[1 May 2012]
Strange Fruit: The Beatles’ Apple Records is a documentary chronicling the label that the Beatles started in the late ‘60s, charting its up and downs, its inaugural class of artists, etc. Why exactly it’s named after a song most closely related with Billie Holiday and lynching is a mystery, but the bizarre choice for a title is just the first tip-off that this unauthorized film lacks focus; at no point does the film suggest anything ‘strange’, so why even make the reference? Anyway…
The story goes thusly; in 1966, the Beatles stopped touring and suddenly found themselves with way too much time on their hands. They devoted this newfound leisure time largely to musical projects, such as the alleged masterpiece Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. They also decided to get more into the industry side of the ‘music industry’ by starting up their own label, brand etc. which fell under the title of Apple (not to be confused with the Apple of Steve Jobs et al, with which the Beatles camp would have significant litigious trouble years down the line, but that’s another story entirely).
The idea behind Apple Records was to be the kind of record label where artists would be able to more easily put out their work without the rigmarole of shady business deals and shadier business dealers. After all, the head honchos of Apple were the Beatles, artists in their own right who wanted to use their literal and figurative good fortune to pay it forward. Likewise the late ‘60s was prime time for feelings of peace and brotherhood (the film uses the term ‘utopia’ several times, enough to make me wish they had put a thesaurus in the film budget) and these feelings should naturally be extended to an arena where they were first fostered, that of music.
All of this hippie idealism that the film is attempting to paint upon the era and the events, however, is called into question by the film itself; it’s explained that one of the largest motivators for the Beatles setting up Apple in the first place had nothing to do with artistry or altruism. Rather, in light of a massive tax bill from the British government, one of the few options the group had for retaining most of their fortune was to invest it in a business. Hence the formation of Apple.
It’s quite a revelation, which many would think would rapidly deflate the inherent peace and love mythos of the ‘60s generation. The Beatles were actually greedy capitalists? Say it ain’t so! Although it must be said that the group being fed up with the seemingly oppressive tax system of then-England was quite easy to see for anyone who was a fan; the group covered Barrett Strong’s “Money (That’s What I Want)” on their second album, didn’t they? George Harrison’s “Taxman” opened up 1966’s Revolver, didn’t it? Paul McCartney, later on 1969’s Abbey Road, complains about never getting money, right?
The actual inception of Apple as a business entity is mostly glossed over in the film; who wants to get bogged down with economic jargon, anyhow? Likewise mostly ignored is one of the most pivotal moments in Beatles lore, the 1967 death of their manager Brian Epstein, an event that had little impact on their music but monumental impact on the business side of things. This issue of their management was largely left unresolved and, perhaps even more than any ‘creative differences’ cited as a reason for splitting up, the poor handling of their ‘business differences’ was likely an even bigger reason for breaking up. So there are some omissions in regard to what needed to be addressed in the story of Apple and the Beatles.
But that’s alright, as this is a film about more than just the Beatles. Despite constant references back to the group, the real emphasis for much of the film is on the acts that were there on Apple, presented in a somewhat chaotic and topsy-turvy sense of chronological order. Among the ‘first four’ singles, as they were called, were two smash hits; the Beatles’ own “Hey Jude” and a reworking of a Russian song called “Those Were The Days” by Mary Hopkin, a song that McCartney produced; he had long wanted to record but waited until he found an appropriatete singer. The other two were the Harrison-penned “Sour Milk Sea” in a version by Jackie Lomax and “Thingumybob”, a truly wretched piece of music written by McCartney and recorded by the Black Dyke Mills Band, the B-side of which was a version of “Yellow Submarine”.
Considering the fact that the majority of the first releases were in one form or another Beatles product, the whole idea of Apple being a place for unknown and/or underappreciated artists to come and do their thing was already starting to unravel. Instead, Apple seemed like a place for the Beatles to get self-indulgent by pawning off throwaway tracks onto other people. In particular, it looked like Paul just wanted a sandbox to play in where he was holding all the toys (for all you Paul apologists, don’t worry; John was just as guilty, if not more so, when he released those three atrocious albums with Yoko on Apple over the course of the next two years).
