Out of the darkness that is the beginning of a new movie called Beatlemania we hear the first chords of “I Want to Hold Your Hand,” and it’s very difficult not to feel a sweet nostalgic twinge. But the feeling doesn’t last, as the dark screen gives way to the sight of four chaps pretending to be the Beatles, playing in an auditorium full of reverent, responsive teens. With this, Beatlemania lurches into staggering—and nonstop—thickheadedness. You see, the filmmakers are not content to merely present a series of songs; no, as the prologue informs us, the film is intended as a survey of that most tumultuous of decades, the 1960s.
Right, it sounds awful; but that pious declaration doesn’t begin to do justice to the movie’s sense of junior-high profundity. The series of Beatles tunes—nearly non-stop, and oddly out of chronological order much of the time—will be accompanied by images from the 60s, whether newsreel footage or re-creations. They’re all here—Vietnam, pot, Nixon, flower power—and just in case we miss anything, news headlines crawl across the top of the screen from time to time: “Martin Luther King assassinated,” or “Timothy Leary Advocates LSD Legalization”—that kind of thing. (These headlines are, for no apparent reason, often curiously out of order: “Dustin Hoffman Scores in The Graduate“—that would be 1967—rolls by during a ’64 song, “Can’t Buy Me Love,” and precedes a “Johnson Reelected” headline, 1964, by about 10 minutes of screen time.)
Dig this scene: we’re listening to “Helter Skelter,” watching clips from ‘Nam or the peace marches, and as the song ends we’re treated to a superimposition of Charles Manson’s X’-ed-up face. It is to blow the mind! How about stills of Lyndon Johnson, Hubert Humphrey, and an American soldier over the strains of “Nowhere Man”? (The emphasis on exclusively American history will remain true throughout the film—I can think of nary a reference to the boys’ native Britain.)
Beatlemania reaches its nadir, however, with “Get Back”—this time, the visual accompaniment consists of people of different ages and genders fighting in a wrestling ring; they wear shirts emblazoned with identifying monikers: “Grandpa” and “Mother” and “Daughter,” etc. And they wrestle. And just on the off chance that we still haven’t made the connection, those helpful headlines are creeping by: “Generation Gap a Reality” or somesuch. Holy love beads! Heavy-handed symbolism is not merely raising its ugly head, it’s revealing the entire scabrous body. If there existed a suggestion of a lighter-hearted irony than we’d seen before, this scene might be excused as comic; as it stands, it is simply deplorable.
There’s no point in discussing the musicians who stand in for the lads from Liverpool; they’re not bad, exactly, they’re just not the Beatles. The guy who plays Paul McCartney looks uncannily like the genuine article, baby-fat and all, but why on earth does he play a right-handed bass? McCartney is one of pop’s most famous southpaws, and since the performance is not live, it should have been an easy matter to fake…I was about to start in on the unbelievability of “John Lennon’s” beard and sideburns, but I reckon the point has been made. Beatlemania is as bad in its little details as it is in its big ideas. The real Beatles can withstand this ill-advised venture: their work remains as solid and as exhilarating as ever. But is it too much to ask that the Beatles’ achievement be allowed to speak for itself? Or have the nostalgia salesmen and exploitation peddlers still not learned to let it be?
First published in the Weekly, August 12-18, 1981
I was very young when I wrote this, and the review has a die-hard fan’s outrage over details going wrong. But it wasn’t a real movie and there was nothing else to write about, and the pretentiousness of the thing was stupefying. And so was the failure to recognize that while going to a Broadway theater to see a tribute band (and Beatlemania played in New York for years) might be an enjoyable way to hear peerless pop music performed live, putting the same act on film simply makes you wonder why you aren’t watching A Hard Day’s Night or the Shea Stadium concert instead. According to IMDb, Gina Gershon and Christina Applegate are in this film. The oddly funny tagline for this was “Not the Beatles, But an Incredible Simulation.” I never wrote for the Weekly, now Seattle Weekly, again. (Revision: I became film critic at the Seattle Weekly again, in 2013, until the paper gave up the ghost five or six years later.)