The Beatles

The Beatles with Tony Sheridan

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This DVD will prove extremely rewarding to serious Beatles fans (and those of Tony Sheridan); it's also -- very slightly -- a bit misleading, but not in a way that serious viewers will mind much. On its surface, it recycles yet again most of the 1961 Hamburg recordings made by the Beatles backing Sheridan that have been reissued and repackaged countless times. Though it seldom loses focus on the Beatles for more than a few seconds, the overall shared focus of this 137-minute documentary is really on Sheridan and his music, and the overlapping Hamburg band scene. Opening with the John Lennon-sung "Ain't She Sweet," the film begins formally with an interview with Allan Williams, the one-time owner of the Jacaranda coffee bar in Liverpool and the manager of the Beatles circa 1960, who gives a very entertaining account of his accidental discovery of the music scene in Hamburg and his abortive first attempt -- thwarted by a ruined tape -- to sell the Beatles and other Liverpool bands there, and how, as a result, Tony Sheridan ended up paving the way for other British rock & roll performers. Sheridan introduces his rendition -- backed by the Beatles -- of "When the Saints Go Marching In," Horst Fascher of the Star Club offers his recollections about the Beatles' first engagement at the Kaiserkeller, and journalist Jochen Bredow recalls seeing the Beatles as a teenager, in a club that was strictly off-limits to members of his middle-class circle. Gradually, across two hours of screen time, interviews with a multitude of parties, including longtime Beatles associate Klaus Voormann, photographer and friend of the group Astrid Kirchherr, and members of various Hamburg-based rock & roll bands (including the Rattles), provide a full picture of the group's years in Hamburg and the intense mix of grinding hours of work and fierce, youthful creativity that abounded.

Every 15 minutes or so, there is a return to Sheridan describing what he remembers of how a song took a particular shape, and the song is heard, remastered and set to appropriate images ("Sweet Georgia Brown" is accompanied by photos of various strippers). The video peels away the layers of misunderstanding surrounding the group's Hamburg years and the entire Hamburg scene. The Beatles' version of "Ain't She Sweet" and Sheridan and the Beatles' rendition of "My Bonnie" might have sounded hokey to English-language listeners, but to youthful Germans who knew those songs -- especially the second one -- from their ubiquitous music lessons, the fact that something like "My Bonnie" could be played as pure rock & roll by an English-speaking band, with a beat to which one could dance, was a revelation that opened the way for a whole new wave of home-grown bands. Strangely enough, this DVD not only stands up well on its own as the best documentary account of the group's German period and of the Hamburg music scene that has been done to date, but it is also the perfect companion to Bear Family Records' Beatles Bop: Hamburg Days CD set -- in fact, it's a shame that the one major behind-the-scenes figure who isn't represented (apart from the Beatles themselves, who did not participate) didn't live long enough to be interviewed: Bert Kaempfert, who produced those sessions and signed Sheridan and the Beatles. The transition to the later Tony Sheridan recordings as the documentary progresses is a bit of a cheat, although most viewers will almost certainly come away with a lot of new respect for him as a musician. There is one mystery -- why "Cry for a Shadow," the Lennon/Harrison-authored instrumental, isn't represented -- but otherwise this is a well-produced disc, with a very generous array of 47 chapters, covering interview segments and songs alike. The disc opens automatically to a very entertaining menu graphic that goes three layers deep and includes the option of just playing the music sequences. There is minimal printed annotation in the packaging, which does contain a pack of souvenir postcards of images of the group from this period.