As the Baby Boomers enter their dotage, an increasing number of them reflect on how awesome things were back in their day, and so we get documentary after documentary on some aspect of pop culture that was significant to some percentage of them. Sometimes this works out better than others. And so we come to this Ron Howard documentary on The Beatles’ touring years which has a whopping 96% on Rotten Tomatoes. I took the kids who are—they’re not even milennials, but post-milennials. I guess they’d be in the Snowflake Generation (though neither can really grasp the concept), and I figured they’d actually give the most objective take on the film.
On Twitter, a popular #confessyourunpopularopinion—said oxymoron revealing in and of itself—is to say that the Beatles were overrated or that they were just outright bad. The latter is just sort of silly baiting, like saying Die Hard isn’t a Christmas movie or putting catsup on your hot dogs. They may not be to your taste but in the context of their time, they were competent musicians (uncannily able to recreate their own recordings) with massive numbers of wildly popular hit songs in a realm where hit songs are the only metric that counts. Still, people aren’t particularly logical about anything, perhaps music least of all.
Now, overrated? That’s a different story. Upon seeing this film, one really has no choice but to say, “Oh, yes, they were absolutely, insanely, wildly overrated.” Because the mobs were nuts. And everywhere in the world they went, they were mobbed. You can still see the glimmer of insanity in the eyes of Sigourney Weaver and Whoopi Goldberg, among others. Someone, I think it was Jon Savage (but it might have been Elvis Costello or Eddie Izzard) talks about the great musicians of history and ranks The Beatles up with two or three other guys throughout the history of music (Beethoven, Chopin and Mozart, if I recall correctly) in terms of quality melodies turned out. That’s not a proposition I’d want to have to defend since you’d literally have to listen to All The Music.
One thing this film does really well is highlight the unprecedented nature of the group’s success. They broke a lot of records. They performed in a ton of increasingly large venues, becoming the first group to do stadiums. The albums didn’t make much money for them, somehow, but the concerts did so they played and played and played, and the fans screamed and screamed and no music was to be found anywhere. These frustrating circumstances, along with copious amounts of pot, led to their dissatisfaction with the touring and the end of their live performance days.
Amusingly, an unwilling journalist who followed them around on tour describes his first experience with the Stoned Beatles, and the movie presents their subsequent degeneration and dissatisfaction, almost like an anti-pot message. (I have no idea how Ron Howard feels about marijuana, but I do think that Gene Simmons knew what the hell he was doing when he demanded drug abstinence from KISS performers.) The movie doesn’t cover the later years with the paranoia, the foggy thinking, and the harder drugs, of course.
It was an enjoyable enough way to pass two-and-a-half hours. I was a Beatles fan in grade school (and a loather of KISS, as one must) and, well, I’m not embarrassed. The music was solid early ’60s (heavily Motown influenced) Rock. Fun, catchy, kind of worn out, I think, but that’s the fate of all really popular music: Can you listen to “Camptown Races” or “Yankee Doodle Dandy” and not feel like they’re STILL a trite (despite being out of regular play for decades?). And, of course, it was basically stuff I knew, though nicely presented. There was a lot about how decent they were in terms of how they treated the poor journalists and opening acts who had to tour with them. And also about how tight they were with each other and the sympathy they had for Elvis, who was all by himself.
The kids thought it was all right. Not “all right!” but fine. Wait, not fine, but…there must be a word that means “of acceptable if not overwhelming quality” that hasn’t been co-opted to mean “mind-blowingly wonderful” or “not very good at all” but I can’t think of it. Damn rock’n’roll.
After the credits, the movie features a magnificently restored 4K version of the Shea stadium concert. I made the kids hang around so I could hear the opening, and then we left because, to be honest, that’s a terrible concert. It was their last American one, in a ginormous stadium before anyone had the technology to handle that sort of thing. (Another thing I hadn’t heard, from Paul, was that they had one or maybe two roadies. They never knew if the sound would even work when they got to venue.) It is remarkable to note how well they stayed in key and how professionally they managed to start and stop at the same time (a feat The Grateful Dead never managed, I think). But it’s still not a great concert. The live stuff recorded before they got big is both better and more fun: It makes it possible to understand how they got big, from a musical perspective.
So, yeah, go ahead and check it out. If you were there and a Beatlemaniac, you’ll probably dig it. If you’re not, it’s still pretty good. Though, obviously, if you hate-hate-hate the Beatles, this won’t change your mind.