By Chaz Lipp

Professional songwriter and musician Seth Swirsky has turned his passion for The Beatles into a feature-length documentary called Beatles Stories, now available on DVD. Though The Beatles themselves are only seen in photographs, this is one of the freshest Beatle docs to come along in some time. The concept is simple. Swirsky spent the last several years interviewing people who met a Beatle at some point and have an interesting story to tell. Quite a few of these interviewees are celebrities, but the non-celebrity stories are equally valuable.

The “name” interviews grab the most attention, of course, and throughout the film we hear from music artists such as Art Garfunkel, Graham Nash, Peter Noone, Denny Laine, Brian Wilson, and Smokey Robinson. But the interview roster branches out beyond music to include actors Ben Kingsley, Jon Voight, and Henry Winkler. We also hear from former New York Yankee Bernie Williams, sportscaster Frank Gifford, and even the daughter of President Johnson, Luci Baines Johnson.
My interview with Swirsky can be seen here at Blogcritics, but there were some extra tidbits from our conversation that I wanted to share here at Cinema Lowdown.
CINEMA LOWDOWN: Beatles Stories has a lot of famous faces, but the film is much more than just “Big stars talking about meeting The Beatles,” wouldn’t you say?
SETH SWIRSKY: Yes, a lot of people misrepresent this movie. They say that I got celebrities to talk about the Beatles. That’s not true. There are a lot of non-celebrities and a lot of people that had different kinds of celebrity. Mitzi McCall and Charlie Brill were famous for a night [Ed’s note: They appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show, February 9, 1964, the same night The Beatles first appeared]. That’s at the lower end. Then there were people who weren’t famous at all, like the girl who drove Paul McCartney’s car when she was in New Orleans as a schoolgirl. Mitch Weissman was famous for playing Paul in Beatlemania [Ed’s note: the Broadway production, later a feature film]. I only got the stories from people who could give me stories.

CL: I love Badfinger and it was great hearing from the band’s only surviving member, Joey Molland. I can only guess he had more than one great story, how did you choose which one to use?

SS: Yes, I heard a number of stories from Joey. I mean, Badfinger was one of those groups that was like the “baby Beatles.” They were from Liverpool, four guys, great writers, great singers. I really wondered how deep the influence went. And when Joey was talking about George Harrison’s involvement with “Day After Day,” and how he had them all go around for hours and hours singing the ‘oohs’ and ‘ahhs ’and all that stuff, he goes, “It was like making a Beatles record.” That was a real insight into what it would be like if you were in a band and George Harrison came in and was teaching the “Beatles Junior.” That’s why I chose that story.
CL: I loved hearing Jon Voight talk about how he almost, but not quite, met John Lennon.
SS: Jon Voight’s story was almost a non-Beatles story, and yet it is a Beatles story. Jon Voight, a celebrity at the height of his fame, with all that ego. I laugh every time I see that story. He’s so self-deprecating.
CL: All these years later, you can still hear the sadness in his voice. It’s the moment that got away from him.
SS: Definitely, you nailed it. Totally. And I thought that was worthy of putting in there. Not just, “Oh I got Jon Voight and he doesn’t tell a story.” No, I felt it was such a Beatles story. He sees John Lennon, and he’s on top of the world with Midnight Cowboy, and he thinks, “I’m a celebrity now, I can have dinner with John Lennon.” It’s hilarious.

CL: What made the movie such a great viewing experience, for me, was not knowing just who I was going to be hearing from next.

SS: First of all, this movie is not about making money. I’m going to lose a ton and I don’t care! It’s about presenting it correctly so that people are excited to see one entry after the next. They don’t have to love every single one. Even Tony Bramwell, The Beatles’ longtime associate, I kept in that part at the beginning where he goes, “I wasn’t in Pirates of the Caribbean, I was in a car accident.” And I asked his permission to use that. [Ed’s Note: Bramwell is all beat up-looking in his interview segment]
CL: This was your first feature-length film. Did you have much technical help while filming the interviews?
SS: Maybe for one or two stories, I think I had a cameraman come in because I was always worried if I got the lighting right. So maybe I’d call in a guy to set my camera up correctly, because I didn’t know if it was working correctly. What you see is what you get.
CL: In the director’s commentary, you talk about how nervous you were to actually watch the footage you had shot.
SS: Every time I shot somebody, I would take the videotape and put it away in a special drawer. I wouldn’t look at it for three or four months. I was so afraid I didn’t get the lighting right or the sound. I would think to myself, “Oh my God, what if I didn’t get Graham Nash.” Or, “I just shot Henry Winkler and he told this great story, what if it didn’t come out right?” I couldn’t deal with it. I always put it away until I was calmer about it.

CL: You interviewed Lennon’s personal assistant Fred Seaman. His comments about Lennon possibly being a Ronald Reagan supporter were taken out of context and made worldwide headlines. Great for publicity, but Seaman’s comments were misrepresented, correct?

SS: My phone was ringing off the hook. And my documentary wasn’t even out yet. MSNBC, Fox News, Washington Post, everybody was weighing in. It was complete insanity. I was literally drinking coffee, writing a bridge to a new song. It was just a normal summer day, then all of a sudden the Daily Mail, I mean all around the world, “Lennon Would’ve Been a Republican.”
Now, that’s not what Fred said. What Fred said is that John told him he would’ve voted for Reagan in the 1980 election had he been an American, and that he thought Jimmy Carter was a phony. Fred said Lennon had met Reagan years earlier [at an NFL game]. He wasn’t there, that’s why I followed up with Frank Gifford. I was trying to be a good documentarian, trying to prove whether or not it happened. Frank Gifford was there and says the meeting happened.

I know a lot of people in the world who are liberal when they’re young, but they become more conservative as they get older. Their worldview changes, so what? John Lennon was a work in progress. In no way did Fred say, or did I, ever say that he would’ve been a Republican. But it is news-making, it is culturally interesting.

CL: How rewarding was making this film for you on a personal level?

SS: To be in the room with Justin Hayward [of The Moody Blues]. I really said in the movie what I was feeling. One of the most fun elements for me was meeting people I loved growing up. There were a lot of other people who were fascinating to meet, but you have your personal favorites. I’m sitting in a room with Justin Hayward. It’s 1967 and I’m seven years old and “Tuesday Afternoon” is on WNEW FM in New York. It’s a time machine back to your own childhood. That’s why for me, this project was so deeply enjoyable. That’s what I was thinking at the time.
We thank Seth for his time. Beatles Stories is truly a great viewing experience for anyone with an interest in The Beatles. For more information about Seth Swirsky, visit his official website.
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Chaz Lipp

2 thoughts on “An Interview with Seth Swirsky – Director of Beatles Stories

  1. I just have a question: how is someone so pro Republican, pro war, pro Israel like Seth Swirsky understand the John Lennon message of world peace. I am just curious.

  2. Probably because John Lennon’s message of peace wasn’t all that difficult to understand. If you can’t understand that Seth Swirsky isn’t “pro-war,” perhaps it is you who needs to re-evaluate your own grasp of things.

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