Beatles Documentary

The Annotated “Rock Docs” Radio Special

by Rick Ouellette

Last month, I was honored to be interviewed by DJ Bob Dubrow of WMBR-FM 88.1 in Cambridge, Mass. to talk about my book Rock Docs: A Fifty-Year Cinematic Journey. Why honored, you ask? Because Bob is not just your average guy blabbing with some local scribbler with a book to peddle. He interviews (on a regular basis) many of your favorite musicians from the Sixties and Seventies, which is the focal point of the “Lost and Found” show which airs on “the Big 88” every weekday from noon-2PM (Bob is usually in the Tuesday slot). Your humble blogger and indie author was preceded the previous week by Bob Cowsill of the famous singing family and was followed by Justin Hayward (Moody Blues) and Paul Rodgers (Free/Bad Company) the next two Tuesdays.

You can click the link below to hear the whole two-hour show or, if you’re pressed for time like most people, I will break it down into sections so you can jump ahead to certain interview segments or songs. Please note, however, that you can’t rewind on this slider. Also, check out Bob’s many great past interviews by visiting his MixCloud page at

For about the first four minutes, I get to talk a little bit about myself and how I came to write the book, while you become acclimated to my velvety radio voice 😉. Bob arranged the show to revolve around the work of various directors who have made the filming of rock music subjects a facet of their careers. I thought this was a good idea as it shows that from the beginning of the books timeline (1964) there were serious filmmakers recording performances and depicting real-life events of musical artists that were shaping a major cultural shift of the 20th century.

David (left) and Albert Maysles filming Mick Jagger during the making of Gimme Shelter.

First up, we discuss David and Albert Maysles (at the 5:00 mark) who were hired to film The Beatles First U.S. Visit only a couple of hours before the group’s plane landed in New York in February of 1964. The notion of rock mass-media was so new that the Maysles were giving full-access, sight unseen, by the Beatles management, giving us an up close look at this now-legendary event, which today would have a virtual army of handlers attached to it. The other two parts of rock’s great triumvirate (the Rolling Stones and Bob Dylan) were also committed to non-fiction celluloid before 1964 was out: the Stones on The T.A.M.I. Show and Dylan at the Newport Folk Fest. Director Murray Lerner in fact, filmed at Newport for several years and compiled his highlights in the 1967 doc Festival!

At 14:10, Bob plays Dylan’s very plugged-in version of Maggie’s Farm from Newport 1965 that has gone down in legend (and is seen in the Festival! film). So many rumors have surrounded this watershed Dylan-goes-electric moment—did Pete Seeger try to cut the cord with an axe, was Bobby booed off stage—that Mr. Dubrow’s anecdote he learned from an interview with Newport participant producer Joe Boyd gives an fascinating spin on this famous tale.

Discussion of the work of Murray Lerner continues with his film Message to Love: The Isle of Wight Festival (at 28:45), his outstanding doc of that 1970 event attended by 600,000 people but, because of funding issues, not released until 1997. Bob plays a song not seen in the original film, Leonard Cohen’s “That’s No Way to Say Goodbye” preceded by some typically esoteric stage banter from the bard of Montreal.

Leonard Cohen at the 1970 Isle of Wight festival

The crucial role of documentary makers in preserving the counterculture experience for posterity—the good, the bad an the ugly—is discussed (at 28:45) in the section about the Maysles Brothers’ Gimme Shelter, about the Stone’s 1969 US tour that ended in the calamitous Altamont festival. At 32:15, Bob cues up the disheveled version of “Under My Thumb” during which the Hell’s Angels murdered a gun-brandishing audience member.

A discussion of the venerable American documentarian D.A. Pennebaker starts at 38:35. Pennebaker (like the Maysles) was an adherent of the new Direct Cinema and their fly-on-the-wall methods often yielded startling results, like D.A.’s bracing classic Don’t Look Back. At 38:35, Dylan’s defiant version of “Like a Rolling Stone” from his 1966 UK tour (also controversial with the folkie purists).

At 47:30, we discuss another Pennebaker film (and my all-time favorite rockumentary) Monterey Pop and after that Bob Plays a couple of songs from that beatific Summer of Love event, one at 51:27 from Buffalo Springfield (from a DVD extra) and one from the legendary set by Otis Redding (at 54:20). Also, he plays a song from a later Pennebaker film shot in 1973, the title song from the David Bowie concert film Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars.

Among the legendary performances captured by Pennebaker at Monterey Pop, the Who’s “smashing” version “My Generation” ranks near the top.

At 1:03:25 the name Peter Whitehead comes up. Though not a household name in the States, Whitehead produced several music videos for the Rolling Stones (as well as the first film about them 1965’s Charlie is MY Darling)
His most lasting effort is probably the free-form Swinging London opus “Tonite Let’s All Make Love in London From that film’s soundtrack we hear the part of a wild live-in-studio jam on “Interstellar Overdrive” by the original Pink Floyd (founder Syd Barrett was a friend of Whitehead).

