Composing The Beatles Songbook: Lennon and McCartney

If you’re a Beatles fan, Amazon Prime offers a lot of ways to scratch that Fab Four itch. Over the weekend we watched an interesting two-part documentary called Composing The Beatles Songbook: Lennon and McCartney. The film, made in 2008, traces the greatest rock music songwriting partnership in history from the beginning to the end, using archival clips from shows and Beatles appearances mixed in with interviews with journalists, writers, musicians, and friends of Lennon and McCartney who talk about the development of the duo’s songwriting abilities and the significance of some of the musical innovations, chord structures, and lyrical devices in the songs themselves. The first part of the film takes us from 1957 to 1965, after the issuance of Rubber Soul and the Beatles’ decision to stop touring, and the second part goes from 1966 to the end in 1970.

Here’s the thing about the Beatles: you don’t need to be an expert in songwriting, or even know how to play an instrument or read music, to know that their songs are great. In effect, every Beatles fan is an expert in their own right, so when the people interviewed on the film start to critique a specific song or debate which Beatles album was the greatest–this group settles on Rubber Soul, by the way–the viewer is just as engaged as the participants in the debate. I may defer to the experts on the technical stuff about key changes and other musical arcana, but I’m perfectly capable of questioning their judgments about the worth of songs and albums, because the whole point of music is to appeal to the listener. I also can remember when the prevailing consensus was that the greatest Beatles album was Revolver . . . then Sgt. Pepper . . . then A Hard Day’s Night, and there are always people like me who think Abbey Road has to be right up there, too. The fact that people are still debating this question, decades later, just shows how extraordinary the Beatles output really was. And any documentary about the Lennon-McCartney songs inevitably is going to skip over incredibly great songs, as this one does with Ticket To Ride, Let It Be, I Feel Fine and many others.

Two observations made on the film stuck with me. One was the constant theme sounded by Klaus Voorman, who knew the Beatles well in the early Hamburg days. He pointed out that the Beatles always were different personalities, and it is perfectly natural that a time came when they wanted to pursue their own lives and go their own ways. Who can doubt the truth of that observation about the human condition–or question that the normal arc of development and change in people’s lives is only going to be exaggerated when you are at the absolute center of the cultural universe, as the Beatles were? It makes you understand that it isn’t surprising that the group ended, but that it’s wonderful that it stayed together for as long as it did.

The other observation was about the Beatles’ willingness to do countless takes of a difficult song–I think the particular song being discussed was Happiness Is A Warm Gun–and what that must have necessarily meant for the dynamics within the group. The point was that the group wouldn’t do more than 80 takes to get a song just right if they really couldn’t stand each other and were being pulled apart by internal dissension. That’s a compelling thought to keep in mind as you listen to the Beatles’ later songs, all the way up through Abbey Road, the last album that they recorded, which has some of the most memorable music of all, with Paul, for example, singing his heart out in the background vocals on Something and the great, tight rhythm section work on side two. Even at the end, the Beatles were pros who cared about each others’ songs and worked hard to produce the best music they could. That’s not a bad legacy.

Monty Python’s Almost The Truth

Netflix offers an awesome array of content — including documentaries. If, like me, you are a fan of Monty Python, I recommend tuning in to Monty Python’s Almost The Truth, a six-part documentary about the troupe that really bent the comedy arc.

Good documentaries answer your questions. In the case of Monty Python, there are lots of those questions. How did these guys get together in the first place? What caused them to develop such a hilarious, zany, irreverent, subversive view of the world? How did a lone American break into this supremely British group? Who came up with ideas like the fabled Parrot Sketch or the “bring out your dead” scene in Monty Python and the Holy Grail? Why did animation feature so prominently in what they did? Who came up with the great songs, like the ditty about Brave Sir Robin? And how and why did the group spin apart?

This documentary answers those questions. Made in 2009, it featured interviews with the then-surviving Pythoners, as well as comments from other people who were involved and well-known fans of the group talking about what it was like to watch their work. (I recommend fast forwarding through the comments by Russell Brand, who comes across as supremely self-absorbed and irritating.) I particularly enjoyed learning about the early days of the members of the group — including the important role now-forgotten figures like David Frost inadvertently played in the group coming together — as well as the TV and radio shows that influenced them. Later episodes drill down into the Flying Circus years, their battles with BBC censors, their creative process and some of the tensions that drove it, their legendary live performances at the Hollywood Bowl, the making of their films, and ultimately the untimely, early death of member Graham Chapman.

Influential social figures that touched the lives of millions and forever changed the way we think about their idiom — like the Beatles, or Monty Python, or the first cast of Saturday Night Live — deserve this kind of look back after years have passed and their true impact can be assessed with the perspective that only time can bring. Monty Python’s Almost The Truth gives you some of that perspective and a peek behind the curtain. It’s fascinating stuff.

Rewatching The Best Documentary Ever Made

The other night I was searching for something to watch on TV.  I flipped over to our Roku option, clicked on Netflix, and started to flip through the Netflix offerings.  When I saw to my delight that Ken Burns’ The Civil War was available for free as part of my Netflix subscription, my choice was made.

arthjtf-show-poster2x3-q87qozzFirst broadcast in 1990 — 29 years ago! — The Civil War is, in my book, the best documentary ever made.  And while Ken Burns has made many fine documentaries since then, The Civil War remains his masterpiece.  From the first strains of Ashokan Farewell that began playing at the beginning of Part One, to the lovely footage of cannons at sunset and the sun-dappled pastoral scenes and shimmering rivers on the battlefields that were drenched in American blood long ago, to the historic photographs of generals, privates, politicians, battle scenes, and the dead and the voice-over readings of speeches, letters, and diary entries of the participants, The Civil War is note-perfect from stem to stern.

Of course, Ken Burns had some great material to work with, but his great achievement was sifting through the enormous historical record and capturing the essence of the titanic, nation-defining struggle in an accessible way.  The result is as riveting, as fresh, and as deeply moving now as it was when a nation first watched it, enthralled, during the George H.W. Bush administration.  The Civil War tells a powerful story, and as I’ve watched the early episodes this week I’ve found myself rooting for Lincoln and the Union, and bemoaning the inept and egotistical Union generals and all of the early Confederate victories, just as I did almost three decades ago.

Sometimes TV is better the second — or even the third — time around.  If you’ve got Netflix, The Civil War is well worth a second look.

Frozen Planet Follies

There’s a controversy brewing around the BBC nature show Frozen Planet.  It involves striking footage of newborn polar bear cubs that some viewers thought was filmed in a snowy bear den in the Arctic.  It turns out that the footage was shot in a Dutch animal park, instead.

The BBC denies that it sought to mislead anyone.  It concedes that the footage of the cubs and their mother was shown after footage of the Arctic, but points out that a “behind the scenes” footage on the show’s website discloses the animal park filming.  The BBC and the show’s presenter, Sir David Attenborough, also note that such filming is standard procedure for nature shows and that the footage of the polar bears in their den would be impossible to obtain in the wild.

I’m sure all of that is true, but it is still disillusioning to learn that not all footage screened in “nature” shows is, in fact, filmed in natural surroundings.  Perhaps it was naive on my part, but I always thought that part of the wonder of such shows was the uncanny ability of photographers to get real-world footage of the animals, reptiles, and insects in their unadorned, natural surroundings.  Now I know that, before I gape in wonderment, I first have to check the website for behind-the-scenes disclaimers and disclosures.