The Beatles

A Long and Winding Road [Video/DVD]

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Long and Winding Road [Video/DVD] is a most peculiar production: this five-DVD, seven-hour box set, is, as the case emphasizes (in tiny print) "neither endorsed nor authorized by the Beatles or Apple Corp." That's a big disadvantage when you're trying to do a comprehensive visual history of the Beatles, cutting off access not just to the surviving Beatles and their closest associates, but also to a lot of great key '60s footage and original Beatles music for the soundtrack. It's also bound to suffer unfavorable comparisons with Anthology, the massive authorized Beatles documentary that, while not perfect, was quite excellent, with extensive interviews with Paul McCartney, Ringo Starr, George Harrison, and George Martin, as well as about all the fine clips a fan could wish for. So while it's unstated, basically this set is trying to pick up any available crumbs that Anthology didn't sweep up, coming up with not so much a "Yellow Submarine" as a "Yellow Submarine" Sandwich, to pinch a line from the Rutles. It's not so much an alternative Anthology as a supplement to Anthology that the hardcore Beatles fan might want to check out.

Within those limitations, the filmmakers did a good but not great job. The core of the production, and its best features, are the more than 40 people they interviewed. To be honest, these are more peripheral figures than intimate associates, but still many of them did have a notable if secondary role to play in the group's intricate history. Among them are several members of the Quarrymen; Allan Williams, their quasi-manager in the early 1960s prior to Brian Epstein; Tony Sheridan, whom the Beatles backed on their first studio recordings; Alistair Taylor, longtime assistant to both Epstein and the Beatles; Billy Preston, who played keyboards on the Let It Be sessions; and John Lennon's half-sister, Julia Baird. Often, though, the figures have tenuous (or even no) direct connections with the Fab Four, including members of very obscure fellow Liverpool bands; Beatles chauffeur Alf Bicknell; Brian Epstein's secretary; and even members of the tribute band the Bootleg Beatles.

That's not exactly the same as, for instance, interviewing Yoko Ono, Pete Best, Astrid Kirchnerr, Alan Klein, Richard Lester, or Abbey Road engineers Geoff Emerick and Norman Smith, to name just a few interesting figures not heard from in Anthology. Still, since Anthology did not include any interviews from anyone other than McCartney, Harrison, Starr, Martin, road manager/assistant Neil Aspinall, and publicist Derek Taylor, the wealth of different perspectives does have some value. The interviews go over material that will be familiar to many Beatlemaniacs, but relatively fresh stories and perspectives do surface sometimes (Tony Sheridan reveals he hated the Beatles' image and material in the early days of Beatlemania), and some figures, such as Williams, Sheridan, and Taylor, are entertaining storytellers. There are also some mundane interviews, and the one with Rod Murray (roommate of Stuart Sutcliffe and John Lennon in their art school days) suffers from atrocious sound quality, though otherwise the audio and camerawork is of a reasonably professional standard.

The non-interview footage is far more disappointing, even considering the lack of access to the Beatles and Apple. There are bits of both silent and audio Beatles performance footage, but nothing too revealing (and often from sources that viewers will have already seen elsewhere). Actual Beatles music is heard only in very brief snippets during the footage, and for that matter is heard only briefly, very faintly, and very occasionally, as incidental background music. There are occasional brief clips of interest, such as a little of Pete Best in the mid-'60s as a guest on the TV show What's My Line?, and some good still photos. The use of cheesy pseudo-early-'60s style music for backgrounds and links detracts rather than adds to the viewing pleasure, emphasizing the absence of genuine Beatles recordings.

Most problematic of all, however, is the jagged structure of the discs, which would hardly serve as a workable history of the band for the few viewers who might not know the basic details of the Beatles' career. Far more attention is paid to their pre-recording days than their actual heyday, with three of the five discs devoted to their pre-1963 activities. There's little linkage supplied of basic information as to their records and key events in their rise to fame and artistic evolution. Ultimately it's for fanatics who know the story (and probably have Anthology), and want numerous bits and pieces of Beatles trivia, many of which admittedly are interesting. The only bonus footage is additional interview material with Julia Baird, Alf Bicknell, Alistair Taylor, Tony Sheridan, and Mersey Beat magazine founder Bill Harry, which is substantially less interesting than the excerpts used for the main feature, with Bicknell and Taylor in particular digressing into rather tedious and interminable stories.

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