It would be hard to imagine a better way of getting reacquainted with the Beatles than by watching "The Beatles Anthology."
Never mind that this six-hour documentary (which airs in three parts, beginning tonightand continuing Wednesday and Thursday, from 9 p.m. to 11 p.m. on ABC) is the first fully sanctioned look back at the band. Forget for a moment that it features fresh interviews with all three surviving Beatles, as well as private photos, rare performance footage and previously unreleased recordings, as well as two brand new tunes.
As much as those add to the program, they aren't what makes "The Beatles Anthology" such a natural for American fans.
No, the real advantage is the medium itself: TV. Television was how most Americans first met the Beatles, and what formed our initial impression of the band. Some 73 million people saw the Fab Four make their first appearance on "The Ed Sullivan Show" in February 1964, and the image burned so deeply into our collective memory that even those who didn't see the original broadcast can describe it today.
Naturally, the "Sullivan Show" performance plays a part in "The Beatles Anthology," but it hardly seems as stunning in context. By the time Sullivan introduces our heroes, we've already seen ++ them rip through "Love Me Do" at the Cavern Club, play "Please Please Me" on British TV, offer multiple performances of "Twist and Shout," and even render "Till There Was You" for Queen Elizabeth during "The Royal Variety Performance."
"The Ed Sullivan Show," it turns out, was just one small part of the picture.
Seeing that, though, makes watching "The Beatles Anthology" all the more exciting. Who would have thought, 25 years after they called it quits, that the Beatles could seem new to us again?
It isn't as if the series makes any major revelations. OK, there are the new songs, "Free As a Bird" and "Real Love." Lennon, they've been fleshed out by Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Ringo Starr and are presented here as the first new Beatles music in a quarter century.
have placed such a veil of secrecy around those songs that no one is being allowed to hear them before tonight's broadcast. As a result, review copies of "The Beatles Anthology" include nothing of the new material. In fact, they don't even indicate where in the show the songs will be heard.
On an informational level, though, "The Beatles Anthology" treads almost no new ground. On the whole, the anecdotes offered are pretty much standard fare, familiar to anyone who has read a Beatles bio or two.
Except, of course, that it's the Beatles telling them.
Needless to say, that makes all the difference in the world. It's one thing to know the story of how Paul met John, and was asked to join Lennon's skiffle combo, the Quarrymen; it's something else again to hear McCartney explain that what most impressed his future bandmate was his rendition of Eddie Cochran's "Twenty Flight Rock."
"And I knew all the words," McCartney says proudly.
Or consider how McCartney -- who had been the band's third guitarist during its days in Hamburg -- wound up as the bass player after Stu Sutcliffe quit the band. "I remember saying, 'Well, one of us is going to have to be the bass player,' " says Harrison. " 'And it's not me. I'm not doing it.' And John said, 'I'm not doing it either.' [Paul] went for it, and he became the bass player from that point on."
There's also some frightening stuff about what it was like to have been on the other end of Beatlemania. Starr tells of having to play in Montreal with a policeman sitting next to him onstage because of a death threat he'd received, while Harrison says flatly, "The only place we ever got any peace was when we got in the suite and went to the bathroom."
"Everywhere they went, they were brought cripples," adds producer George Martin. "They'd wheel in all the paraplegics, so they could touch them. It was like Jesus, almost." Hearing that, it's not hard to understand why Lennon would later tell a reporter, "We're more popular than Jesus Christ now."
Although the show contains quite a bit of fresh interview footage, it also draws from material recorded throughout the last 30 years. Not only does this allow Lennon a voice in the story -- at one point, during the early days of Beatlemania, he's asked about the band's future and predicts that "we'll be lucky if we last three months" -- but it also adds a sense of then-and-now to the story.
That's crucial when addressing the band's great crises. No amount of recollection can match watching the Beatles meet the press after being made Members of the British Empire, or equal the sight of an obviously shaken John Lennon reacting to news of Brian Epstein's death.
But working off the surviving members' memories does have its pluses. When Bob Dylan enters the picture, McCartney is immediately enthusiastic. "He was our idol," he gushes. Echoes Starr, "Bob was our hero."
"Not an idol," demurs Harrison. But, he adds, Dylan's "Bringing It All Back Home" was a major influence on the band. "It really gave us a buzz," he says. "We played it over and over again."
Still, as entertaining as such stories are, the real draws here are the performances, many of which will be new even to hard-core Beatle fans. Some are clearly forgotten classics, such as the little-seen version of "I Am the Walrus" from "Magical Mystery Tour"; others, such as a black-and-white concert film of McCartney offering a solo rendition of his then-new ballad "Yesterday," are newly discovered gems. All of it is riveting.
Whether it will lead to a second wave of Beatlemania is hard to say. Certainly, there's a world of difference between being swept up in the spirit of the moment and being touched by events from the past. But there's still something magical about seeing the Beatles again -- hearing them talk, watching them play -- and "The Beatles Anthology" delivers enough of that to make it worth a 25-year wait.
To celebrate the ABC-TV debut of "The Beatles Anthology," we've put together an audio montage of group interviews and Beatles music. Call Sundial at (410) 783-1800 and enter the four-digit code 6100. For other local Sundial numbers, see the Sundial directory on Page 2A.