Friday, June 6, 2008

Beatles Movies

The Beatles packed an incredible amount of artistry into their eight or so years as recording artists. Perhaps overlooked today is just how good their film work was, especially when compared to, well, have any other rock greats besides Prince and Elvis made any decent films at all?

Since I love rankings like all good Americans, here is my list of the Beatles movies from best to worst:

1. Yellow Submarine -- Some will quibble with this being chosen number one based on its being animated and will question the level of the Beatles' involvement, which was not all that great.

Nevertheless, this is a great, great movie. The writing is top notch, the vocal acting (the Beatles chose not to provide their own voices, wary of the project's success) is terrific, the animation is fantastic and the music is amazing. What more could you want?

Adults will like this and children will go bonkers. If you are tired of the Wiggles, try this. My four-year olds absolutely adore this film and my wife and I love it as well. It is full of Lewis Caroll and British-influenced humor. "Bluish? You don't look bluish....?"

The soundtrack is great and has been re-mixed in stereo and surround. Let me clarify one thing here. There are two versions of this movie's soundtrack. I have the original L.P., which featured four new Beatles songs, two re-releases and a second side with a George Martin score that is pretty darn good, that you will never listen to. The re-releases, were the title track and All You Need is Love.

The new originals were Only a Northern Song, All Together Now, Hey Bulldog and It's All Too Much. Many critics have considered these four to be among the weakest original tracks on an original Beatles album and have labelled this record as non-essential. This is hogwash. Many of the critics are Lennonphiles as opposed to Beatlephiles and I believe that they downrate this effort due to its only having one new Lennon song, Hey, Bulldog.

But all four songs are excellent and vastly underrated by Beatle fans, to the point of even being unknown by many. It's All Too Much is probably the best Beatle song that you have never heard on the radio(maybe together with Rain). Hey Bulldog rocks and is great fun, particularly in the restored DVD, where the track has been re-inserted after having been edited out in some film releases in the 60's. All Together Now is a catchy song that children adore and Only a Northern Song is another Taxman-esque statement by Harrison regarding the woes of rich and famous music performers and money hungry record producers--to be followed by Piggies as a third in a sort of trilogy--and he wrote it at the last minute in an hour when they needed one more song for the album.

Overall, Harrison fans should like this album most of all and It's All Too Much is a great psychedelic song, with a great environmental message for the young and old alike:

"It's all too much for me to take
The love that's shining all around here
All the world's a birthday cake,
So take a piece but not too much"

This is what my sons now say whenever offered sweets, just a piece, but not too much.

Would that we all behaved accordingly.

The new version of the soundtrack is called Yellow Submarine, Songtrack, and has, if I follow correctly, every Beatles song played in the film, except for A Day in the Life, which only featured an orchestral snippet, as opposed to the Beatles on their instruments and was therefore not on the Songtrack. At least that appears to be Capitol's reasoning. For casual Beatles fans, and people into surround, this is the album to buy, although diehard Beatles fans will probably prefer the original, if not both. The songs go back to the Rubber Soul-era through Magical Mystery Tour and are a great overview of the Beatles work during their inital move away from short love songs to more complex lyrical works and psychedelia.

I rate this movie every bit as highly as Fantasia. It is a classic that has only been hurt by questions regarding copyright. There is really no reason for any Beatles' fan not to own this, except, that it has once again fallen out of print and the prices for used copies are pretty high, but hey, that's not my problem, I am just the reviewer. This is an animation classic and highly, highly recommended.

2. Help! -- I am probably committing heresy here but I've recently watched both A Hard Day's Night and Help! in high-def and I have to give Help! the edge, in spite of its far-fetched plot involving a magic ring. Let's face it, both of these movies have their plot defects, but Help! comes through somehow fresher.(I would have felt differently 30 years ago).

One thing that I found evident was just how much the television show, The Monkees, that I grew up with was a blatant (but well-done) rip-off of Help! When I was a kid, growing up in the 70's, the Beatles were yesterday's news, but the Monkees' show was on every afternoon, and as Michael Stipe has often said, was perhaps a bigger influence on that generation than the disbanded Beatles, whom I would discover through listening to Wings, about the time that Wings began to falter.

Anyway, watching Help! is a bit like watching an extended Monkees episode(Yes, they all had ridiculous plots just like Help!) and for the MTV generation prior to Real World, will feel comforting because Help! is full of music videos.

The newly-released print looks sensational. I am not sure if I have ever seen a color movie from that era that looks as good as the new Help! DVD and the movie seems a lot better than it did the first time that I saw it back in the mid to late 1970's. The boys look great and were at the height of their musical prowess and their beauty as men. They would never again look this great together and appear to be such great friends, just having a sensational time as mates. Every Beatles' fan should buy this.

3. A Hard Day's Night -- This is usually ranked number one, so I must have some major ax to grind, right? Well, just a slight one. The movie bogs down into a contrived and boring plot in the second half involving Paul's fictional grandfather. Honestly, I think I could have written a better screen play in half an hour. What is great about this movie is just watching the Beatles be themselves, on the train and then with fans chasing them around. They are funny, witty and the cinematography is excellent. This black and white film has a classic look to it and they were aiming for a Marx-brothers type farce and half succeeded. The music is good but I prefer the songs from Help! and that is just my personal musical preference. Overall, I find the look of the restored Help! to be stunning while A Hard Day's Night merely looks great. But once again, highly recommended.

4. Magical Mystery Tour -- I think that part of the reason that the Beatles did not involve themselves very much in the making of Yellow Submarine is that this short film called MMT was widely regarded as their first failure. The idea seemed interesting, which was to basically make a fictional film about the Merry Pranksters from Tom Wolfe's Electric Kool-aid Acid Test.

