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The Beatles With Tony Sheridan

The Beginnings in Hamburg: a Documentary [DVD]

(Polydor; US DVD: 2 Mar 2004; UK DVD: 16 Feb 2004)

This DVD purports to document the Beatles’ early years in Hamburg, Germany, when Allen Williams, the group’s first manager, booked them to play strip-bars-turned-beat-clubs in that city’s red light district. According to legend, the band honed their on-stage appeal and thoroughly mastered their repertoire through being forced to play marathon sets every night of the week for rough, drunken crowds. During their stretches in Hamburg, they befriended fellow Liverpudlian Tony Sheridan, a marginally successful English rock and roller who built his career on doing a passable Elvis impersonation.

Sheridan was renowned enough in Germany to get a chance to record with orchestra leader/music industry impresario Bert Kaempfert (of “Wonderland by Night” and “Strangers in the Night” fame), sessions for which he on occasion recruited the Beatles to back him up. One of these yielded the “My Bonnie” single, which after being requested by an eager teenager in his parents’ store, led Brian Epstein to track the Beatles down—which, of course, led to tight matching suits, George Martin, Ed Sullivan, and an unalterable place as the most important pop group in the history of recorded music.

But to call this DVD a “Beatles documentary” would be misleading on both counts. It’s hardly a documentary, in the sense that a variety of sources have been synthesized coherently to convey a particular filmmaker’s vision. Instead, the non-music segments consist entirely of more or less unedited, inexplicably sepia-toned interview clips shot with all the technical sophistication and imagination of a cable-access show or high school video-arts project: A video camera was set up on a tripod, and the subject just starts talking. There’s absolutely no context provided for these interviews aside from the bare-bones captions pasted below the talking heads to identify them: “Horst Fascher (manager of the Star Club);” “Jochen V. Bredow (journalist)”. Consequently, if you don’t already thoroughly know the early history of the Beatles, you’ll have no idea who these people being interviewed really are or what connects them to the Beatles. You might even be puzzled by why there are five Beatles, and why Ringo’s not one of them. Without purposeful editing, no connections or correlations drawn between what different speakers say—the clips seemed to have been assembled in an entirely random order. And no emphasis is given to anything any individual might happen to say.

These interviewees, who with the possible exception of Allen Williams (whose best stories are already familiar from The Beatles Anthology and the Compleat Beatles) are hardly raconteurs, ramble on far too long without culminating in anything insightful or instructive: When they finish talking, you often have no idea what function the clip was supposed to serve or why you possibly could have been expected to find what was said interesting. This is especially true of the interminable clips of Tony Sheridan pointlessly introducing each of his 16 songs featured here. He rambles on with all the rhetorical energy of an algebra teacher about what he remembers about the songs, making up theories about which blues men might have played them first and enthusing about what little any body knew about R&B “in those days,” which is exactly what allowed people like him to get away with playing it. You expect him to at least mention what contributions the Beatles might have made to each of these recordings, but he virtually never mentions them, which leads you to believe that their involvement was almost negligible.

And as the rest of this “documentary”—the lion’s share of it—is taken up with playing those recordings in full, it ultimately only tangentially concerns the Beatles. It’s basically a Tony Sheridan retrospective. There’s not a single moment of Beatles footage on the DVD; in fact, there’s no performance footage of any kind whatsoever. While Sheridan’s songs play, the camera pans around a few dozen black and white still photos of the Beatles and Sheridan in Hamburg—most of which are very familiar from other Beatles documentaries (the fresh ones are of just Sheridan)—with some occasional cheesy editing cuts made to match the music.

Needless to say, this grows pretty tiresome pretty quick. Not that the songs themselves are bad—they provide fascinating insight into how the gap between the Beatles and Elvis was bridged. In fact, this DVD would function much better as an audio CD with the still photos and all the interview material digested into liner notes. It’s fairly a comprehensive collection of the Kaempfert material; however, it puzzlingly omits the instrumental “Cry for a Shadow”, penned by Lennon and Harrison, so it fails perhaps on the most crucial criteria of collecting all the relevant Beatles material. Perhaps the best thing about it is the packaging, which comes with some snazzy postcards. Still, all that being said, Beatles enthusiasts will still probably be interested in this as some slivers of new information come to light in these fresh retellings of familiar stories.

Robert Horning has developed a substantial body of work in PopMatters' music reviews, concerts, film, and TV sections. His writing has also appeared in Time Out New York and Skyscraper. In his PopMatters column, "Marginal Utility", Rob bridges the abstract and concrete aspects of consumerism. His writing is as grounded and approachable as an everyday trip to the grocery store. Rob has a BA and MA in English Literature; his interests in social theory, economics, and sociology generates his solid background knowledge for "Marginal Utility" and informs his music reviews. For more Rob Horning, be sure to read the Marginal Utility blog.

Tagged as: the beatles
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