”We had fun in those days,” says George Harrison sometime during the second evening of The Beatles Anthology, sounding like the nostalgic old fart he — and many of us — has become. Beatlemaniacs have grown up to take over the world — or, at least, the entertainment world — and thus ABC president Bob Iger secured the rights to this British-made documentary. The Beatles Anthology takes a doggedly chronological approach to the greatest rock band of all time, and while it’s full of much wonderful stuff, it is also a testament to the way baby-boomer taste dominates mass media.
If you don’t know the story of the Beatles, you’ll hear all of the established history here, as the four proceed from feisty Liverpudlians yowling out gigs at the Cavern to bored rock idols yearning to just let it be. The old stories are buttressed by new interviews with Paul McCartney, George Harrison, and Ringo Starr, but they don’t add much that’s new to any fan’s store of knowledge. (Better is wry old Beatles producer George Martin. Elaborating on John’s controversial remark that the group was indeed more popular than Jesus, he recalls: ”Everywhere they went they were brought cripples.”)
There’s way too much time wasted on the group’s connection with Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, undoubtedly because so much film exists documenting the by-then superstars’ spiritual trip. But the most wonderful stuff in the Anthology is rarely seen film of the Beatles at play and at work, my favorite example of the latter being footage of the Fab Four wailing out a ripping version of ”Paperback Writer” during a 1966 performance in Tokyo. Gee, it occurs: They could reproduce that material on stage, too.
The Beatles Anthology allows viewers to adjust their memories, to make small, new connections. To realize, for example, that despite the whole history of MTV, no one has made a better music video — more funny, more allusive, more pretentious — than the one the Beatles did for ”Strawberry Fields Forever.”
But to the extent that the Beatles were, among other things, a reaction against nostalgia and familiarity, a documentary like this is inimical to the spirit of the band. The Beatles Anthology tries instead for a spirit of celebration — and to confirm the importance of its subject. But the enduring impact of Beatles culture has been better explained by the various responses it provoked: rock music itself in the ’70s, ’80s, ’90s, and forever; Richard Lester’s film A Hard Day’s Night, seen here in well-chosen clips and looking more than ever like a pop masterpiece; Mark Shipper’s beautiful fantasy Beatles novel, Paperback Writer; the 1978 movie I Wanna Hold Your Hand, which was about Beatles fans as much as it was about the group itself.
I suspect that to younger rock fans whose Beatles are Nirvana and whose John Lennon is Kurt Cobain, the six hours of The Beatles Anthology will seem like peculiar overkill — as if ABC had decided to run a six-hour documentary about, say, Bachman-Turner Overdrive. Many other viewers, of course, will revel in yet another opportunity to appreciate the freshness and joy and artistry of the Beatles. We had fun in those days. B