Nevertheless, it just didn't really work for most viewers.

First off, it is somewhat hard to call something a failure when it shares a name with an album as excellent as Magical Mystery Tour, which is possibly as good as Sgt. Pepper in terms of overall song quality. However, much of the world did not have the opportunity to purchase this album initially and was presented with something else, which was a double-E.P. bearing the same title.

Once again context is everything and this is shown through the Beatles' release policy. Beatles for Sale, widely disparaged (relatively--still as good as virtually anything put out by any other group), was far better, or I should say, far more even in terms of the quality of its tracks in its American release, known as Beatles 65.

On Beatles for Sale, the more numerous than usual so-so tracks somewhat crowded out the excellent ones, which is the same thing that happened on the British double EP of Magical Mystery Tour. Remember, this was during the days when you had to get up and move the tonearm whenever there was a song that you didn't particularly care for.

The American version, on the other hand, was filled out by the excellent songs, Hello, Goodbye, Penny Lane, Strawberry Fields Forever, and Baby, You're a Rich Man, which together with Magical Mystery Tour, I am the Walrus, and the Fool on the Hill, tended to drown out the mediocre tracks of Flying, and Your Mother Should Know, and the interesting but depressing Blue Jay Way.

After the stunning success of the American version, Capitol rushed it into production worldwide and today it occupies a rare place in the Beatles' catalog. It is the sole CD where the American version became the standard CD release worldwide. Nevertheless, by the time the U.K. version had been issued, the short film had already been labelled a disaster. It certainly didn't help matters any that the BBC showed the psychedelic colored film in black and white. Nor did it help that the MMT film soundtrack was from the less good British double EP. The film was largely unknown in the U.S.

Although opinions may change through time, and some film school students may see this film as having interesting aspects, or others as a cult or "stoner's" classic, many, if not most, still see this film as a muddled mess that lacks even the normal high quality soundtrack found on other Beatles' films. I have never been able to sit all the way through it when it is on television.

5. Let It Be -- I rate this last because it is basically a bummer. It is a documentary that has never struck me as interesting, but only boring and depressing. This is probably why, to a large extent, that the corresponding album is not as highly regarded as many other Beatles albums, in spite of having several top notch songs. The Beatles were fighting a lot, some of it shown in the movie and I just don't remember much except for the rooftop segment, which is decent.

There are also a couple of dogs on this album that are inexplicably included, given the fantastic songs that George Harrison was sitting on but maybe he was already setting his sights on All Things Must Pass. His two songs that he contributed here, For You Blue and I, Me, Mine, were vastly inferior to his prior efforts and his Abbey Road and solo songs that followed soon after. Maggie Mae and Dig It by Lennon/McCartney were not particularly distinguished either.

These last two films clearly are not all that favored by the Beatles (and their controlling family members) themselves and there are not really any particularly good versions floating around. Maybe, with the right extras and restoration, they could be worth another look, but not much seems to be happening on that front right now.

Sunday, June 1, 2008

Beatles's Most Thrilling Moments on Vinyl

The Beatles were so uniformly excellent, both in general and during their songs, that it might seem a sort of incongruous category. But what I am looking for here are what might be called Free Bird/Stairway to Heaven-type highs, where the Beatles' music truly went to the their most amazing levels to move people and touch their emotions.

1. The End -- Abbey Road -- This is a forebearer of the 70's jam music to come and it works without being self-indulgent. First, Ringo blasts the skins for his longest drum solo and then the other three trade guitar solos as the Beatles finish their recording career together to the lyric:

"And, in the end, the love you take, is equal to the love, you make...."

Great, great stuff.

2. While My Guitar Gently Weeps -- The White Album -- George Harrison takes a spare, contemplative hymn and invites Eric Clapton to play lead guitar in an amazing performance all around. Harrison's melancholy vocal and lyric is lifted to a scintillating conclusion by Clapton's slide guitar:

"I look at you all and see the love there that's sleeping, while my guitar gently weeps...."

3. Hey Jude -- Single -- This was the Beatles' all time best seller in the U.S. Written by Paul for John's son, Julian, it reaches an amazing crescendo at the part where Paul hits, the "Better, Better, Better, HAAA..." lyric followed by the "na,na,na," fade-out chorus. This song still moves grown baby boomers to tears.

4. A Day in the Life -- SPLHCB -- This song really hits the mark during the psychedelic dream sequence, where the Beatles harmonize, on the "Ah, ah, ah note, followed by the orchestral hurricane of sound, which is deeply affecting. In my mind, somewhere, radiating out through the universe is the sound of the Beatles's harmony following the dream sequence making clear to the rest of the universe that there is indeed meaning to life.

5. I am the Walrus -- Magical Mystery Tour -- Perhaps a step down from the top four, all of which are essentially tied in my mind, I give this Lewis Carroll-influenced track a slight edge over some others I might have chosen such as Paperback Writer, Eleanor Rigby, Nowhere Man and Ticket to Ride.

This song has two great, great moments, one is the line, "Boy, you've been a naughty girl, you've let your knickers down" which most American listeners failed to understand, but even more so for the line, where the song really picks up its charge: "Expert, sexpert, choking smoker, don't you think the joker laughs at you; see how they smile like pigs in a sty, see how they snide; I'm crying...."

Amazing stuff, followed once again by the luck of the Beatles where Lennon turned on the radio at the end of the recording to put whatever he found on the song and a performance of Shakespeare was on the BBC, "Sit you down, father, rest you."