I’ve Already Seen The Best Beatles Documentary Ever – Many Times…

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Of course I’ll watch the new Paul McCartney and Rick Rubin documentary series. In fact I got up early this morning to start in on it. I’ve listened to McCartney on about a hundred podcasts in just the last year. I’ve seen him on talk shows and doco featurettes across the last 30 years. And I won’t stop. Because, at this stage, he won’t stop.

I will watch Peter Jackson’s new Beatles doco – built from the parts of an old beatles doco. And I will love it. Even if it is as unnecessarily long and plot-avoiding as, well, a Peter Jackson film.

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But none of this actually matters – because I’ve already seen the very best Beatles documentary. And many times over. I’ll sign up over and again for anything Beatles-related. I’m a lifer. The back-stories of squabbles and competition draw you in. And the music holds you forever. So of course I’ll keep watch, and I’m always listening.

But nothing will kick me in the guts, nor light the fire quite like watching The Compleat Beatles.

Maybe it’s because it’s hard to find and best remembered for what it represented (also: time/place) but I reckon The Compleat Beatles is the very best Beatles doco there’s ever been.

It shits on The Anthology which is not terrible, but is, probably, far too much of a good thing. Even so, I’ve seen it of course, and not only that, I have a weird ambition to watch the whole thing again one day. My boxset of DVDs sits right next to me, and I look at it most days, plotting when to reconnect.

When The Anthology was released it killed off The Compleat Beatles – and now you can search for it and it’s nowhere to stream, and second-hand copies pop up on, of all things,  Laser Disc – MINT CONDITION! (lol) and its original format, VHS. I wish I still had my copy of the VHS tape – as nothing more than talisman.

The Compleat Beatles was a documentary released in the early 1980s. I got to it in 1990. It was my first trip away by myself, a 13-year-old on a school hockey trip, to Australia. I was excited to spend time digging for cassette tapes. I bought Midnight Oil and Pink Floyd albums that I was sure were “rare”. I was also on the lookout for presents for my parents and for my dad I purchased the VHS tape of this film – we were all into The Beatles and I remember paying $19.95 AUS for it in 1990. And it was the most I spent on a present. I can’t remember what I bought my brother, but I spent about $15 on a t-shirt that said “Teenage Mutant Ninja Mother” for my mum. She never wore it but I never saw it jettisoned. It was a truly awful present, bad form, a waste. I still cringe a bit to think about it. She’s never said a thing about it other than the brief “thanks” at the time.

Anyway, we all watched The Compleat Beatles together. And mum and dad explained some of the names – Billy J. Kramer and Tony Sheridan and Gerry Marsden.

There were no fresh interviews from Beatles; it was all file footage and stock photos – and so instead they get associated people to talk. The value in this film existing now, and being available, is that we get to hear from people like Sheridan and Billy Preston, and of course George Martin. (Well he certainly did plenty of talking about “the boys”, as he always referred to them). My point being they’re all gone. As the years plough on the body count only gets higher.

The Compleat Beatles runs for just under two hours and in that we get a Mersey Sound rundown, a visit to Hamburg, a run through of all the albums, and key moments like the US Tours and TV appearances, the infamous “Bigger Than Religion” comments, the trip to India, all four members taking turns quitting the band and the attempt to “get back” to how they once belonged all together.

It’s all told through the music, archival interviews, some fresh talking-heads; pretty standard band doco.

What makes this one special is the efficiency and emotion of the story-arc.

When it gets to the end and individual-by-individual they fade out the members of the group – showing them departing. It’s 1969/1970 and John and George and Ringo and Paul fade out with The White Album’s I’m So Tired playing as soundtrack.

“I'd give you everything I've got
For a little peace of mind”

The film is narrated by Malcolm McDowell.

I have watched this music doco more than any other music doco – with the possible exceptions, only, of Fleetwood Mac at 21 and The Rolling Stones 25 x 5.

Both of those films similarly efficient pieces of emotional story-telling that also don’t tell the complete story, only the complete story up to a certain point and we are all the better for it; the way some “Definitive” / “Career-Spanning” greatest hits compilations are not always as good as leaner, meaner singles snapshots that are super-well compiled; the way some albums that arrive after a great Greatest Hits collection only serve to weaken the overall impact of a band’s canon.

I love The Compleat Beatles; or at the very least I love my memories of watching The Compleat Beatles. I’d hurry home from school to watch a half-hour or hour of it, chipping away over two or three days sometimes to re-watch – occasionally introducing a friend to it. Being able, boringly, embarrassingly, to quote whole interviews and snippets from it; its story is the one I still stick to in my major understanding of the band and its highlights.

I watched this movie sometimes 4 or 5 times in a week, beginning to end, for a while there…

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I had an instant memory of this as I sat up early this morning watching the first two episodes of McCartney 3, 2, 1…(instead of “after school” it’s now “before work” other than that not much has changed, hey…)

There’s something both unsentimental and totally moving about the way The Compleat Beatles has been made. It doesn’t try to patch things up – doesn’t try too hard to ‘fix’ or fake. For all the Anthology’s strengths its somewhat cringey to see how uncomfortable George is to be mugging alongside McCartney. He hasn’t fully forgiven him; he’s not enjoying himself. Paul’s there to further his brand – which is forever linked to the Beatles brand, sure, but he’s there for the photo-op and for the injection it will all bring. He’s not there for the genuine camaraderie he’s pretending he’s there for. Poor Ringo is bloody there for the fucking camaraderie and when he tries to say so they both talk over him. It’s damn near edited out.

McCartney is still there to further his brand. Something that would seem secure. Even if he himself never quite does.

The Compleat Beatles is more warts, more real, more honest. And because it’s a film, because it’s one person’s version of events, one person’s vision, it’s still and only a construct. You take the bits from it that seem the most important and honest, you mix and match with your own thoughts and feelings…

The Compleat Beatles is also the doco that got me hooked on music-docs; documentary in general.

If you have a copy, dig it out. If you can find it – let me know. If you have an old VHS or bootleg DVD copy you’re willing to part with, I’m interested in taking it off your hands.

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