Passport Video // 2004 // 80 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Bill Gibron (Retired) // July 9th, 2004
Meet the Beatles...and the man behind them.
The Beatles' legacy is so large, so universal in its importance and impact, that it's sometimes easy to forget the people behind the scenes who helped make it all happen. As much as John, Paul, George, and Ringo were responsible for reinventing rock and roll for the rest of the 20th century, their sound would have been substantially less innovative had George Martin not been available to produce their records. As much as the mop-topped drummer with the oversized schnozzola is credited for founding the group's backbeat, Richard Starkey's rise to stardom would never have happened had Pete Best not been booted from the band.
And then there is Brian Epstein. A quite, reserved man of privilege from a well-off Liverpool family, Epstein turned a passing fancy for pop music into the management of the most influential rock band of all time. Ruthless, erudite, and hiding a secret so shocking to '60s British society that it remained "in the closet" for years, Epstein's knack for publicity and access to industry connections (he also ran his father's famous department store record shop) made him a natural to help the Fab Four reach "the toppermost of the poppermost." Sadly, as the Beatles' profile shot straight into the stratosphere, Epstein became more or less ancillary to their goals, and by 1967 he was a near non-entity in the day-to-day operations of the group's growing empire. Without a secure place in the band's dynamic, depressed over his secret lifestyle, worried that his expiring contract with the boys would mean his end as manager, and driven by a horrible drug addiction, Epstein died alone and distraught in his home, accidentally overdosing on prescription painkillers. He was only 32 years old.
Like most unauthorized or unofficial product regarding any famous person, Brian Epstein: Inside the Fifth Beatle is scattershot, superficial and heavy with scandal and gossip. Since the lack of access to either the subject or his realm of influence undermines the ability to share facts and gather eyewitness accounts, we must rely on the testimony of ever more secondary suspects who claim the subject's confidence. It's hard to take Alan Williams seriously (he claims he was the Beatles' first manager, back in their Hamburg, Germany days) when others completely deny his claims. John Lennon's sister, Julia Baird (a name that even this big Beatle fan failed to recognize the first time around) assumes and infers a great deal of information, but where she got this insight into her brother and his celebrity life is anyone's guess, considering she seems to draw only mediocre conclusions (and claims in interviews to be a bigger Rolling Stones fan -- talk about family loyalty...). When chauffeurs and secretaries are eventually strewn about to toss in their few shillings about Brian and the boys, the documentary confirms its half-heard, hearsay quality. This "friend of a friend" sensibility stinks of slander and conjecture, and is only partially saved by the participation of Alistair Taylor, Epstein's longtime assistant. Missing a couple of teeth and playing to the camera with goofy confidence, this actual insider is filled with excellent stories. In fact, had Brian Epstein: Inside the Fifth Beatle understood its mission properly, the producers would have simply let Taylor do the talking for 60 minutes. He brings to this film all the things the rest of the talking heads can't offer: real access to the issues at hand.
It also needs to be said that any Brian Epstein profile can't help but wander substantially into Beatles territory, and the notoriously protective supergroup never authorizes access into any aspect of their affairs. So you won't hear any of the classic songs the group recorded here. Nor do we hear from any of the famous musicians themselves (not even Pete Best, whom you'd figure we leap at the chance to speak his mind). Oh sure, there are newsreel interviews and radio Q&As with each of the boys, but it's all out-of-context content, material removed from its original entity and spliced in to make this movie seem more authentic. Besides, Epstein's story encompassed more than just the greatest rock and roll combo of all time. What of the other bands Brian managed? Why do they only get scurrilous mention? Was it too hard to get Cilla Black, members of Gerry and the Pacemakers, or any of the many lower-echelon acts he supervised (the Fourmost, the Big Three) to discuss the man who brought them some manner of recognition and success? Apparently, the answer is yes. And Brian's stint as a London "correspondent" for NBC's Hullabaloo is overlooked, only obvious from the couple of clips that are shown. For a film focusing on a tell-all look at how a hard-edged band of buddies from Liverpool became the signature sound of the '60s -- and the man who made it all happen -- Brian Epstein: Inside the Fifth Beatle is basically the term paper version of Epstein's life, skimming over the highlights while avoiding any real depth or dimension. Even 37 years after his death, Epstein is still a mystery, the kind of complex character that this documentary can't begin to crack.
At least Passport Video gives us a real life movie here, not some manner of manipulated clip compilation passing itself off as a light look at certain singers or commercial products. Narrated with a no-nonsense approach to the material, and presented in a fairly good looking 1.33:1 full screen aspect ratio, the interview material suffers from some slight video flaring and color bleeding. But for the most part, the image is excellent, even with the reliance on less-than-stellar newsreel and archival footage. Aurally, the Dolby Digital Stereo keeps the voices at the forefront and the ersatz Merseybeat music far in the background.
For the first time in this critic's experience with Passport's product, this DVD actually has extras. Consisting of two extended interview clips (of a former promoter who booked the Beatles into Carnegie Hall, and a writer for the British music press at the time) we get the full versions of anecdotes later cut up for presentation in the film proper. While it's interesting to see what was edited out, the full stories are not that much more enlightening. Very much like Brian Epstein: Inside the Fifth Beatle.
Perhaps his story is as simple as the rudimentary approach taken by this documentary. Maybe all Epstein was good for was laying the foundation from which a musical mythology would be born. Surely the story of a man marked "the Fifth Beatle" has more heft to it than stories of suppressed homosexuality and Colonel Parker-like percentages told here. But Brian Epstein: Inside the Fifth Beatle cannot offer any of this profundity. It's a tabloid take on what could have been a very intriguing look at success at a young age. The Beatles, and Brian, were in their early 20s when superstardom shook their working-class world. How this shaped Brian's fate is sadly absent in the borderline character assassination of this saga. Brian is an important cog in the Beatles' mania machine. To dismiss him is historically inaccurate. Just like Brian Epstein: Inside the Fifth Beatle.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Passport Video
* Full Frame
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
Running Time: 80 Minutes
Release Year: 2004
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Deleted/Extended Scenes