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"And in her eyes you see nothing, no sign of love behind the tears cried for no one…a love that should have lasted years."
When the Beatles burst out of the Liverpool music scene in the early 1960s, they did so behind their distinctive and aggressive (for the time) three-chord pop compositions, which were heavily influenced by the 50s-era R&B artists they themselves favored—Jerry Lee Lewis, Little Richard, Elvis Presley, and a variety of Chicago and Kansas City bluesmen, just to name a few. As Beatlemania took hold and the band became the biggest musical act in the world, John Lennon and Paul McCartney, who had jointly composed most of the early Beatles hits, began to go in different artistic directions. Lennon's songs became more introspective and dark; McCartney continued to expand and hone his skills at creating fantastic pop songs. Two new, strong influences came into the Beatles' lives at that time, too: (1) drugs, especially marijuana and LSD, and (2) Bob Dylan's songwriting. The confluence of these threads meant a new beginning for the Beatles—and the beginning of the end.
It is this time period, beginning with the release of Rubber Soul in 1966 and ending with the official breakup of the Beatles on April 10, 1970, that is the subject matter of Composing the Beatles Songbook: Lennon and McCartney 1966-1970. This sequel to (you guessed it) Composing the Beatles Songbook: Lennon and McCartney 1957-1965 is an independent documentary, created without the participation of either of the surviving Beatles or the estates of John Lennon and George Harrison. Hence, it lacks the comprehensive all-access-pass nature of, say, The Beatles Anthology. On the other hand, that unofficial nature also makes it free of any editorial interference from the Beatles camp.
What really sets this documentary apart from the scads of Beatlemania that has come out since 1970, though, is its extreme clarity of focus. This is a documentary that focuses solely on the songwriting of Lennon and McCartney, and how it developed over the course of the last years of the Beatles. There's nothing here about the Maharishi and Mia Farrow; nothing about Brian Epstein's homosexuality and whether he had a crush on John Lennon; nothing about the disaster that was Apple Corps. Just the songs, and how they were written. That singularity of focus definitely improves the resulting product. The filmmakers have assembled an interesting group of journalists, music professors, Beatle authors and biographers, and Beatle friends/confidantes (including the enigmatic bassist/artist Klaus Voorman, the Beatles' old Hamburg friend best known as the artist who drew the Revolver cover) to provide both expert analysis (the journalists and professors) and more visceral, personal opinions (the friends) on the subject matter covered. It's as thorough a discussion as you could reasonably expect to fit into a two-hour running time, and one that I was glad to see didn't just brainlessly fawn over Lennon and McCartney. For example, the analysis of "Being For The Benefit Of Mr. Kite!"—the Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band track in which Lennon set the text of an antique show advertisement poster to music—notes that one can approach the song from an "oh, that's a brilliant idea!" perspective, but one could also approach it from a "John Lennon was so lazy that he couldn't even be bothered to write real lyrics" perspective. Each of which is true, depending on your point of view: it was a brilliantly executed idea, but Lennon was beginning to lose interest in the Beatles as a band at that point as well.
This is a better documentary than I expected it to be. Even though I've read a lot about the Beatles over the years, I learned a number of things here that I had never known before. I thought this would be just a rehash of the traditional Beatles tale that has been told so many times, but it does not do that at all. It blazes its own trail, driven by the aforementioned singularity of focus. The songwriting analysis is fascinating, and doesn't require a degree in music theory to understand. Even the pseudo-"videos" the filmmakers created for some of the discussed Beatles songs aren't atrocious. (I recommend the Babes with Guns footage set to "Happiness is a Warm Gun.") The major negative with the disc is its weak stereo audio track. The music sounds good, but many of the interviews sound "soft" and muffled. That issue should not detract from the overall quality of the feature, though—the sound isn't good, but it's good enough. The full frame video transfer is clear and unproblematic. The sole extras are an extended bit with music professor Allan Moore deconstructing "A Day in the Life," and biographies of all the contributors.
All in all, Composing the Beatles Songbook: Lennon and McCartney 1966-1970 manages to do something that surprised me: it makes a legitimately new contribution to a documentary subject that has been thoroughly covered—beaten into the ground, to be honest—over the years. Beatles fans should definitely enjoy this disc, which narrows its focus to one particular aspect of the Beatles' career, and is all the better for it. Definitely not guilty.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: MVD Visual
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