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Following some mention in the comments, I was able to find a very nice VHS transfer of the pre-Anthology Beatles documentary The Compleat Beatles, streamable on the Internet Archive. I post it here for several reasons.
When people talk about “the standard narrative,” this is it. The Compleat Beatles is a well-told, extremely concise rendition of The Beatles’ story as most fans knew it before the Anthology in 1995. In other words, from 1970 to 1995 this is what people thought, and even today I suspect that this version of the story is the most defensible. One thing I noticed is that John, Paul, George and Ringo themselves talk very little in this film, so it really is just the narrative the culture winnowed out and stitched together. Every Beatlefan worth their salt should know this version of the story, especially before trolling around the internet. Why? Because this is the first attempt to tell the story from beginning to end; the people who were around in 1981, and more importantly during the Sixties, thought this is what happened, and why.
And that’s another thing that’s really important about this film. It was made practically the moment the story was well and truly over. Lennon was murdered in December 1980, this movie appeared in 1982. It, along with Shout! was one of the first attempts to tell the whole story; but unlike Norman’s book, which has a bit more verve, The Compleat Beatles has no glaring biases. In two hours it simply does not have time to delve deeply into issues like Yoko or Klein or any of the other details of doctrine so beloved by this site. You will not find an in-depth examination of John’s mental state or the Northern Songs debacle…and that’s a good thing, because all the things Beatles fans haggle over today may not, in the end, change the basic story one whit.
Made less than twenty years after The Beatles conquered the world, and barely ten after they broke up, The Compleat Beatles is the closest thing to journalism a conventional documentary can provide. From my perch here in middle age, twenty years feels like the merest eyeblink; the world of 1981/82 was simply not that distant from when it all happened, and so the attitudes and opinions in this film should be given considerable heft for that reason.
There’s something quite touching, almost elegiac about the film; maybe it’s the writing, or Malcolm McDowell. But the documentary—done in the style and probably using the same film stock as old chestnuts like The World at War—is a fascinating time capsule…certainly of my own boyhood, but also of a time which felt simultaneously very close and very far from The Beatles’ era. The Compleat Beatles is a grappling with the Sixties from the vantagepoint of the Eighties. “That was extraordinary, but what was it?”
Much online Beatle content seems rather bored with this version of the story, but that’s neither wise nor fair. Even in its most standard narrative, The Beatles’ story is extraordinary, unprecedented—and this telling is how the era that produced and raised up The Beatles made sense of what had happened. That matters, and for that reason alone, this version should be learned well first. The Compleat Beatles, then Anthology, should be required viewing before Peter Jackson’s documentary.
I well remember buying this on video from Brashs music store when i was about 10 in 1984. Movies on video cost a fortune to buy outright in those days and I had no hope on my 50 cents a week pocket money of being able to purchase it in the next 12 months.
Finally, with the birthday money from both sets of grandparents and doing extra chores, I had enough!!!!
I reckon I watched it 3+ times a week for the first few months and at least several times a month for the years after that until it was unplayable. And then I kept the busted tape in its case in my room because the thought of throwing it out never even occurred to me.
Is it true that Paul McCartney bought the film rights to “The Conpleat Beatles” and buried the film to clear the way for the “Anthology” documentary? If so, that’s unfortunate. I feel “The Compleat Beatles” deserves to be widely and officially available (however unlikely that is), for two reasons:
(1) It’s a perfect entry-level summation of the Beatles’ story, the documentary equivalent of a greatest hits album. At over 11 hours, the “Anthology” doco is a deep dive (and a revisionist one at that), and the likes of Ron Howard’s “Eight Days a Week” and (I assume) Peter Jackson’s “Get Back” are digestible chunks of specific chapters rather than a take on the larger story. Obviously it simplifies and leaves a lot of things out, but is there much, if anything, in the film that can disputed today? And with all the other documentaries and the glut of dramatisations, surely there’s a place for a no-frills 2-hour Beatles documentary?
(2) The film is a time capsule of not only over the period it covers, but the period in which it was made. Not just coming out at the point “the Beatles” were conclusively over with John Lennon’s death, but also as, perhaps, an official full stop to the 1970s nostalgia wave that led to “Beatlemania,” Robert Stigwood’s “Sgt. Pepper” film, the docudrama “Birth of the Beatles,” Robert Zemeckis’ “I Wanna Hold Your Hand,” etc. “The Compleat Beatles” to me seems like a snapshot of Beatles folk memory at a certain point and it has historical value for that.
