Sunday, September 18, 2016


Teenaged Sigourney Weaver at a Beatles gig. Kewel!
The great acerbic music commentator Nik Cohn stopped at his chapter on the Beatles to point out the apparent futility of writing it as he wondered what else there was to say. That was in 1969. Decades and communications evolution later and the band is still being discussed, examined, prodded and tested. We just aren't finished with them yet. Not even the massive Anthology series put an end to that.

But then the one area that never quite got the attention was the world of the tours. John Lennon told Rolling Stone's Jan Wenner in 1970 that the Beatles on tour was like Fellini's movie Satyricon. Now after all this time mention of the secret world of all that youth and power still goes undocumented. It is still formless, wafting like a fog behind the masses of archival footage of sassy press conferences and scenes of teenage girls in screaming thrall.

Ron Howard's documentary doesn't go on the trail of the debauchery that Lennon hinted at with his image. The most we get is the story of cannabis which has long entered the realm of the mass public knowing giggle. Where are the stories of ethical dilemmas or spooking moments of revelation that the power of such deific adoration might engender? Not here. It's a beautifully constructed home movie night with the uncle who was there.

That said, it's a pretty bloody good home movie night. The polished film and audio blast and shine on the cinema screen and the sense of thrill the makers must have felt in piecing it together is communicated without effort. This is a beautiful hour and a half of memory.

Aside from the to-camera interviews with the surviving Beatles and the archival ones of the now deceased, we are given a series of recollections and comments from Larry Kane who joined them as a broadcaster on the first tour to now high-profile contemporary fans like Whoopi Goldberg or Sigourney Weaver. It's these last that really deliver the unknown here as they tell of life in the queues and the stalls, the tidal force of the screaming mass and its gleaming centre of gravity. Soon enough all care about the problems of saturated history fall away as this exhilarating film continues.

However, the reason to see it at the cinema is the post-credits feature, available, as the claim goes, only in cinemas. The entire Beatles set from the legendary Shea Stadium concert. This was shot in 35mm with a host of cameras trained on the stage and a small mass of them facing the other way, recording the audience, the great entranced public who filled this birthing ceremony of the stadium gig. Both are essential here and both compel.

On stage the Beatles, by now blase about the constant screaming worship, are yet taken aback by the sheer scale of this audience. The sass and wit that coloured their banter is infused here with some of the dizziness before them as Lennon throws his arms out and quacks out strings of wordless garble. The set, of a brevity that no international touring band would ever get away with only years after this. Most of it is singles and covers of 50s rock and roll which would continue to make up their sets. By this concert the band had released eight US albums, mostly comprised of originals. It was either just easier to play hits and memories or the thought of slogging through the newer, more complex material only to have it dissolved in the jet engine scream of the fans was too much.

They are troupers, though, ploughing through a set as close to note and beat perfect as any band with so little notion of the sound they were making that they might as well have been guessing. There's a flub here and a miss there but take the screams away and this is a band that is playing like they love it. Put the screams back in and it's a spectacle of the effect of city-sized audience pushing a tsunami of love. All the band has to do is play well enough to start and end together and this will continue. That's what happens, they play and sing, screaming back the love that would carry them into unshakeable fame for evermore.

This isn't just because of their talent. As this half hour of footage demonstrates, the great win of a Beatles concert was only partly dependent on the fabs themselves. When we look in the opposite direction we see it all. Every few minutes a teenage girl is passed like roll of Persian carpet from cop to cop until her senseless limpness reaches the aisle and she is borne out of the heat and the din. I thought of the story each one would tell decades later, how she almost saw the Beatles even though she was there. Elsewhere there are tears and screaming and more screaming. Take any one of those girls out of that context and her paroxysms, the constant desperate scream distorting her soft features into hard masks of terror would suggest unimaginable trauma. And that's what this footage does. Every closeup of a girl in the crowd is startling as we see with such fresh clarity the screen fills with yet another fallen to deafening, twisting possession. Some middle aged dads frown behind their ray bans until it's over. But mostly it's the girls, each screaming, shaking one of them, girls, thousands and thousands and thousands of girls.

A shot of manager Brian Epstein appears. He's by the stage, absently rocking with the beat of the song, rolling his eyes to the sky as though this greatest moment his clients would ever know while playing live is just a bigger model than all the ones before. He knows no more than they do that this will end in a year's time as the band retreat to the studio to improve and intensify, leaving him little more to do than be nice to the press when the next album comes out. It's this moment, this one shot, that tells me that I am in a cinema watching a thirty minute document that has just been preceded by a ninety minute introduction.