This signing policy of theirs was maybe the Achilles heel of Apple. The fact that one of the Beatles had to directly sign an artist led to them losing a number of small-name artists who would soon become very big, including David Bowie, Yes, CSNY and Fleetwood Mac, according to the film. Just imagine a Bowie album produced by one of the Beatles. Instead, the Beatles chose to focus on their own pet projects, most of which amused few but themselves.
Over and over again, the film makes a point of telling the story of how the Beatles engaged largely in musical nepotism rather than attempting to create a working, profitable business model. They were certainly not businessmen and they vastly overestimated their abilities in that regard after Brian Epstein died. It would prove to be their undoing only two years later.
There are a few problems with the documentary in terms of what it focuses on. Jackie Lomax gets a large amount of screen time despite the fact that, by his own admission, his career at Apple was not particularly successful. Mary Hopkin, meanwhile, only appears in archival footage despite the fact that she was the first big phenomenon of Apple. It seems that the content of the film was somewhat skewed towards the people they could actually get on camera; Jackie Lomax was more than happy to talk to the producers, whereas Mary Hopkin was apparently unavailable, as were other important early acts like James Taylor.
It’s a little different in the case of some other people who were crucial to the business side of things; press officer Derek Taylor and managing director Neil Aspinall both passed away some time ago. Tony Bramwell, promotions manager, is present and gives a lot of good insight even if he does occasionally get into unimportant and uninteresting details (that’s the fault of whoever edited the film, not of Bramwell). He seems to set a trend as far as allowing interviewees to ramble on.
Most notably absent, though, are Paul and Ringo themselves. If anyone would’ve been able to tell the story in rich detail, it would’ve been them, and the fact that they had no part in a documentary about themselves is a real shame. The lack of a number of important and legitimate interviewees is a major problem with the film. More prominent are interviews with younger music journalists who weren’t there and whose information is secondhand at best. A lot of camera time is given to people who weren’t really involved all that much, like the bass player of the Iveys, a band that did little more than release a lone moderately successful single on the label.
At times, there’s a question of whether there’s any focus in the film at all. It seems like the producers decided to just link a series of tangents about the label in a somewhat chronological order. There is a good-sized sequence about James Taylor’s single album that seems inconsequential in the greater scope of the film and relies too heavily on archival footage. When put in the context of the fact that the film runs for close to three hours (which, at the pace it travels, feels like at least six hours), a lot of this type of thing could have been left on the cutting room floor.
And that’s a major flaw with the film; if the audience wants the story of Apple, they don’t need it in such great detail. Things are restated, explained more than they need to be explained, etc. After an hour and a half of watching the film, I audibly groaned, knowing that I had well over an hour of the film left. That groan popped up about every five minutes for the rest of the film. Also, the fact that the film uses, reuses, and overuses three microscopic pieces of stock music between scenes in a film that is itself about music (and they obviously had no problem with licensing issues) is a terrible mistake. These pieces of stock music are hammered into a dull paste, mercilessly drilling their overly polite acoustic guitars into the audience’s brain.
There’s also a greater conflict regarding whether or not this is a film about the Beatles or not. Other acts like Mary Hopkin come into the film, are focused on for quite some time, and disappear for long stretches while the narrative goes back to the Beatles, only for her to reappear and take up another long, overly in-depth segment later on. Likewise for Jackie Lomax, whose story is cut off practically in mid-sentence only to be picked back up exactly where it left off a half-hour later. As a result, the film wastes time backtracking where they had left off with him earlier in the film.
Even more infuriating is the fact that right after this second sequence on Lomax, it goes right back to Mary Hopkin to finish her own half-completed sentence. Which then leads into a sequence about James Taylor, who we likewise haven’t seen hide nor hair of in half an hour. Which transitions to a sequence on the Iveys, a group we haven’t seen in almost an hour, who will also disappear and reappear later in the film when they become Badfinger, who themselves will appear and disappear another several times. The Beatles break up, fifteen minutes later the film shows them breaking up again after having gone off to talk about someone else. Other sections are pretty superfluous. John Lennon’s political activities, as interesting as they may be, don’t have to be explained yet again, especially in the context of a film about a record label.
