I’ll start off simple; Beatles Stories is a film by author, songwriter and Beatles fan Seth Swirsky, compiling all kinds of first-person accounts related to the Fab Four. Some of it is interesting, yes, but none of it perks your eyelids open. If you are a pop culture junky, then you likely know most of these stories. So the true value of these anecdotes must lie in 1) their source or 2) the source’s delivery of the story. And how the whole thing is framed is another matter altogether.
Seth Swirsky has been a Beatles fan longer than he’s been a filmmaker. He admits it up front. Over the film’s opening montage, he says “About five years ago I bought a video camera and set out to film as many of those stories as I can find.” For Swirsky, love overtakes labor as well as ease and continuity.
Put plainly, the production of Beatles Stories leaves a lot to be desired. The volume levels of each interview vary too much. Sometimes the camerawork looks professional, other times painfully amateur—and the same can be said for the picture quality. Sometimes Swirsky talks to his subjects while holding the camera. Other times there is a camera on him, holding the camera. Other times there is a camera on him not holding anything.
I found myself thinking way too much about how Seth Swirsky presented and sometimes fell behind on whatever story was being told, though the muffled sound would pose no favors. He also has the distracting habit of divvying the film up into chapters too often. How often? Between almost every interview. This means that a title screen shows up every few minutes or so, foreshadowing a piece of the story, making you wonder where this quaint little nugget falls into Beatles lore.
As far as the content goes, Beatles Stories gives us a picture of the band that largely squares with what we all thought before. They continue to be four nice, lovable guys from Liverpool who worked hard to balance their creative geniuses with their burgeoning fame. Drugs and meditation happened, and they sprinkled their wisdom among many a stranger and celebrity. There’s perhaps one thing that surprised me from Beatles Stories and that’s Lennon’s assistant, Frederic Seaman, saying that John Lennon actually favored Ronald Reagan in the 1980 American presidential election.
Brian Wilson said he and his friends were smoking pot and listening to Rubber Soul and it inspired him to write the music for Pet Sounds. Now if you frequent this magazine, I just know that you are a good little pop culture junkie and that you already knew this. It’s been the stuff of rock history, stuff your grandparents knew. If it weren’t for Wilson’s additional story of hearing Paul McCartney play “She’s Leaving Home” for he and his wife, his footage might have landed on the cutting room floor.
Jon Voight recounts how he didn’t get to meet John Lennon. Some of these stories tell us more about the interviewees than the Beatles themselves, like Susanna Hoffs’s rambling story about how she got to meet Ringo Starr and…nothing happened. Ray Manzarek of the Doors talked about his bad acid trip and looking at the cover of Rubber Soul for the first time. If everyone from the ‘60s were allowed film space for a story like that, we’d all have a celluloid shortage.
It’s not all so pointless. Some of the stories are entertaining, like Macca meeting the Fonz, and a slight percentage of those include some insight. Luci Baines Johnson really wanted the mop tops to come to White House but her father thought it not to be an appropriate time in the wake of JFK’s murder. Art Garfunkel gave John Lennon some words of encouragement when it comes to swallowing your pride so that you may work with your former partner, in their case, a couple of Pauls.
Swirsky’s footage of Sir George Martin is another non-interview, but he did say something funny; they he thought that Beatles engineer Norman Blake was already dead. Blake died in 2008, but Swirsky managed to pencil him in before then. This is one of those segments of Beatles Stories where the dodgy production obscures his poignant tales of being the one to let the tapes roll right from the Please Please Me sessions. I suppose his gruff voice is a factor here, too. I kept hearing him as Rumpole of the Bailey.
Some chapters are charming stories of memorabilia, passed from a Beatle to a fan or friend such as old records and guitars. The stories behind these things were mostly engaging. Their presence on the screen doesn’t quite pack a wallop, the real thrill reserved for anyone who had a close encounter with one of these items.
But telling the tale of Paul denying that he was dead? Steve Kipner playing pool and watching a movie with Ringo? Nothing squelches a good story than concluding it with “You had to be there.”
There is a 30-minute segment of bonus stories on the DVD and an extended interview with Norman Smith. As with Beatles Stories overall, a few slices of these extras give some genuine incite into the life and times of the Beatles. Producer Thom Panunzio has a particularly sad story of John Lennon signing one last autograph for a Panunzio’s friend before being driven back to the Dakota. Panunzio and his friends took initial reports on the news as bogus since Lennon had just walked to the car with Yoko Ono not a few minutes prior.
Smith’s recalling of the Help! and Rubber Soul sessions is an eyewitness account of how things had changed in the Beatles camp, and in his mind, not for the better. Smith had written a song to help round out the Help! soundtrack, one which Brian Epstein, Martin and the Beatles were seriously considering for inclusion. It kept getting put on the back burner and Smith was eventually told that the band would use it for the next album. By the time that next album happened, no one mentioned Smith’s song. It was gone from everyone’s list of priorities, as if it had never come up in the first place. As Smith tells the story, you can tell that it wasn’t the song’s rejection that bothered him as much as a change of attitude had infected the young men he once had diligently worked with. Smith chose not to work with them again as they sped off to uncharted territory.
A phone conversation between Swirsky and sports writer Robert Lipsyte is a charming but frivolous story of the Beatles meeting Muhammad Ali, then known as Cassius Clay. And although nothing concrete happens in the story, Lipsyte relays it as an unusually smooth meeting between diametrically opposed icons from the ‘60s; the Beatles are told to go meet with a famous boxer, things get delayed, the Beatles got frustrated, the famous boxer enters the room and the overall mood swings upward, turning the encounter into a memorable photo opp. Other stories largely flounder and as is by now par for the course, the remainder of the bonus features rely heavily on cotton candy story telling.