By Chaz Lipp
Article first published as DVD Review: Beatles Stories on Blogcritics.
Billed as “a Fab Four fan’s ultimate road trip,” Beatles Stories is a consistently unpredictable and entertaining addition to the pantheon of Beatles-related documentaries. The simple premise struck director Seth Swirsky back in 2004. He wanted to track down people, some famous and some not, who had interactions with at least one member of The Beatles and film them telling their story. Eight years later, Swirsky had collected dozens of these personal anecdotes. Beatles Stories includes many recollections that even the most hardcore Beatles fans have never heard, often accompanied by previously unseen photos. In short, it is simply a must see for anyone with an interest in the band.
One of the things I love about the 85-minute documentary is that you never know what’s coming next. Swirsky tracked down some truly surprising interview subjects, ranging from those who had direct Beatles connections to those who had a chance encounter. Even some of the famous people admit to being reduced to starstruck giddiness, like Susanna Hoffs (of The Bangles), who ran into Ringo Starr at a party. Jon Voight turns up to share his near encounter with John Lennon. The actor, enjoying his first flush of post-Midnight Cowboy stardom, happened to spot Lennon in a restaurant and sent an employee over to arrange an impromptu meeting. Lennon blew him off. While Voight’s self-deprecation about the incident is funny, his lingering sadness about the failed attempt to meet an icon is touching.
That’s why Beatles Stories works so well. You can feel the emotion in almost all of the interviews, even if a few of them cover territory that will be familiar to serious Beatle fans. Joey Molland of Badfinger, a band with one of the most genuinely sorrowful stories in rock history, recalls being produced by George Harrison in the early ‘70s. Brian Wilson remembers hearing “She’s Leaving Home” for the first time, personally performed for he and his wife by McCartney before Sgt. Pepper’s even came out. The important thing is, while you may have read about this or that, you probably haven’t heard the more familiar stories told quite like this. An established songwriter (much of the Beatlesque soundtrack music is his own work) but first-time filmmaker, Swirsky seems to have a knack for getting these folks to open up.
Though Swirsky clearly didn’t intend to make a politically-charged film, controversy crept in with Fred Seaman’s comments. Seaman was Lennon’s personal assistant from 1979 to Lennon’s death in 1980. After talking about a friendly meeting in 1974 between Lennon and Ronald Reagan at a Monday Night Football game, Seaman claims Lennon might’ve voted for Reagan if he’d had the opportunity. Though his comments don’t come across as sensationalistic, the media seized this as a declaration that Lennon was, in fact, a “closet Republican.” While nothing so dramatic is actually said, Seaman’s thoughts are very interesting. Swirsky follows up with an interview with Frank Gifford, who was at the game that night and offers a firsthand account of the Lennon/Reagan meeting.
I could go on and on about this interview or that interview. My personal favorite is Jack Douglas, who produced Lennon’s final album, Double Fantasy, remembering his mad dash to relieve himself that resulted in cracking his head on the bathroom door frame. He managed to get up, but subsequently passed out after locking himself in the bathroom. It was Lennon himself who came to his aid after kicking in the door. I could tell you what Douglas’ first words to him were, but if you’re at all intrigued by the story, it’s far better to hear it for yourself.
The journey doesn’t end with the feature film though, as Swirsky has generously included an extra 30 minutes of interviews as a supplemental feature. It amounts to a bonus documentary, featuring the likes of Felix Cavaliere of The Young Rascals, a former member of McCartney’s Wings, Laurence Juber, and The Monkees’ Peter Tork, among others. Swirsky’s audio commentary offers great insight into his vision for this film. He even admits to being scared to watch his videotaped interviews for months, fearing he had messed up the audio or something similarly tragic. His inexperience as a documentarian adds a rather charming, rough-hewn quality to his film. Listening to his commentary offers a chance to better understand his passion to make Beatles Stories, regardless of his rookie filmmaker status. An extended interview with the Beatles’ first recording engineer, Norman “Hurricane” Smith (1923-2008), is included as well.
Whether you’re a casual or serious fan of the Fab Four, Beatles Stories is essential viewing. There are tons of surprising and introspective moments packed into its 85 minutes. In fact, the film flows so well it seems to pass by in half that time. Repeat viewing value is extremely high. Once you hear these stories, the chances are you’ll want to hear them again.