More about the rights, from CinemaCrazed:
“Alas, the surviving Beatles opted to regain control and profits over their own story by nixing the presence of this work. Paul McCartney acquired the rights to “The Compleat Beatles” and removed it from circulation, keeping it out of sight while “The Beatles Anthology” was prepared for release. To date, “The Compleat Beatles” can only be seen if you have an out-of-print VHS video or LaserDisc copy, or if you view unauthorized postings on Internet video sites. Of course, McCartney and his legal team are aware of the bootlegging – a YouTube presentation of the film is missing about one-third of the footage due to complaints of music rights violations.”
The version on Internet Archive is complete; it’s the full running time of 1:59.
@D.N., I couldn’t have said it better myself. Thank you. And I particularly agree about “Beatles folk memory.”
It’s on Vimeo here:
I love this doc for precisely the same reasons that Michael states above: nostalgia, etc. I always appreciated the serious, even somber tone of the film. The Beatles story is fascinating, and worthy of consideration. Gerry Marsden, Billy J Kramer, Marianne Faithful… fascinating. It might even benefit from their non-participation!
Yes, loved this as a fledgling Beatles fan, and even today. Essential.
Also, I always found that the spelling of Complete with an ‘A’ was a nice touch.
I still have my video copy of this! I haven’t watched it in decades, but when it was first released back then in the day (when I was a 12-year-old lad), it was constant viewing for me. As you mention, Michael, as far as visual/televisual Beatles biographies went back then, this is all there was.
Just one observation from me – I don’t know if anyone else here noticed – as pleasurable as it was to watch back then (including right down to a rare appearance from Horst Fascher), and as inspired it was to have Malcolm McDowell narrating (a British actor who’d made his mark on British ’60s ‘counter’culture with the film ‘If’), it always struck me back then whilst watching it that his narration had some rather crude edit jobs done on it – it sounded to me in places like his speech had been spliced short mid-sentence, and his voice sounded rather speeded up in pitch at points too. This isn’t a major criticism – it’s not actually a criticism at all, it’s just an observation I had at the time.
Also, Malcolm McDowell played John Lennon when he guested on “Saturday Night Live” during the show’s infamous 1980-81 season, a.k.a. the season in which almost the entire cast got fired.
(It’s a pretty bad sketch. I like McDowell but his Lennon and the quality of the writing – which tries to wring laughs from rhyming “Yoko” with as many words as possible – are pretty dire. But I probably shouldn’t gripe because apparently John and Yoko liked the sketch. Incidentally, Lennon was killed less than three weeks after the episode aired. Also, this episode marked Eddie Murphy’s SNL debut, albeit as an extra. )
I don’t know why Malcolm was picked for the narration for the Beatles documentary. I’ll guess that it could be because (as I mentioned before) he was, same as The Beatles of course, one of the faces of the late Sixties ‘counter-culture.’ It could also have been inspired by the SNL appearance you mention (thanks for that bit of info).
Now, here’s a thing or two… He was born in Liverpool (perhaps another good reason to pick him).
I also found out this after a bit of a search on ‘Google’ – from an article :
“I went to see them at the Cavern when they were called the Silver Beatles,” McDowell fondly remembers. “I think they had just come back from Hamburg. I was so taken with them and also this cellar. The Cavern was a tiny place, a bolted room with a little raised stage at one end,” McDowell says. “They weren’t raised that much, maybe six or nine inches off the floor.. The place was packed, jam packed. The Beatles, who had done, by then, the 10,000 hour thing. They’d played so much together. They were so tight as a band, but they weren’t yet singing their own stuff. As I remember, it was mostly covers of Chuck Berry and all that, Little Richard and stuff. But they were extraordinary. I went back,” McDowell says. “They had played on Friday night and I went back for a few months to see them every Friday. Then I noticed, one of the last times I went, they suddenly haircuts and the leather jackets were gone, the drainpipe trousers, the DA haircut, all gone. Now they were the Mop Tops. Obviously Brian Epstein had got hold of them and they were moving. Within the year they were the biggest band in England and I was listening to them on the radio. In the car. BBC did these live shows from Manchester that had Beatles on it.”
Fascinating, @Matthew; if you like McDowell, I highly recommend his interview on Gilbert and Frank’s Amazing Colossal Podcast.
Love this website, appreciate it so very much. I’ve never commented here, but just wanted to let you all know that revisiting this beloved documentary has prompted my belated realization that I somehow always thought it was narrated by RODDY McDowell, lol.
It is/was a great documentary. I’m not sure that the version post on the archive features the whole original soundtrack, however. Several songs are suddenly in stereo, and I seem to remember (always happy to be corrected if I’m wrong) that the Ed Sullivan clip used the actual live performance, not the recording.
Of course, the wannabe fan editor in me wonders if there’s a ginormous super-cut in here, between The Compleat Beatles, Anthology, Eight Days a Week, and Get Back…
I think there is, but that would all depend on the narration, wouldn’t it? 🙂
I vote for Eric Idle. It’s all part of the soup, after all.
