The Beatles are certainly a
group who are due for a great documentary, so it was with enthusiasm that I
approached the DVD/CD set of Beatles: The Journey. I've listened to all
their albums and own a number of them, and I wanted to find out more about the
individual Beatles and how they became a group, as well as how their group
found such amazing success. Since The Journey has a subtitle claiming
that it's the story of "The remarkable formation and rise of the world's
first supergroup," it seemed like I was going to get what I'd hoped for.
What a colossal disappointment.
The Journey would be
better off with the label "Miscellaneous and badly organized footage of
the various Beatles members over a number of years." It's been quite a
while since I've felt so badly burned by a promising documentary, but the truth
is that The Journey is an incoherent mess that does the Beatles the
greatest injustice it could: it makes them boring.
There's no clear organization;
we jump into clips of the Beatles when they're already famous, with screaming
fans a-plenty, followed by more clips of them during television interviews or
on the road. So much for documenting their "formation and rise": all
we get in that regard is one of the band members' classmates offering a few
comments about their school days. No context is given for any of the events
depicted, so we don't know where the band is, or where they're going, or when
the events are taking place, or why we should care about any of it. Giving
further lie to the film's title, the documentary soon shifts away from the
Beatles as a group, instead focusing on footage of the individual members of
the band in later years, particularly John Lennon's peace messages and later
murder, and ending with footage vaguely related to George Harrison's death.
Amazingly enough, describing
the content in this way actually suggests a clearer structure and pacing than
is actually present. There is no overall narrator, and the film jumps from one
topic to the next without any warning, except for a few brief,
almost-illegible, and obscure title cards, which don't even appear
consistently. Some modern-day interviews are sandwiched into the vintage
material, but these appear to have been inserted more or less at random, at
least insofar as their relevance to the preceding and following material is
concerned. Several of the interviewees (who are often not identified) speak at
length about George Harrison and how he was or wasn't properly appreciated in
the group; we're never given that much detail about any of the other members,
and it's never clear why Harrison was singled out here. The choice of material
is also rather dubious... or rather, the lack of proper editing of the material
is very evident. Many of the interview clips, both vintage and more recent, run
far too long, becoming highly tedious, and some are downright pointless: why do
we get a long press conference from the wife of the man who shot John Lennon?
The worst offense of The
Journey isn't its lousy editing or its lack of structure, however: it's
that the documentary is singularly uninformative and dull. Hardly any actual
information about the band is presented, and the little bit that is, almost
seems to have been included by accident. The endless sequences of the Beatles
going to one place or another are presented with only some trivial background
music; sorry, but I'm not such a Beatles fanatic to be overcome by joy at just
(gasp!) seeing images of the Fab Four on my television screen!
And to add insult to injury,
the film doesn't even feature the great Beatles music I was hoping for. Despite
the film's other problems, at the very least, I was looking forward to a great
soundtrack, but none of the characteristic Beatles songs appear, just some
rather unobtrusive stuff and a couple that I only vaguely recognized. As it
happens, I noticed a small statement on the back of the DVD case: "This
programme does not contain original Beatles music and is unofficial."
Wonderful. Given that the songwriting of McCartney and Lennon was one of the
strengths of the Beatles, the absence of any of their original music on the DVD
is a big disappointment.
The film runs an hour and 20
minutes, though if you watch it, you'll feel that it's at least twice as long.
Beatles: The Journey is
a two-disc set packaged in a double-wide keepcase; the first disc is a DVD with
the documentary film, and the second is a CD with audio-only interviews.
The Journey appears for
the most part in a 1.33:1 aspect ratio image, though portions of the footage are
presented in a letterboxed widescreen aspect ratio. Most of the material
showing the Beatles is in black and white, while the modern interviews and the
later footage of the individual Beatles members appear in color. The more
recent interviews are reasonably satisfactory in terms of image quality,
appearing clean and clear, with fairly natural-looking colors. The older
footage, however, varies between "bad" and "horrible" in
terms of image quality. The prints are beat-up and dirty, with extremely poor contrast
making it difficult or impossible to recognize who's who at times. This
material is only from the late 1950s at the earliest, so there's no compelling
reason why it should look this bad; at the least, some restoration of the
material should have been done beforehand.
The soundtrack is presented in
"PCM" (pulse code modulation) format, at 48k 16b. PCM is a non-lossy
recording format, as compared to Dolby Digital and DTS, in which some audio
information is lost as a tradeoff for the ability for the track to be
compressed to a certain extent on the DVD. In theory, the PCM track should
allow for a higher-quality audio than is possible on CD.
In practice, the sound quality
for The Journey is lousy, and probably would have sounded lousy on any
audio format. With no original Beatles music included in the soundtrack anyway,
there's nothing that really cries out for a better-than-CD-quality soundtrack
anyway, and the interview footage is in such poor condition that the first
order of business should have been to clean it up before it was transferred to
the DVD. The sound varies between merely mushy and flat to actively garbled or
harsh-sounding, depending on the source material. While the unrestored source
material didn't detract all that much from the video portion of the film, the
same issues on the audio side of things make for a less than enjoyable
I've considered the documentary
to be the main feature of this set, so the second disc can be considered as a
"special feature." This second disc is actually an audio CD, "In
Their Own Words," and includes about 50 minutes of various interview clips
of the Beatles. Unfortunately, the different clips have no introduction to
indicate who is speaking or when the interview took place, and no chapter list
with that information is provided as an insert. I suppose it's intended for
listeners who are intimately familiar with the Beatles and will be able to
instantly identify who's talking. Unfortunately, that's not me, and the lack of
any context whatsoever robs the CD of any interest it might have otherwise had.
The only really worthwhile part
of this set is the insert booklet, which is a rather sorry commentary on the
set overall. This 32-page booklet offers a brief but interesting history of the
Beatles, and a quick look at some of their most famous songs. It throws into
sharp relief just how terrible the documentary film is: the booklet shows how
much interesting material could have been included in the film, but wasn't. Of
course, the booklet itself is very short, so there's not a lot of content in
total. (The DVD case also describes the booklet as being in "super
colour," which as it turns out is advertising-speak for "mostly black
and white with three small color photos." Wait: the text appears on a pale
green background, so maybe that's where we get the "super" color.)
A few minor text features are
included on DVD as well: a biography/history of the Beatles, a discography
listing all their albums and song titles (but without dates, unfortunately),
and a photo gallery. The menus are straightforward-looking but painfully slow
to navigate, with significant lag time on responding to selections.
The Journey puzzles me.
Considering how interesting the subject is, it's hard to conceive of a more
dull and disappointing approach to making a documentary about it. Beatles:
The Journey will only be of interest to the most incredibly hard-core fan.
By that, I mean someone who already knows every scrap of trivia about the
group, and who will be delighted just to see "rare" footage of the
Beatles, however dull that footage may be on its own merits. I strongly suspect
that this will rule out the vast majority of viewers, however: it certainly
doesn't include me. Skip this dud and use the money to pick up a Beatles CD