Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Birth of the Beatles (1979)

          The history of the Fab Four has been discussed and dissected and disseminated so many times that it’s become something of a campfire tale. John Lennon partisans have one version, Paul McCartney fans offer a different take, and so on. Birth of the Beatles offers yet another perspective—that of Pete Best, who was the Beatles’ drummer during the early years of 1960 to 1962, and was fired just months before the release of the band’s first hit single, “Love Me Do.” In this telling, Best was canned because he was more popular with female fans than Lennon or McCartney, although the historical consensus is that record-label execs felt the Beatles needed a stronger player, hence the hiring of Ringo Starr. Best served as a consultant for Birth of the Beatles, one of many reasons why every assertion the movie makes should be regarded with skepticism.
          Adherence to facts notwithstanding, Birth of the Beatles is a moderately entertaining musical biopic that gains strength as it trudges along. Early sequences, depicting the group’s formation in Liverpool, feel lively but anonymous, with lookalike actors simulating the mischievous behavior of five lads with greasy hair and leather jackets. The fifth, of course, is the other early Beatle, doomed bassist Stuart Sutcliffe. Once Birth of the Beatles decamps to Germany, where the Beatles earned their performance chops in nightclubs, the storytelling gains potency. Items including the band’s friendship with German photographer Astrid Kircherr and Sutcliffe’s sudden death from a brain aneurysm are handled fairly well. More importantly, it’s during this passage that actor Stephen MacKenna, as Lennon, finds his groove in what amounts to the film’s leading role. Beyond simulating Lennon’s alternately fiery and playful stage persona, MacKenna captures textures ranging from belligerence to determination to self-pity to toughness. Furthermore, the rougher things get for the Beatles—disappointments, friction, the tantalizing promise of success—the more the intensity of the film grows.
         Produced by Dick Clark, the picture takes a sensible approach to re-creating the Beatles’ music, with the tribute band Rain performing on the soundtrack while the actors lip-sync onscreen. Yet Birth of the Beatles communicates very little that’s new to serious fans, while casual fans may find it disappointing that the movie ends with the Beatles’ Ed Sullivan performance, the group’s American breakthrough. (Years later, the period dramatized in Birth of the Beatles was revisited in the 1994 European film Backbeat.) Incidentally, Birth of the Beatles was released in scattershot fashion, hitting theaters in Europe and some American markets before airing on U.S. television.

Birth of the Beatles: FUNKY

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