Another British director, Tony Palmer, met John Lennon when the Beatles visited Cambridge University where he was a student. (Starting at 1:10:30) He ended up at the BBC where he used his Beatle connection to be introduced to many of the rock stars that would appear in his musical-sociological study All My Loving. He would film the final show of one of the bands featured. From Cream: The Farewell Concert Bob plays a great version of their hit “Sunshine of Your Love.”

The next filmmaker on the docket (at 1:27:30) is Michael Lindsay-Hogg, known for capturing England’s two most prominent bands at the end of the Sixties. From the Rolling Stones Rock ‘n’ Roll Circus we get the one-night-only supergroup The Dirty Macs (with Lennon, Eric Clapton and Keith Richards) doing “Yer Blues” (at 1:29:50) and from the Beatles swan-song doc Let it Be Bob plays “I’ve Got a Feeling” from the rooftop concert.

The Beatles in “Let it Be.” Though the film depicts the fraying of the group’s unity that would lead to their breakup, the film is redeemed by the rooftop concert. From the book: Like a pack of squabbling brothers who find themselves in better temper after obeying a parent’s order to “go out and get some fresh air,” the mood of the film brightens as soon as the band emerges from the stairwell onto the rooftop. It may have been a chilly, overcast London afternoon but as soon as they launch into the remonstrative rocker “Get Back” the Beatles seem warmed up to the idea that they are out there to prove themselves. A month’s worth of studio work was not in vain.

Of course, no discussion about classic rock docs can be complete without Woodstock, which made Warner Bros. a ton of money while also being good enough to take the Oscar for Documentary Feature in 1970. It’s true, as Bob points: what hasn’t been said about this iconic film. But I hope, we added a few new insights here and there about these films in general. Hopefully, the time and care I put into making this book more of “journey” through fifty years of music and lives, transcending the (still useful and user-friendly) anthology format. So if interested, click on the book cover above, or the link below, to see the index and the first 20+ pages of the text.

You can check out the excerpt at or by clicking on the book cover image above. If interested in purchasing, you can contact me directly for a special offer and free shipping! Thanks, Rick.

“Rock Docs: A Fifty-Year Cinematic Journey” Available Now!


The T.A.M.I. Show. Don’t Look Back. Monterey Pop. Woodstock. Gimme Shelter. Let it Be.
The Last Waltz. The Kids Are Alright. Stop Making Sense. Standing in the Shadows of Motown.
The Filth and the Fury. Searching for Sugar Man. Twenty Feet From Stardom.

Over the last half century, music documentaries like these have provided us with a priceless moving-image history of rock ‘n’ roll. My just-released book “Rock Docs: A Fifty-Year Cinematic Journey” is a first-of-its-kind anthology of the rockumentary genre, viewing pop music’s timeline through the prism of non-fiction film. Since its earliest days, the look of rock ‘n’ roll has been integral to its overall appeal. Up and down the hallways of pop history there is always something interesting to see as well as to hear.

This book reviews over 150 films–actually closer to 170 but that number didn’t seem right on a book cover. It starts with a ground level look at the Beatles’ world-changing first visit to America and comes full circle fifty years later with “Good Ol’ Freda,” where the Fab Four’s secretary looks back through the years as both a fan and an insider. In between, readers will find many films to re-experience or discover for the first time.

The anthology format consists of 50 feature-length reviews and paragraph-length pieces on the remaining 100+ titles. In the coming weeks, I will be posting selected clips from the book. If you are interested in purchasing the book, please click on the link below for my author page at The link also has a click-through where you can view a 30-page excerpt.

Documenting the Beatles on Film

Plus the Rutles: All You Need is Laughs

The coolest-looking quartet ever, at the height of world domination

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The Rutles, caught in the act of drinking tea, seen during their “Tragical History Tour”

Considering the Beatles overarching prominence in rock history, it’s a little odd that there isn’t currently available a standard-length documentary that captures their glory in any definitive sense. Perhaps this is understandable; maybe the story is just too big to be captured in one sitting. I cherish my copied-from-the-library tape of 1982’s The Compleat Beatles, a straightforward two-hour clips-and-commentary doc narrated by Malcolm McDowell. This thoughtful, soup-to-nuts approach makes for an impressive, single-volume encapsulation of the band’s legendary success in both artistic and commercial terms. Unfortunately, after its theatrical run and a successful release on videocassette it sort of dropped from view, remaining unreleased on DVD and relegated to spotty-quality ten-minute chunks on YouTube.

It could be said that 1995’s Beatles Anthology, a 3-part television special, supplanted the need for the less in-depth “Compleat”. The Anthology series does have a lot going for it, especially extensive interviews with the then three surviving Fabs. It also had a serious case of the recently discovered Ken Burns Syndrome, clocking in at 683 minutes. That may have been heaven on earth for Beatlemaniac bingers, but for the lean and mean younger generations (millions of whom have an instinctive inclination to love the band as we boomers did) this is about 583 minutes too much. Maybe some sort of updated variation on “The Compleat Beatles” will eventually see the light of day. It is important. John, Paul, George and Ringo are a shining example of creative striving and inspired collaboration. It’s also a sublime lesson in how to affect societal change using a light touch, and that being rebellious does not have to mean being revolting (yes, we’re pointing fingers at you, Mr. Beiber and Ms. Cyrus).

