“..and Ronnie Scott was friends with The Beatles..” said the tour guide to a group of tourists on the steps of Ronnie Scott’s jazz club on Frith Street. I’ve just walked out of a screening of new documentary ‘It Was Fifty Years Ago Today! The Beatles: Sgt. Pepper & beyond’ and barely 90 seconds has passed before I’m reminded of the legacy of the Fab Four, the most hyperbolic pop group in history.

The documentary itself has got a slightly misleading title, as the Sgt. Pepper album is just one focus amongst many, as director Alan G. Parker provides us with a fascinating panoramic view of The Beatles, as they switched from black & white to colour in the mid 1960s.

It’s the summer of 1966 and John Lennon has unwittingly acknowledged the apex of the band’s trajectory with his claim that the group were “more popular than Jesus”. One of many revelations follows as we learn that the scandal was actually in some ways engineered. The controversial interview had already appeared in both the Evening Standard and New York Times magazine to deafening zzzzzzs before copies of another magazine that had run the piece - ‘Datebook’ - were mischievously sent direct to several evangelical radio DJs down in America’s ‘Bible Belt’ and finally set the wasp loose in the underwear.

Ironically the ensuing backlash provided the impetus the band needed to stop trying to compete with audiences louder than themselves and instead focus on what could be achieved in the studio.

This transformation is the focus of the film and Alan G. Parker has assembled an able cast to tell the story, including the secretary of the Beatles’ fan club, Freda Kelly, whose down-to-earth insight reminds us that these were just four mere mortals trying to work out which bits of the magnifying glass were not in direct sunlight at any one given time; their long-time tour manager / video maker and straight talker Tony Bramwell; Brian Epstein’s secretary Barbara O’Donnell speaking for the first time ever about her experiences and perhaps most revealingly, legendary boy-band manager Simon Napier-Bell.

Simon’s recollections primarily concern Brian Epstein and to go into any detail here would be spoiler territory. What is clear is that as the Beatles left the live arena and began to spread their artistic wings the thing they really left behind in the cocoon was their manager.

Perhaps the most startling thing that comes across is how much happened in such a short space of time. The ’66 US tour ended in August, the Sgt. Pepper album was released in May ‘67; that August they met the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi and days later learnt of Brian Epstein’s death.. early December they’re opening up the Apple Shop on Baker Street and then July ’68 they’re closing it down !

Alan G. Parker also explores the popular misconception of Paul being the nice, shiny 'Maxwell’s Silver Hammer' Beatle, compared to John’s seer 'I am The Walrus' role. In reality it seems John was happy to hide away for much of the time down in Sussex, writing deliberately non-sensical lyrics to satisfy those desperate to read meaning into his songs, whereas it was Paul, living in London, who really embraced the burgeoning counter-culture and fed that back into the group.

Add to this some touching reminiscences from original drummer, Pete Best, and John’s sister, Julia Baird, and you begin to get a glimpse into the day-to-day world behind the scenes. The Beatles obviously had a gifted team around them - people who, like them, had to grow to meet the challenges.

Anyone with more than a passing interest in this band and those couple of years when the world seemed to change like a speeded up film of a flower opening will find this a fascinating film. Timely as well perhaps, in a world that seems like things are changing fast again.

Oh, did I mention there isn’t a single note of Beatles music in the entire film. No? Can’t have mattered too much then...









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