Than you for posting the link. I recall seeing it many years ago, but it is time well spent in visiting it again.
It reminds me how much I like the early Beatles catalog. I know that in some circles (fortunately not here) a preference for those works is considered embarassingly low-brow, but I will gladly accept that appellation in return for the enjoyment of that sound and its place in time.
Agreed. Early Beatles is of its time in a way that maybe Later Beatles is not, but it’s nevertheless great music.
I’m not at all embarrassed to say that I love the early Beatles. Infectious, harmonious, rocking, catchy as hell and what made their later foray into so-called high-brow art possible as music for the masses.
The Beatles’ early catalogue is (yes, more of its time as Michael opines than the later stuff) but absolutely crammed full of greats. Their debut album is up there for me with their much-touted ‘masterpiece’ albums from ’65/’66 onwards.
I grabbed a copy of this from E-bay a while back when I think it was recommended here — I haven’t watched it yet because I have to physically hook up the VHS and then figure out which input to use and so on and so forth, but at least I do still have a VHS player. 🙂 Thanks for the reminder. It would probably not hurt me to take a couple hours out for comfort TV.
Hello – this is my first time posting on this fantastic site – first my thanks to the creators! I have always assumed that there are intense Beatles fans but none as intense as I but I’m happy to have thought wrong! Anyway, The Complete Beatles was like some television program high altar in my mid teens. I happened to record it on VHS and I watched it incessantly for many years. The tone is fantastic, the dryness & ongoing, building suspense of the years & phases was so impressionistic at that time in my life – in so many ways it has colored (in my crazy complex synesthesia) how I view each year and chapter of their career together. I’ll never, ever forget crying at the end when “Let It Be” was playing while flashbacks of the Beatlemania years flashed past – particularly the girl crying as she grips the chain link fence (is that a real part of just my memory skewed?). Powerful stuff even as cardboard as it all is really (the film).
Hi Gregory. I haven’t watched this great documentary in years (will stream it from the link Michael kindly provided when I get the time). But I distinctly remember that it was the song “Blackbird” that played as the credits rolled, including when they showed the crying girl gripping the chain link fence. I thought it was the perfect choice. So melancholy, more so than “Let it Be” would have been for me.
I can’t help but thinking that “Let it Be” was playing at the very end of the film proper & then “Blackbird” during the credits… Either way the film was so important to me during my early teens. I set out to emulate John Lennon, in fashion, drugs, arts… I succeeded in every area except stardom haha.
Watching the documentary again, you are correct sir. “Let it Be” played at the end of the film proper, including when they showed the touching footage of the girl crying on the chain link fence, and “Blackbird” played during the credits (I combined the two in my mind). While I was very familiar with “Let it Be” at the time (my parents owned the original LP), the song “Blackbird” was rather new to me because I hadn’t purchased the White Album yet. Perhaps that is why it sticks in my mind when I think of this great doc.
My memory of the ending is when we get that photo of all four Beatles (1969 photoshoot) amidst a white background, and one by one, slowly, each member fades out of the shot till there’s no one left but that white background. Dunno why, but I always liked that… a nice touch.
Oh yeah! I loved that too. IIRC, John faded out first because he left the band first, and Paul was the last to fade, being the one who tried to keep it going. I really have to watch this again soon.
The image of the photo fading is so vivid in my mind that when I saw your post, I thought you must have been mistaken, because that sequence was from the Anthology (which I’ve seen more recently). But you’re right, of course–just goes to show how memorable the Beatles Compleat was. I rented the VHS tape in the late 1980s and copied it onto a super 8 cassette using my dad’s camcorder. I all but memorized it (“nothing much ever came from Liverpool”; “it was a party, or the opening of a club somewhere…”), and, like everyone here, loved Malcolm McDowell’s narration. Because of this doc, his voice always inspires warm feelings for me, so seeing Clockwork Orange a few years later was a confusing experience.
Haha, that’s the first film that comes to mind when I think of Malcolm McDowell. But I didn’t see Clockwork until years after watching the Beatles documentary. I was first introduced to McDowell in the movie Cat People, which happened to come out the same year as Compleat and which I had seen before the documentary, thankfully.
I just got done watching this again. Brings back fond memories. But I didn’t recall this part which to me was unintentionally funny:
George Martin: “The one side [Abbey Road] that Paul and I worked on mainly was the connected one, and that had slightly reluctant contributions from John, because he didn’t really like production…
… “Because” playing in the background…
“He liked good old rock ‘n roll.”
Thanks for the link to “The Compleat Beatles”. The last time I tried to watch my VHS copy, a lot of years ago, I found it had gone wonky and wouldn’t play correctly. Would like to watch it again.