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The Compleat Beatles–Now available on VHS from Amazon for only $41.95

It may be that 1964’s A Hard Day’s Night will end up being the best real-life record of their initial career peak, seeing that director Richard Lester smartly chose a pseudo-doc style that mirrored the Maysles Brothers’ What’s Happening! The Beatles in the USA shot on the band’s epoch-making American visit just weeks before Lester’s cameras started rolling. (Almost exactly a half-century ago. See my previous post for details!) Of course, there were also documentary cameras running during the turmoil that pointed to the band’s break up in 1970. Yet if it weren’t for bootlegs and the InterWebs, little would be seen nowadays of Michael Lindsay-Hogg’s Let it Be. McCartney and Starr show little inclination at this late date to re-air the group’s dirty laundry, although a lot of the worst of it was left on the cutting room floor. Despite the uneasy vibe and Yoko Ono’s divisive presence in Lennon’s corner of the soundstage, there are gratifying moments from the Jan. 1969 filming—an electric studio performance of the bittersweet John/Paul valedictory “Two of Us” and of course the oft-imitated rooftop concert, as London pedestrians crane their necks trying to get a last look at the world’s most famous rock band playing live.

With Compleat Beatles out of print, maybe the current front-runner as the best one-sitting Beatles film bio is—wait for it—The Rutles: All You Need is Cash. This 1978 satire began a few years before as a skit on a UK television show by Monty Python alum Eric Idle. When he hosted Saturday Night Live in ’76, he brought the clip (the gag where Idle as onsite narrator finds the camera van pulling away from him) to air on the show. Idle teamed with SNL producer Lorne Michaels and director Gary Weis (whose short films were a staple of the show’s early days) to virtually invent the rock mockumentary with their wickedly funny film about Dirk, Nasty, Stig and Barry—the alternate-universe moptops whose “legend will last a lunchtime.”

With Idle playing the hapless presenter (as well as the Paul-like Dirk) All You Need is Cash is just as much a spoof of the documentary form as it is of the Beatles. Often showing up at the wrong locale or getting nowhere with certain interviewees, he still manages to tell the entire tale of the Pre-Fab Four. Completing the Liverpool chapter after catching up with his van, he takes us to Hamburg, where the Rutles learn the ropes playing dodgy, red-light district nightclubs on Hamburg’s Reeperbahn (“the naughtiest street in the world”). That’s followed by segments on their great success in America (including their record-breaking concert at “Che Stadium”), their experimentations with tea (endless pots of it) that led to such way-out records as “Sgt. Rutter’s Darts Club Band” (“a millstone in pop history”) and onto their final works, “Shabby Road” and “Let it Rot” which was “released in 1970 as an album, a film and a lawsuit.”

rutles roof
Fun fact: The Rutles rooftop performance was so bad they got arrested.

As you can tell, the Rutles saga is chock full of that dry Flying Circus wit, livened by the sharp performance of Python sidekick Neil Innes as the Lennon-like Nasty. Innes, ex of the Bonzo Dog Band, composed the many spot-on song parodies, doppelgangers like “Ouch!” (Help!), “Piggy in the Middle” (I Am the Walrus) and “Doubleback Alley” (Penny Lane). It’s remarkable how the slightest sardonic twist can transform real-life musical legends into a band of incompetents. This does lead to some lapses in logic—could these goof-offs really sell out Che Stadium? But it’s the conspiratorial allowance to have a bit of fun with our cultural icons, and recognize the tendency to place them a little too high on a pedestal, that in the end shoots their stock value even higher.

And what of the band’s reaction? John apparently loved the Rutles and refused to return the preview tape he was given. One can imagine his secret delight at the film’s scenario of having Nasty hook up with destructo-artist Chastity, “a simple German girl whose father invented World War II.” Ringo reportedly loved the scenes set in the salad days, but not so much the parts that skewered the band’s messy dissolution. Paul’s reaction was pretty frosty but he may have come around when wife Linda became a Rutles fan. George of course was a big Monty Python supporter and even appears in the movie, playing a silver-haired reporter who interviews Michael Palin as an executive of Rutle Corp. (i.e. Apple) who assures us that everything is A-OK with the group’s finances even as thieves empty out the offices in the background. People with fond memories of the first incarnation of SNL will also enjoy the cameos by John Belushi, Gilda Radner, Bill Murray and Dan Akroyd.

rut bluray

The recent Blu-ray release The Rutles Anthology includes the decent 2005 sequel Can’t Buy Me Lunch. This 56-minute follow-up fleshes out the Rutles Apocrypha with outtakes from the first film and includes some amusing new bits like the ongoing routine where Eric Idle’s presenter faces competition from a microphone-stealing Jimmy Fallon. But as where “All You Need is Cash” featured droll testimonials from Mick Jagger and Paul Simon playing themselves, here we get the likes of Gary Shandling, Russell Brand and Tom Hanks rambling on witlessly (and redundantly) about how much the Rutles meant to them. It only serves to emphasize what the project was originally poking fun at. This mockumentary thing can be a tricky business