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The Bootleg Files: The Compleat Beatles

BOOTLEG FILES 606: “The Complete Beatles” (1982 documentary).

LAST SEEN: It can be found via online video sites.

AMERICAN HOME VIDEO: On VHS and LaserDisc.

REASON FOR BOOTLEG STATUS: The cute Beatle kiboshed it.

CHANCES OF SEEING A COMMERCIAL DVD RELEASE: Yeah, yeah, yeah…not!

In the aftermath of the December 1980 murder of John Lennon, there was a huge outpouring of nostalgia for all things Beatles. Record sales of the classic albums spiked, and a wave of news coverage recalled the legendary band’s impact on music and popular culture.

In 1982, a documentary charting the rise and dissolution of the Beatles appeared on PBS. “The Compleat Beatles” was produced and directed by Patrick Montgomery, a one-time silent film restoration specialist who had produced the 1980 documentary “John Schelsinger Directs the Tales of Hoffmann” for the start-up Bravo Channel and worked as the line producer for an independent feature film starring artist Jean Michel Basquiat that remained unreleased until it appeared in 2000 under the title “Downtown 81.”

The surviving Beatles were not interviewed for “The Compleat Beatles,” although their producer George Martin agreed to speak on camera. Montgomery was able to clear the rights some historically significant early footage of the Beatles, but a great deal of their later work was only alluded to in the film. Working with these limitations – not to mention a tight two-hour running time – “The Compleat Beatles” turned out to be an erratic but often invigorating overview of the unlikeliest revolutionaries in popular music.

The best part of “The Compleat Beatles” covers the band’s formation in working class Liverpool. The group underwent different names and personnel, with core members John Lennon and Paul McCartney struggling with various problems tied to the newer addtions: John felt George Harrison was too young to be a band member, John’s classmate Stuart Sutcliffe had no previous music experience before purchasing a bass guitar with the profits from a painting he sold, and drummer Pete Best was the least bad of the various drummers that briefly played with the group.

Nonetheless, the Beatles worked in Liverpool’s clubs and became regulars in the German port city of Hamburg’s music scene. Singer Tony Sheridan, who is interviewed in the film, had them as a back-up band on his rocking spin on the folk favorite “My Bonnie Lies Over the Ocean.” Also featured here is Allan Williams, the Beatles’ first manager, who brought a surplus amount of energy and enthusiasm despite a deficit of music industry clout and connections.

In some ways, the pre-superstardom Beatles were far more interesting than the Fab Four that was merchandised into popular consumption. These unknowns were unpretentious rough trade punks in leather jackets and tight jeans, and their musical talent was raw yet visceral. In fact, they seemed like real blokes – perhaps not the types that you’d want your daughter to date, but certainly a fun bunch to hang with on a Friday or Saturday night.

Of course, everyone knows what happens next: Sutcliffe left the group and died too young, Brian Epstein swooped in and cleaned up the Beatles’ bad boy image. In “The Compleat Beatles,” George Martin acknowledges being the one that suggested Pete Best be replaced in the initial recording sessions due to his allegedly quotidian drumming skills – and Martin expresses very mild shock that Epstein took his suggestion one step further by sacking Best and replacing him with goofy little Ringo Starr.

“The Compleat Beatles” happily observes how the Liverpool band disrupted the snobbery that London’s cultural elite had against Northern English acts, and their uncommonly rapid rise to national fame is noted within the span of two minutes. While the film shows news footage of the Beatles’ arrival in America to appear on “The Ed Sullivan Show” plus a brief glimpse of Sullivan’s droll introduction of the band, it fails to show the actual groundbreaking performance.

And from this point, the film goes in odd directions. “The Compleat Beatles” does not present the bulk of their post-Ed Sullivan music, nor do we see very much from their films besides publicity stills and a few seconds from the trailers of their Richard Lester-directed flicks. The Beatles’ personal lives are mostly skimmed over, particularly John’s marriage and divorce with first wife Cynthia and his controversial union with Yoko Ono. And while friends and collaborators like Marianne Faithfull and Billy Preston are featured, their insight is mostly unsatisfactory. The more emotional aspects of the Beatles’ odyssey, most obviously the sad fate of Pete Best and Brian Epstein’s suicide, are treated with an antiseptic indifference. Malcolm McDowell’s flat narration doesn’t help much in these shaky sections.

Still, even a half-baked serving of Beatles’ lore is better than none, and “The Compleat Beatles” mostly hits its mark when George Martin offers insight on the production of the beloved songs, particularly “Strawberry Fields Forever” and “A Day in the Life.” And true Beatles fans can never tire watching the promotional films of “Hello Goodbye” and “Hey Jude,” which are included in this mix.

“The Compleat Beatles” was broadcast on PBS in May 1982 and later released on VHS and LaserDisc. Billboard dubbed the production “a masterpiece of nostalgic artistry” while Newsday critic Wayne Robins praised it as “thorough, intelligent and entertaining.” In 1984, the film was put in a limited theatrical release – and while it had been easily accessible via television and home video, it still found an audience in cinemas.

Alas, the surviving Beatles opted to regain control and profits over their own story by nixing the presence of this work. Paul McCartney acquired the rights to “The Compleat Beatles” and removed it from circulation, keeping it out of sight while “The Beatles Anthology” was prepared for release. To date, “The Compleat Beatles” can only be seen if you have an out-of-print VHS video or LaserDisc copy, or if you view unauthorized postings on Internet video sites. Of course, McCartney and his legal team are aware of the bootlegging – a YouTube presentation of the film is missing about one-third of the footage due to complaints of music rights violations.

If “The Compleat Beatles” is not perfect, at least it made a game effort to retell a well-known story with some degree of spunk and spirit. For that, we should be grateful.

IMPORTANT NOTICE: While this weekly column acknowledges the presence of rare film and television productions through the so-called collector-to-collector market, this should not be seen as encouraging or condoning the unauthorized duplication and distribution of copyright-protected material, either through DVDs or Blu-ray discs or through postings on Internet video sites.

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