No single story, no single film can capture the phenomenon that was The Beatles. But collectively, these examinations offer insight into the band’s impact on music and culture.
Such is the challenge when it comes to The Beatles’ landmark album “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Heart’s Club Band,” which is celebrating the 50th anniversary of its release – and the 50th year that it has blown away music aficionados. Thinkpieces and tributes to the groundbreaking album have been in the news lately, trying to capture just how innovative and important it was to the music scene. Named No. 1 on Rolling Stone’s 500 Greatest Albums of All Time list, “Sgt. Pepper’s” topped the charts for 15 weeks in the U.S. and 27 in the U.K. In other words, it was and is still a big deal.
The PBS documentary special “Sgt.Pepper’s Musical Revolution” offers one piece to the puzzle of the album’s genius. The doc features composer, author and music historian Howard Goodall as a musical mystery tour guide through seven of the songs related to the “Sgt. Pepper’s” album. While the series does provide some historical context and entertaining backstories on what inspired each song, it’s Goodall’s analysis and bits of previously unreleased recording sessions that truly sets this film apart and provides a window into the Beatles’ painstaking creative process.
Tired of performances that suffered as a result of too-loud, circus-like concerts, the band quit touring permanently in 1966. After taking a few months to decompress and recharge, they went back to the studio to create an album with songs so intricately and artfully produced, composed and arranged that there would be no way to perform them fully live. This goal gave impetus to some of the craziest, most difficult and wide-ranging recording techniques used to make an album ever at the time.
As diehard Beatlemaniacs know, neither “Strawberry Fields Forever” nor “Penny Lane” were included on the original release of the album, but were instead released as a double A-side in advance of the LP. Nevertheless, both songs are part of the DNA of “Sgt. Pepper’s” and carry many of its themes — such as childhood — and innovative techniques. Fortunately, the documentary puts proper emphasis on these two songs retroactively, much like how special remixes or deluxe editions of “Sgt. Pepper’s” will include them as bonus tracks.
For each of the seven songs, the film creates capsule lessons in which Goodall traces the origins of the song’s narrative and some other related history. But then comes the fascinating deep dive into the technical side of the song itself. Credit goes to Goodall and the writers for the clarity by which he’s able to impart every morsel of information, whether it’s through visual aids or musical demonstrations to isolate specific parts of the composition.
The film demystifies certain techniques, such as how Lennon sounded younger on “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds, “ the use of aleatoric composition with a 40-piece orchestra, how Henry the Horse got his waltz on “Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite” and what a modal melody brought to “She’s Leaving Home.” Throwing around words like Mellotron, polyphony, “teen taal” and more, Goodall gives the barest of definitions but doesn’t get bogged down with over-explaining terminology, preferring to demonstrate the concepts. Understanding that its sophisticated audience has a range of knowledge, yet not overly dumbing ideas down creates an effective connection with the viewer.
News footage is used sparingly, and no talking heads appear to give their take on the album or song’s impact. Goodall is the lone expert weighing in, and the effect is intimate and conspiratorial. It’s an intriguing tone to set since the celebration of the Beatles is global and therefore seems like it should be a communal experience.
This is where director Francis Hanly and producers Jonathan Clyde and Martin Smith fall short. It’s understandable due to time constraints that the documentary had to limit itself to the discussion of only seven songs — although fans would happily sit through more — but the film is wildly unbalanced. It’s top-heavy with context at the outset about the Beatles’ state of mind regarding touring and how the album started. But once the seven songs are dissected, the film ends abruptly with only a few placating words by Goodall, trying to coalesce all of the lessons into one.
Providing context on how all of these groundbreaking techniques and imaginative stories were received by the public or other musicians immediately following the album’s release would have been a far more satisfying end. This is a film that explains the meticulous process of crafting songs to create an aurally and thematically harmonious album. It’s a shame that producers didn’t mimic that consideration when constructing this documentary. The rushed ending doesn’t leave the viewer wanting more, rather the viewer feels cheated.
“Sgt. Pepper’s Musical Revolution” airs Saturday, June 3 at 8 p.m. on PBS. Watch a trailer for the special below: