The Beatles: Composing Outside the Beatles: Lennon and McCartney 1967-1972 is that rarest of independently made rockumentaries: It's actually very good. Smart, incisive and enthusiastic, the documentary is invaluable viewing for diehard Beatles buffs -- and informative for the casual fan.
Clocking in at 137 minutes, Composing Outside the Beatles drills deep into the solo work of John Lennon and Paul McCartney in the seven years that followed release of the Beatles' groundbreaking Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. That album, as the film notes, signaled the beginning of the end of the Fab Four. McCartney and Lennon, the Beatles' principal songwriters, were moving quickly in different directions, both artistically and personally. By the time of 1968's
The White Album, the Beatles were clearly becoming a band in name only. McCartney remained committed to the group, but Lennon increasingly dabbled in agitprop and avant-garde fare, heavily influenced by his new love, Yoko Ono. The inevitable happened, and in April of 1970, McCartney announced the breakup of the Beatles. Eight days later, he released his first solo record to middling reviews.
The documentary assembles heaps of archival footage and insightful, well-informed interviews from the likes of rock journalists Johnny Rogan, Anthony deCurtis and Robert Christgau. Also on hand for revealing anecdotes are bassist Klaus Voorman and drummer Alan White -- both of whom played with Lennon -- and Wings drummer Denny Seiwell. Among the more entertaining stories is White's recollection of the recording of "Instant Karma!" In the 11th hour, Lennon recruited a background chorus from a nearby London club filled with drunken revelers.
Composing Outside the Beatles is made by rock fans for rock fans. Narrator Thomas Arnold's dispassionate voiceover takes viewers through a comprehensive exploration of Lennon and McCartney's seemingly opposing artistic sensibilities. McCartney was a gifted tunesmith with a knack for lovely melodies. Lennon, by contrast, had a harder, more socially conscious edge. As one interviewee notes, "The strength the Beatles had was because they (Lennon and McCartney) were so different."
That paradigm gave the Beatles their greatness, but also ensured their undoing. Once fast friends, Lennon and McCartney drifted further apart, a chasm evidenced by their non-Beatles projects. Ironically, Composing Outside the Beatles makes note of both men's similarities, particularly in how their attachment to their wives -- McCartney's wife, Linda, became a part of Wings only at her husband's insistence -- impacted their musical output.
Considering how far too many "unofficial" rockumentaries are unable to even use music of their subjects, it's a welcome semi-shock that Composing Outside the Beatles is loaded with both song snippets and vintage film clips. There is some great stuff here. We see Lennon's impish (mean-spirited?) smile as he rehearses his song "How Do You Sleep?," a scathing assault on McCartney's pop sensibilities. Elsewhere, we see John and Yoko's week-long stint in 1972 as guest hosts of TV's The Mike Douglas Show, when the politically charged couple turned over airtime to such counterculture figures as Jerry Rubin and Bobby Seale.
We see a lot of Lennon, in fact. If Composing Outside the Beatles has a weakness, it's the filmmakers' obvious preference for John over Paul. Amid generally fawning assessments of Lennon's solo work, McCartney comes off as a supporting player -- and a somewhat pathetic one, at that. Perhaps such inequity is unavoidable, given that Lennon's output during the period in question -- "Give Peace a Chance," "Instant Karma," "Power to the People," "Imagine," etc. -- easily eclipsed McCartney's lighter-than-air compositions of the same time. Even McCartney's early solo hits, such as "Maybe I'm Amazed" and "Another Day," are treated like piffle.
But that's a minor complaint for what is an engrossing, scholarly look at two of the most important figures of 20th century popular music.
The picture quality is at the mercy of the archival and newsreel footage, most of which is beset only by insignificant grain and a few random scratches. The newly shot material has very minor grain in spots, but overall the video is respectable.
The Dolby Digital 2.0 is clear and consistent, with no problems of distortion or drop-out.
Text of contributor biographies is the sole extra, despite a claim on the DVD keepcase to also have "extended interviews."
Fair-weather Beatles fans might think The Beatles: Composing Outside the Beatles: Lennon and McCartney 1967-1972 a bit too scholarly and exhausting for it's own good, but music enthusiasts (like your reviewer) will find a feast of material. Here's hoping there will be an inevitable follow-up documentary looking at their work from 1973 and thereafter. Just imagine.