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VIDEO REVIEW

A Trip on the Long, Winding Road

'The Beatles Anthology' takes a comprehensive look at the Fab Four--and gives insight for today's youth.

September 02, 1996|ROBERT HILBURN | TIMES POP MUSIC CRITIC

Given the Beatles' phenomenal pop influence and popularity, it's easy in retrospect to think of the band's career as a straight, unbending line that soared skyward so boldly that nothing could have stopped it.

But there are several moments early in the remarkable 10-hour "The Beatles Anthology" documentary, which will be available in stores Thursday, that remind us of how easily the group's story could have been derailed by removing even one or two essential pieces of a spectacular career mosaic.

Imagine, for instance, if a friend didn't drag teenage Paul McCartney along to a neighborhood festival to see a band led by a kid named John Lennon.

Imagine, too, if McCartney, impressed by Lennon's vocal on the Dell-Vikings' "Come Go With Me," didn't have the nerve to go up to Lennon afterward and, in effect, audition for the band by singing Eddie Cochran's "Twenty Flight Rock."

Or what if Lennon, who recalls in a '70s interview clip how impressed he was with McCartney, had felt threatened by this newcomer . . . and wouldn't want to share the leadership of the band with him?

And what if McCartney didn't happen to sit next to George Harrison on the school bus one day and discover their mutual love of rock 'n' roll?

It's the same kind of accidental meetings that lead each year to the formation of groups by thousands of kids following their rock dreams. Some go into the groups casually and drop out at the first brush with misfortune. Others are much more passionate about it.

"Rock and roll was real. . . . Everything else was unreal," Lennon says in an interview that is included on the video.

Reminiscing about the early days in recent interviews conducted for the project, McCartney tells viewers about traveling across Liverpool by bus just to meet someone who could teach the band a new chord on the guitar.

As the story unfolds, the threesome--later joined by Ringo Starr on drums--honed their skills so well in Hamburg and Liverpool that they attracted the interest of Decca Records.

Eager for a record contract, they traveled on a freezing New Year's Eve to London, where they failed an audition. "Guitar bands are on the way out," they were told.

It could have broken the spirit of many bands, but the Beatles kept at it and finally got signed by George Martin, a record producer with no background in rock 'n' roll.

Even though the group's first single, "Love Me Do," made the top 20 in England, Martin didn't seem to have a lot of faith in the band's own songs. So, he found a tune for them that he promised would result in a No. 1 single.

Most bands would have been so eager for success that they would have gladly gone into the studio and recorded the song, but the Beatles thought the tune, "How Do You Do It?," was too lightweight.

It was a heady move in the '60s, when rock was still considered by most people to be simply a passing pop fad. The Beatles, however, seemed to sense that rock could be more--the art form that they helped it become. If they had given in and used the other song, they may have continued relying on outside material and never developed as writers themselves.

To his credit, Martin gave the group a chance to come up with a song of their own.

Lennon then wrote "Please Please Me," a song whose use of the word "please" in two ways (to request and to satisfy) telegraphed some of the clever wordplay and sophistication that would later characterize the Beatles' work.

After hearing the song, Martin predicted it would be their first No. 1 record. And he was right. (He was also right about "How Do You Do It?," which was recorded by Gerry & the Pacemakers and also went to No. 1.)

It's the careful, detailed telling of the Beatles story that makes "The Beatles Anthology" such a marvelous package--far more entertaining and revealing than the six-hour version of it that aired last fall on ABC and began a repeat showing Saturday (Parts 2 and 3 air Thursday and Saturday).

"Anthology" is a festival of Beatles music, much of it drawn from videos, movies, concerts and recording sessions. We share with them the joys of early success and watch as they battle with the events (from manager Brian Epstein's death to musical differences) that pulled them apart. In the end, the Beatles simply grew apart as musicians and as people, and they were so rich and successful they didn't feel the need to make the compromises necessary to keep the group together.

But the triumph of "Anthology" is that it goes deeper than being simply a celebration of the Beatles legacy. This comprehensive examination of the group's career serves as a valuable primer for anyone who wants to be in a band.

More than any rock documentary since "Don't Look Back," D.A. Pennebaker's brilliant 1967 portrait of Bob Dylan on tour, "Anthology" shows you what it is like to be at the absolute center of a cultural storm. Where it goes "Don't Look Back" one better is that it shows you the factors that pushed the Beatles into the storm and those that drove them from it.

It's a costly package--$159.98 list from Turner Home Entertainment in videocassette or $229.98 list from Pioneer Entertainment in the recommended laserdisc version, where the visual quality is frequently breathtaking. But it is also an invaluable one.

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