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 listening experience.
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 instead.