Monday, April 22, 2013

Review of "Beatles Stories"

Last night I watched Beatles Stories (2011), a warm and good-hearted but ultimately rather dull documentary by songwriter and author Seth Swirsky. In the film, Swirsky travels all over to interview people - often famous people - about their encounters with the Fab Four. The guest list is impressively high-profile, ranging from music legends like Brian Wilson and Smokey Robinson to Hollywood celebrities like Jon Voight and Henry Winkler to notable figures from Beatles history like Klaus Voorman and Sir George Martin himself. Beatles Stories is certainly not lacking in star power, not to mention likable lesser-knowns. It's also true that many of the stories are charming and memorable. As a rabid fan of The Beatles, how could I not enjoy hearing about Ray Manzarek's stoned realization that the Fabs themselves were stoners, or the time when Justin Hayward of the Moody Blues kindly reminded George how to play "I'm Only Sleeping." It's all catnip for Beatles devotees.
Then why did I come away from Beatles Stories unfulfilled? I see two reasons. First, the organization of the film. The running time is under 90 minutes, but Swirksky still manages to squeeze in roughly 45 stories, which is overkill. One anecdote comes after another in rapid succession, making for a really uneven viewing experience. The start-stop-start-stop dynamic doesn't allow for the individual stories to build on one another or interact in any narrative sense. It's just a bunch of amusing snippets loosely held together, with no apparent rhyme or reason for the particular order they follow. I think Swirsky should've excised a sizable number of the stories and then added narration that pertained to Beatles history. This way, he may have been able to connect some of the strands and develop actual themes.
Second, the stories are for the most part enjoyable, but few of them are all that revealing. Few of them help us to arrive at a deeper understanding of The Beatles. There are some moments that pack insight and emotion - like when Art Garfunkel talks about meeting John in the '70s and discussing their respective ex-partnerships with guys named Paul, or when Denny Laine reflects on Paul's reaction to the news of John's death - but they're few and far between. The stories rarely amount to anything more than cute and amusing, like one guy eating beans-on-toast with Ringo or former Yankees outfielder Bernie Williams sharing a sweaty hug with Macca. Overall, the vibe is pleasantly trivial.
I feel like a jerk being critical of such a winningly-premised and enthusiastic film. I genuinely wanted to like Beatles Stories, but it just never clicked for me. Nevertheless, I still salute Seth Swirsky for his obvious love of The Beatles. Passion projects like this one often don't come to fruition. That Beatles Stories actually got made is alone a cause for good cheer.
Update: I should have mentioned this in the post. It caused something of a stir and left many Beatles fans nonplussed and rankled.

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