Though I'm 38 years old and about a generation away from the original Beatlemania phenomenon, I've been a huge fan of The Beatles for as long as I can remember. My brother gave me a copy of Sergeant Pepper's Lonely Heart's Club Band for my 12th birthday and my obsession with the Fab Four hasn't abated since. To this day I consider them my favorite band, so it was with great pleasure that I opened up the new 8-disc DVD release of Apple Music's Beatles Anthology.
Produced in 1995 by the (then) remaining three living Beatles, Yoko Ono and Neil Aspinall, Anthology is a monumental documentary spanning the entire career of the band from the boys' Liverpool days, through Beatlemania and right up to their breakup in 1970. Logging in at nearly 11 hours, Anthology is comprehensive to say the least. The documentary is composed of footage gathered from dozens of different sources including promotional films made by The Beatles, TV broadcasts, newsreels, archival footage, home movies and contemporary interviews with George, Paul and Ringo. These disparate elements, many of which had not been seen since the 60s, are woven together into a masterful program that pulls the viewer through the history of the band so effortlessly that the 11 hours seem to just melt away.
Anthology begins with the birth of the four Liverpudlians in the mid-40s, gives some family background and then jumps to the boys' early teen years when they discovered rock and roll. From the first hour you can tell exactly how the series is going to go. It's filled with humorous anecdotes, rare photographs, obscure recordings and a level of technical and artistic excellence that one would expect from the likes of Ken Burns. All of the participants are jovial, engaging and candid to the point that even hardened Beatles fans are bound to learn new things on their first viewing.
Two specific elements make Anthology an artistic triumph. First there are the interviews. Each of the surviving Beatles had creative control over what content would go into the finished product and each also seems to have understood the great responsibility of documenting their careers on film. As a result, they were careful to leave in footage that is frank about their differences, that presents each of their unique views of events and that even puts them in a bad light from time to time. John is represented here by archival audio and video interviews that fit into the program so well that you'd think he was right there in the room with Paul, George and Ringo.
The second element is the strict focus on The Beatles' music. Where most documentaries would allow voices to interrupt segments of music, the editors of Anthology allow songs to play out from beginning to end with no interruption. In many cases the video elements come from promotional films (the progenitor of music video), from theatrical releases such as Help and A Hard Day's Night or from the band's many television appearances. Others are cut together from various live performances and other rare footage. The result is a deeply satisfying sense that the music is as much a character in the legend of the band as are the men themselves.
Anthology comes on five discs. The first four contain two episodes each. The discs have very attractive full motion menus that build upon the look and feel of the Anthology CD set. The episodes have chapter stops that divide the programs chronologically for easy navigation. Lacking are stops for each of the songs but this seems like a minor oversight. The fifth disc contains all of the set's ancillary content.
About the DVD
The video elements preserve the original broadcast 4:3 ratio so the transfer is not anamorphic. Though I was hoping to see the show in widescreen I'm not in the least bit surprised or disappointed that it's 4:3. After all, it was shot for TV and much of the archival footage is also in this ratio. The video itself is very clean. It looks as good as the original broadcast if not a little better. There are no appreciable compression artifacts, I see no hint of edge enhancement and the contrast/color balance seems to be right on the money. Of particular note is the consistent brightness value. Since so much of this material comes from different sources it would have been easy for the producers to let the program jump up and down in brightness, but they've clearly put a good deal of effort into making sure that all of the elements are consistent.
Audio is where Anthology really shines. Several tracks are available. First there's a full Dolby Digital 5.1 remix of the original sound track. This version of the audio is exceptionally crisp and clear. It uses the LFE channel for deep bass, exhibits very good stereo separation and has a respectable amount of rear speaker activity for both ambiance and a surrounding effect when music is playing. Next up is a DTS version of this track. The DTS version does seem a bit more clear and detailed than the standard 5.1 track but the difference isn't large enough that you'd be missing anything if you don't have a DTS decoder. Finally there's an LPCM Stereo track. This is my personal favorite. It's amazingly rich and detailed, giving the music a surprisingly live and immediate feel. In some cases the songs have never sounded better than on Anthology's LPCM Stereo track.
Clocking in at about 81 minutes, the supplementary material on Anthology's fifth disc is good but leaves me wanting more.
Recollections - June 1994 - This lengthy segment offers extended footage of the three surviving Beatles spending a summer afternoon together, reminiscing about the band, and playing ukuleles. Later they jam as a band for the first time in decades. The program contains casual versions of a handful of songs including Raunchy, Thinking of Linking and Ain't She Sweet.
Compiling The Anthology Albums - The original airing of Anthology was supplemented by the release of three two-disc sets of rare material from the program on CD. This video selection is a collection of interviews with the band and George Martin in which they discuss how the songs were chosen for these releases.
Back at Abbey Road - May 1995 - This is a very interesting segment in which the band and George Martin discuss in great detail the process of recording some of the Beatles' best-known songs. They talk about the creative process, the limitations of 60s technology and about the differences in approach between John, Paul and George Martin.
Recording Free as a Bird and Real Love - In addition to the documentary and CDs, Ringo, George and Paul collaborated with recordings made by John in order to create a virtual reunion of the band. The result was two tracks: Free as a Bird and Real Love. This brief segment explores the process of recording these new Beatles songs.
Production Team - Here you'll find a short segment on the making of Anthology itself. There are interviews with Neil Aspinall, Derek Taylor, Geoff Wonfor, Chips Chipperfield and others. I found the supplement very interesting but woefully short. I would have liked to have learned more about the ins and outs of the selection and editing process as well as how the day-to-day interaction of the remaining Beatles played out.
Making of the Free as a Bird Video - Making the first Beatles video in twenty-five years must have been a humbling experience for all concerned. This supplement gives some detail on the creative process, the technical aspects and the public's reception of the video.
Real Love Video - Real Love is really more of a John Lennon solo song with the other Beatles providing backup. This is the video that was produced for the song.
I recorded Anthology off the air in 1995 and since then I've worn out my VHS tapes watching it again and again. No matter how many times I put it in my player I always notice something I haven't seen before and the experience is always satisfying. The only drawback to the Anthology release on DVD is the relatively thin collection of extras. The program really stands on its own, though, and with a street price around $55 you just can't go wrong. I give it my highest recommendation: DVD Talk Collector's Series.