Having all of these various chunks chopped up when the knife should’ve been kept in the drawer is, speaking as a member of the audience, immensely frustrating. What might have worked much better is if everyone had their own ‘episode’ included on the DVD. Perhaps if there were a Mary Hopkin episode, a Badfinger episode, etc., a larger section focusing solely on the Beatles and the business side of Apple. That would free up the idea of being able to have all of these different stories fitting together without bogging each other down. Instead, the film is like taking different colors of Play-Doh and shoving them all together. As anyone who did that as a kid knows, you can still sort of see sections of the different colors, but you just ruined all your Play-Doh.
The effect is of watching two films, one about the Beatles and one about the acts on Apple, that have been smashed together with an almost indiscriminate regard for continuity of film. Honestly, the producers would’ve been far more successful in their venture here if they had chosen to focus solely on the Apple artists besides the Beatles. After all, that’s the part of the story far fewer people know about. Everybody knows the story of the Beatles. Everybody knows about how Allen Klein screwed things up and how Billy Preston was the latest in a long line of ‘fifth Beatles’. These diversions act simply to distract the audience from being able to follow the two distinct and not necessarily intertwined narratives of the Beatles and Apple (and as I suggested, one could even argue that there are almost a dozen narratives dizzyingly competing for attention if you count all the different acts that come and go throughout).
It’s like two films competing for attention in a tug-of-war. This is highly evident in a number of places, such as when the film plays a song by the Radha Krsna Temple over a photo of George Harrison rather than a photo of the band themselves.
The film also tends to leave out specifics as to why Apple went rotten and turned into such a disaster, leaving the basic explanation like this; the Beatles broke up and the label ran out of money. The whys and wherefores are not elucidated here, making the film terribly, terribly anticlimactic and only further frustrating someone who just spent almost three hours of his life sitting through it all.
What might be the most incredible part of this film is how it ends in the early ‘70s and completely ignores the several decades in between. For a film that goes into excruciating detail, the fact that it completely ignores 40 years of history (which were not without incidents, like the aforementioned Apple v. Apple court case and the Beatles’ mid-‘90s reunion, among other things) is mind-boggling and a huge oversight. After all, the producers have already shown that they’re unfocused. Might as well go for broke.
The DVD extras are negligible. They include an interview with Stephen Friedland, aka Brute Force, about a novelty song called “King of Fuh” he recorded for Apple that is mentioned only in passing and not played in the main film, but is played during the interview. Considering how much fluff there is in the film, it boggles the mind as to why the producers chose to exercise restraint and keep this, of all things, out of the film. Considering the fact that the film contains footage of topless women, it seems unlikely that the song was kept out because of its lyrics (“all hail the mighty Fuh King”, say it fast ha ha ha).
So the whole thing is a major head-scratcher, and the interview itself is far too long and dull, just like the film, as Brute Force tries to make it seem like his song that sounds like it was written by a ten year old boy is some kind of deep, artistic statement about freedom. Whatever, dude. The other main DVD extra is a stack of biographies for the interviewees, much of which you would be told anyway if you cared to watch the movie.
There are good things to the film, the biggest of which is unearthing a lot of interesting archival footage that has rarely been seen since the ‘60s. But to paraphrase the accusation critics have leveled at the Beatles’ own White Album, somewhere in this overly drawn-out, disjointed documentary is a good film. As it stands, though, it’s far too difficult to pay attention when so may different stories are being told, paused, and picked up later. If you want to know the story of the Beatles, there are plenty of other sources to get it from.
If you want to know the story of Apple Records that doesn’t focus solely on the Beatles and instead focuses on everyone else on Apple, then I don’t know of any one definitive, authoritative source. This is dull, mostly secondhand, way too long, etc. Don’t bother unless you’ve got way too much time on your hands.