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Composing the Beatles Songbook: Lennon & Mccartney

Other // Unrated // March 18, 2008
List Price: $19.95 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by David Cornelius | posted June 26, 2008 | E-mail the Author
Beatles videos are a dime a dozen, most of them offering glimpses of the Fab Four in their earliest stages. Recently added to the pile of unauthorized Beatles DVDs is "Composing the Beatles Songbook: Lennon and McCartney 1957-1965," a critical evaluation of the band's songwriting output during its formative years. The program combines newly minted interviews featuring rock critics, journalists, artists, and friends of the band with archival footage of the Beatles' early television and film performances; being an unauthorized work, we're only offered snippets of music, just enough for the commentators to make their points. (Anyone checking this out is probably aware of the famous tunes being discussed, so complete performances aren't necessary.)

As the title suggests, "Lennon and McCartney" intentionally ignores the creative input of George Harrison and Ringo Starr, and it does so in a slightly snobbish way - the documentary's almost over before anyone gives attention to either of them, and it's just in a passing comment about how Ringo's drumming is underappreciated. To be fair, however, this program isn't about the Beatles but about how John Lennon and Paul McCartney grew together, then apart, as songwriters, and how the years spanning from the Quarrymen era to the release of Rubber Soul offer the best examples of these composers' rise.

Of course, such a shut-off date ignores the influential later work of the band, but that's pretty much the point: after Rubber Soul, the program argues, the Beatles' albums became showcases for individual work, and this is a study of the Lennon-McCartney partnership.

Indeed, the documentary only gives a cursory glance at the band's formation, information that's probably already well known to the fans watching. (The discussion of the transition from the Quarrymen as "John's band" to the Beatles as a frontman-less foursome is a powerful enough argument to forgive such rushed "Behind the Music" biography.) It's the release of the band's earliest singles that begins the program's focus on the songwriting, with comments added that it was rare for a pop act to write so much of their own material.

Comparing Paul and John's styles is a tricky business, as the filmmakers are wary, not wanting to reveal a favorite. Of course, some the interviewees aren't above such things, and for every comment about how McCartney was raised with a broader scope of musical styles (thus making him a well-rounded yin to Lennon's yang), there's some snooty blather from the "Village Voice" guy about how Paul's pop sensibilities dragged down John's poetry. (The same interviewee is so snobbish in his dismissal of Paul's work that you immediately want to crank up "Can't Buy Me Love" in reply.)

For those wondering why and when the songwriters stopped collaborating, the program doesn't speculate too much on the "why" but pretty much nails the "when": after a few years of tightly harmonized singles showcasing the best of both John and Paul's distinct styles, the A Hard Day's Night soundtrack album reveals a distinct split, with the two spending less time working together, sharing fewer ideas, resulting in more individualistic songs.

But that's not as bad as it might sound, since, as author Chris Ingham explains, both work unique sounds into their tunes. McCartney's "Can't Buy Me Love" is a super-cheery pop bauble that hides a swingin' twelve-bar rhythm; Lennon's "A Hard Day's Night" carries some sinister chords, daring for a pop hit. (One thing the program never attempts to explain: why the pair kept their royalty-sharing dual credit on everything. It's not a big hole in the show's presentation, but it may leave newcomers quite confused.)

"Lennon and McCartney" then follows both writers' growth, with John becoming inspired - and, in return, inspiring - Bob Dylan, and Paul penning hit singles for other artists. The web of influence, involving the Beatles, Dylan, the Rolling Stones, and the Byrds (oddly not mentioned here: the Beach Boys), forced these artists to try and one-up each other, all while learning from each other. Styles change: lyrics become more complex, new styles are tackled - and yet egos remain mostly in check, at least in this stage of the band's career.

All of this leads to a discussion of Rubber Soul (minus the George and Ringo tunes), with extra emphasis on "Michelle," considered here the last great collaboration between Paul and John. As someone who felt that French-flavored song to be one of the band's lesser efforts, "Lennon and McCartney" pushed me to reevaluate the tune, and for the better. And while much of the historical information is nothing new and some of the commentators' arguments are debatable (seriously, "Village Voice" dude, just shut it), the push for reevaluation is exactly why this program works. It sheds new light on familiar material, and longtime fans and newcomers alike will find this a welcome discussion.


Pride DVD offers "Lennon and McCartney" in a glossy tri-fold digipak that does a surprisingly good job staying closed despite a lack of slipcover to keep it shut.

Video & Audio

While archival material is obviously less than stellar (although for the most part, the footage comes from well-preserved sources), the new interview clips look just fine. These are simple talking-head shots captured on video, and they get the job done. Presented in 1.33:1 full frame, with a handful of archive footage letterboxed as needed.

The stereo soundtrack favors the music over the dialogue, which is good for getting the most out of all those classic songs (which sounded terrific on my system), but not so much for consistency. The interviews and narration were always just a little softer than the music, leaving me juggling the volume controls throughout the entire program. No subtitles are provided.


Three extended interviews (with Barry Miles, Maureen Cleave, and Klaus Voorman) aren't that extended, running around four minutes total. These are little bites of fun conversation, useful mainly because all three were friends of the band providing a pinch of inside information.

A deleted scene (2:50) offers a brief, enjoyable discussion on "We Can Work It Out," a song shamefully left unmentioned in the program.

Text biographies for all interview subjects round out the set.

Final Thoughts

While there are some comments here that may rile Beatles fans (or, at least, leave them wondering "hey, why'd they leave that out?"), "Lennon and McCartney" provides just enough thoughtful analysis and heartfelt appreciation to be Recommended to any fan of the Fab Four's early days.
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