“Beatles Stories” is a feature-length mash note to the Fab Four.
Director Seth Swirsky (a Big Hollywood contributor) isn’t looking to deconstruct John, Paul, George or Ringo. He’s a fan, plain and simple, and he’s gathered interviews of fellow fans lucky enough to run into the band members before, during and after their historic musical run.
It’s all peace and love, to quote a certain Beatles drummer, and the vibe is infectious.
Armed with a video camera and a deep knowledge of Beatles lore, Swirsky drops in on Graham Nash, Sir George Martin (the Beatles’ longtime producer), Art Garfunkel and many others who have stories you probably haven’t heard before.
Who knew Ben Kingsley had ties to the Beatles?
Some are famous folk who came of age during the Beatles heyday. Others were simply lucky enough to cross a Beatle’s path. One girl got her first buss from a Beatle – talk about permanent bragging rights in her gal pal clique.
The Beatles’ music isn’t employed in the documentary. Instead, Swirsky borrows tracks from his own career – both as a solo artist and with the ’60s inflected duo The Red Button. One can’t help but long for those great Beatles songs, but to hear an artist so influenced by the band offers an additional layer of tribute.
Not all “Stories” are created equal, but Swirsky shrewdly cuts the lesser tales short so they still offer something tangible. Some stories simply inspire a goofy grin, but others reveal the creative process in a way too rarely seen in this format. We learn, for example, that George Harrison was the gentle taskmaster, unwilling to submit anything less that perfection.
Fellow musicians marvel at how open the Beatles were despite their cultural clout. They didn’t pull rank when they jammed with their peers. They just brought their guitars and said, “c’mon and play along … we’re all equals.”
The group fires up our nostalgia circuits like few other rock acts, and while we endured the “Paul is Dead” scare and Lennon’s post-Beatles “Lost Weekend,” the band members didn’t embarrass themselves – or us – in the process as too many modern celebrities do. That leaves the memories pure, allowing us to recall their glory days without having to shove aside ugly tangents.
Only Lennon emerges as a somewhat prickly character here, but even he is regaled with stories of his sense of humor, smarts and kindness. And boy, could the Beatles be goofy. Lennon once served as a guest weatherman at a TV station, and Harrison played Monopoly with zest.
What’s perhaps the most striking about the band, beyond their colossal musical achievements, is how grounded they remained through it all. Their fame was swift and unlike any other pop act. Take Justin Bieber’s fame and multiply by 10. Yet the vast majority of their interactions collected here are generous and kind. Consider the story in which Paul McCartney calls in to a radio station for an interview and happily plays along with the station’s small demands.
We don’t hear about star trips – perhaps the worst is when Jon Voight, high off his new found fame thanks to “Midnight Cowboy,” tries to negotiate a sit down with Lennon at a restaurant but is gently rebuffed.
The Blu-ray extras include additional stories (also available on the DVD version) – lesser yarns but still worthwhile for Fab fanatics (along with Monkees fans given the tale told by Peter Tork) along with a closer look at longtime Beatles recording engineer Norman “Hurricane” Smith.
The disk’s commentary track lets Swirsky share his personal connections to both the Beatles and the sources in his film. He’s a chatty presence, and his recollections of how each interview became a reality offers a glimpse into celebrity culture and the power of the Beatles brand.
The sight of Swirsky’s own children dancing to the Beatles music is to see a new generation of listeners grabbing daddy’s fan baton.
Follow Christian Toto on Twitter @TotoMovies