Finding new things to say about The Beatles is a bit like looking for a fifth corner on a square. The most successful rock band of all time has inspired books, movies, CDs and boxed sets that explore its storied history. The new DVD Composing The Beatles Songbook: Lennon and McCartney 1966-1970 tries to stay fresh by narrowing its focus. It studies the John Lennon and Paul McCartney songwriting partnership and the songs the two men composed--together and apart--during their most creative period.
The documentary features a collection of music critics and Beatles friends as they discuss the period between Rubber Soul and the band's breakup, when the band members departed from their finely honed Merseybeat sound and into more daring, experimental pop music. The result is an often interesting, albeit uneven, exploration of the creative process.
Throughout the Rubber Soul and Revolver albums and the "Strawberry Fields Forever" and "Penny Lane" double single, the film and its experts takes a very detailed look at the songwriting. While they discuss the personal situations that inspired these songs, such as Lennon using LSD and McCartney exposing himself to the experimental art scene, they also look at the songs themselves--what makes them special, what Lennon and/or McCartney were expressing and how they expressed it.
Unfortunately, the film loses some of its structural consistency as it progresses. From Sgt. Pepper's onward, the discussion loses focus on the songs and becomes more devoted to the strained relationship between Lennon and McCartney, Lennon's growing disinterest in The Beatles and McCartney's attempts to keep the band going.
Presumably because it's not an official Beatles release, the documentary never features full songs or clips, but does feature some lengthy excerpts to illustrate the parts of the songs that the interviewees discuss. In some cases it uses live clips or promotional movies to accompany the songs, and in some cases the filmmakers insert their own visuals, including psychedelic visualization for "Tomorrow Never Knows" and, most curiously, the video of girls with machine-guns from Quentin Tarantino's Jackie Brown with "Happiness is a Warm Gun."
While I'm not a Beatles expert, I could tell that not all the opinions expressed in Composing The Beatles Songbook should be taken as gospel. At least one expert describes each album as really being a McCartney album, even if Lennon and George Harrison wrote the most memorable songs. For example, the interviewees speak as if McCartney wrote every song in the suite on Abbey Road's B-side and Lennon contributed nothing, while in fact Lennon wrote two of the songs. While McCartney and producer George Martin deserve credit for the suite itself, that's no excuse to speak as if Lennon were completely uninvolved.
The documentary is presented in a basic 4:3 picture that is generally crisp, although the colors and videography are sometimes slightly off. The quality is acceptable, but far from remarkable.
The stereo track is competently mixed and maintains the integrity of the original recordings. The sound is crisp and clear--which is important when listening to the music--but lacks any additional bells and whistles.
The disc features one real extra, but it's not a bad extra. While the packaging promises "Expanded Interviews," there is in fact only one interview. Allan Moore offers his take on "A Day in the Life." He sits at his piano while talking, so he can illustrate his points. It's a worthwhile segment--of the sort that the film itself lacks during its second half.
It also features text bios of all the contributors and, excitement of excitements, a Web link to a page with more Beatles-related items to buy!
Composing The Beatles Songbook provides a thoughtful look at some of the most popular songs ever written. The documentary is uneven, and equally qualified experts might disagree with some of its conceits. But it is still a great way for interested parties to learn more about the stories behind the classic tunes. It doesn't demand repeated viewing, however, and the lack of extras further decreases its replay value. I recommend renting it, and buying some Beatles albums with the money you save.
Jeremy Mathews has been subjecting films to his criticism since 2000. He has contributed to several publications, including Film Threat, Salt Lake City Weekly, the Salt Lake Tribune, In Utah This Week and The Wasatch Journal. He also runs the blog The Same Dame and fronts the band NSPS.