Johnny Rogan, Pete Doggett, Steve Turner, Nigel Williamson, Paul Gambaccini
Audio: Dolby Stereo
Video:  Color full screen
Studio: Video Music, Inc.
Features:  See Review
Length:  112 minutes
Release Date:
November 25, 2008

“All the lonely people, where do they all come from?

All the lonely people, where do they all belong?”

Film ***

This is a very illuminating program that discusses how John Lennon and Paul McCartney were similar yet different through the latter years of the Beatles, beginning with 1966 and continuing through their demise in 1970.  One of the most valid insights is that John Lennon saw rock ‘n roll as a rebellion against all previous musical forms and lifestyles whereas Paul McCartney was a master melodist who was more comfortable as a composer of his era.  By the time of Rubber Soul, John had been married for several years while Paul was in a serious relationship with Jane Asher, which opened many creative worlds to Paul.  He was far more secure than John as well. 

While the Beatles were world famous, they were still from a working class British background, and through Asher and his friend Barry Miles McCartney gained entrance into worlds which were otherwise denied to Liverpool boys.  While John was often experimental in his music, more of it was inspired by drugs whereas it was Paul who discovered these worlds first and added these ingredients to the Beatles’ sound palette.  Paul was generally more upbeat, though often sentimental, whereas John’s were often sleepy or morose.  They started as mop-top teen idols and emerged quickly as serious songwriters and composers unmatched in our time. I was prepared to dismiss this program as a group of fans gabbing about their idols but there is much more here.  We are put right into London of the 1960’s and we feel like we are right there in the middle of post-Beatlemania England. 

The various narrators offer their own analyses of the differences between, for example, the unity of their albums until The Beatles (White Album) when each track just seems to be one of the Beatles with some back-up musicians.  There is not that much actual musical analysis but we hear many actual tracks and even see musical videos (some from the era and others from today).  Many music specials don’t bother to play real music of the artist in question, which definitely lessens its value.  This one is educational but not overly intellectual nor a sentimental journey.     

Some of the tidbits we already know such as how Paul McCartney read a review of the Who’s I Can See For Miles inspired him to write Helter Skelter, and how Happiness is a Warm Gun took 97 takes to get its key changes and shifts in mood right.

Audio ***

Most of the speakers are British so I sometimes struggle with their accents, however refined, so while subtitles are not needed, I wish the speakers were recorded with the same quality as the narrator, which can be done easily with portable digital recorders in our age.

Video ***

Just full screen television style, not amazing but fine for documentary style with no glaring artifacts or problems.  There are some occasional weak shots that are mostly just normal for the age of the footage, though some newer interviews seem to be filmed with a minimal technological level.   The editing is crisp and keeps up a vigorous pace.

Features **

These are brief but useful.  There is a feature called Allan Moore on “A Day in the Life” in which Moore discusses the song uninterrupted by other interviewees and plays parts of the tune on the piano.  He also discusses how the song is mixed and how unusual the song is, bridging the gap between musicology and audio.  There is also a detailed biography for each speaker and a brief ad for other media devoted to the Beatles.

Summary:

“And in the end, you the love you take is equal to the love you make.”

Watching this special will make you mourn the passing of the Beatles all over again.  As many narrators say, you just thought they would be here forever.  Not necessarily a stunning revelation but still worthy of viewing by Beatles fans, new and veteran, Composing the Beatles Songbook contains insights into two of the most gifted composers of the modern era.

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