It Was Fifty Years Ago Today! The Beatles: Sgt. Pepper & Beyond

by John Plowright Rating: Release Date:
It Was Fifty Years Ago Today! The Beatles: Sgt. Pepper & Beyond
It Was Fifty Years Ago Today! The Beatles: Sgt. Pepper & Beyond

There are many truly awful music documentaries, so my expectations were not high when settling down to peruse ‘It Was Fifty Years Ago Today! The Beatles: Sgt. Pepper & Beyond’ (released last year on DVD and Blu-ray and now available on Netflix).

On the debit side, a few of the archive clips have poor audio quality; there’s no music by The Beatles, nor any very detailed discussion of the writing or recording of the tracks on ‘Sgt. Pepper’; the documentary, whilst broadly chronological from its starting point in 1966, sometimes flits backwards and forwards in time for no good reason; and the substantial section covering The Beatles post-Pepper, only really deals with the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, Brian Epstein’s death and Apple. Thus Yoko Ono and Allen Klein, for example, share a single sentence and the music is barely mentioned, a closing caption merely referring to the length of time between the appearance of ‘Sgt. Pepper’ and the release of ‘The White Album’.

Moreover, although some of the archive footage was new to me, there were some obvious and serious gaps in any piece purporting to focus on ‘Sgt. Pepper’ such as the avant-garde ‘home-movie’ of the orchestral session for ‘A Day in the Life’. However, the element which ultimately makes this film worth watching is the number and quality of its talking heads.

Surviving Beatles are notably absent, unless one counts Pete Best, but there are, in total, almost twenty interviewees with considerable expertise about and/or personal knowledge of The Beatles including Tony Bramwell (of NEMs and Apple Records); Simon Napier-Bell (of the Robert Stigwood Organization); Hunter Davies (the official Beatles biographer); and Ray Connolly (author of several Beatles-related books).

Occasionally we are told things that don’t really need saying (for example, that the Maharishi was a shrewd businessman) and the issue of whether the title of ‘Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds’ deliberately refers to LSD rather than Julian Lennon’s drawing is left unresolved, with Hunter Davies in a minority of one in support of the latter view.

All the deficiencies of the production are, however, outweighed by the insights provided, notably into the ‘more popular than Jesus’ controversy and Epstein’s death, and by a few anecdotal nuggets such as the suggestion that the cover of ‘Sgt. Pepper’ may, at some level, have been inspired by the 1920s photograph of Jim Mac’s Jazz Band (Paul’s father’s jazz band) and family and friends grouped around a bass drum; or that the inspiration for the Apple logo derives from Paul’s love of Magritte.

In addition, Jenny Boyd (Patty’s sister), claims that she had a hand in the birth of ‘Within you, Without you’ by bringing the phrase “life goes on within you and without you” to George’s attention after coming across it in Christmas Humphreys’ 1943 book ‘Karma and Rebirth’. I’ve checked and unfortunately discovered this is incorrect, as the closest Humphreys comes is the phrase, “this war [against egotism] is an everlasting war within, and until each human being has slain the foe within he will not find peace without.” Presumably in a pot-befuddled state Jenny was actually referencing a different book.

Thus, all things considered, I was pleasantly surprised by ‘It Was Fifty Years Ago Today!’ for although it’s markedly inferior to ‘Sgt. Pepper’s Musical Revolution’ (Howard Goodall’s 2017 BBC documentary) and to ‘The Making of Sgt. Pepper’ (the 1992 South Bank Show documentary) it is much more informative than the BBC’s 2007 ‘Sgt. Pepper. It Was 40 Years Ago Today’, and is definitely worth a watch.

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