The underground Beatle

A fantastic documentary that explains the curious, tragic life of Brian Epstein -- the man behind John, Paul, George and Ringo -- makes a rare U.S. appearance.

Published April 29, 2004 8:00PM (EDT)

"If anybody was the fifth Beatle, it was Brian."
-- Paul McCartney

Since almost anything having to do with the Beatles has a built-in audience, and since "The Brian Epstein Story" won the prestigious BAFTA award for best arts documentary, you might have expected the acclaimed 1998 BBC production to follow an easy route to PBS or BBC America or even to a theatrical release. But though the film, directed by Anthony Wall and produced by Debbie Geller and Diana Mansfield, is also one of the great documentaries of the last 20 years, few people outside Great Britain have had a chance to see it. (The 44-minute butchering that ran as an A&E "Biography" -- 100 minutes shorter than the original version -- hardly counts.)

There is a mystery at the heart of the Beatles' story, a mystery shared by all of the great tellings of that tale: Philip Norman's biography "Shout!"; Iain Softley's 1994 film "Backbeat"; and now "The Brian Epstein Story," which New York audiences can see in a rare screening on Thursday, April 29, at Manhattan's Jewish Museum. The mystery is how the greatest moment of communal euphoria in the history of popular music gave way to what feels like the saddest story in the world.

"The Brian Epstein Story" tells such an important part of that tale that it's startling to realize it hasn't been told before. Every fan knows the usual dribs and drabs about Epstein: born to a prominent Jewish Liverpool family; went to work in the family's furniture and appliance store and made a roaring success of its small record department; was prompted to see the Beatles perform at the Cavern by the interest in them among his teenage customers; became their manager and, despite nearly universal lack of interest, propelled them to fame in the U.K. and then in the rest of the world; became manager of a stable of pop acts that included Gerry and the Pacemakers and Cilla Black; was a closeted gay man who likely loathed his own homosexuality; died of an accidental overdose in August 1967 that has produced its share of shadowy rumors. "The Brian Epstein Story" makes you realize just how piddling those meager facts are. (Although the film is not yet available on video or DVD, Geller and Wall have published a book of interviews culled from the documentary called "In My Life: The Brian Epstein Story.")

More than any other account of the Beatles' rise, this film makes the case that had it not been for Epstein's persistence there is no evidence that the group would have become known outside of Liverpool, let alone outside the U.K. Epstein persisted in his belief that the Beatles would be bigger than Elvis when there was no reason to think they'd be even as big as Cliff Richard. Epstein rated himself only fair as a businessman: "The Brian Epstein Story" understands his genius was as a visionary.

This was a man raised on classical music with no previous management experience who, on the basis of one lunchtime session at a dank, filthy Liverpool club, foresaw the success of the Beatles. To Marianne Faithfull, who is seen in newsreel footage being interviewed by Epstein on the American pop-music show "Hullaballoo" and in contemporary interviews in the full flower of her bohemian regality, Epstein was a "synthesizing force," someone who understood he was at the beginning of a new era and wanted to foster the connections between its pioneers. Faithfull, in her memoir and in interviews, has gained an enormous authority, refusing to condescend to her past or give in to false nostalgia about it. She speaks of the '60s as someone might speak of Paris in the '20s, which is why it carries tremendous weight when, speaking of Epstein's failure to secure a lucrative licensing deal for American-produced Beatles' merchandise, she says, "I don't think it's bad to not be good at that." Her statement takes your breath away: It repudiates everything that has come to be thought important in the arts -- the deal making, the percentages, the grosses -- and puts the focus back on the work itself. That quote is the key to the way Wall and his producers have seen the real importance of Brian Epstein.

In 1963 in Britain, and in 1964 in the rest of the world, the Beatles, to borrow a phrase from Greil Marcus, drew a line in the sand and allowed every willing soul to cross. Whether you crossed the line because of the sound of "She Loves You," or the joy of watching "A Hard Day's Night," or the look of the band, or the charisma and quick wit of their press conferences, or waited to succumb until the psychedelic dazzle of "Sgt. Pepper's," loving the Beatles wasn't merely a matter of loving their music. Loving the Beatles meant saying yes to a vision of life where the foundations of love, work, friendship all took on the quality of play. This was not a shallow, butterflies-and-flowers version of life -- not, for example, what Donovan would sing about with such enjoyable dippiness in "Wear Your Love Like Heaven."

If, as the misperception persists, pop music is about escape, then how do you explain the existence of a pop song called "We Can Work It Out"? What place does the concept of work even have in pop music? But the promise of the song -- and by extension all of the Beatles' music -- was that the work would in the end be worth something, that the work would not diminish the joy. The vision of happiness the Beatles offered never seemed false, even in "darker" songs like "In My Life" and "Strawberry Fields Forever." The moods of those songs -- regret and loss -- were, rather, a further confirmation of the band's joyous vision, simply because to understand the emotions of regret and loss depended on knowing what joy was.

It's tempting to see some of the last Beatles songs -- "The Long and Winding Road," "Carry That Weight" -- as preparing us for the dissolution of the community the group had brought together. These are songs where journeys have no foreseeable end, where the certainty of work ("Boy/ you're gonna carry that weight/ carry that weight a long time") holds no concomitant guarantee of pleasure. These are songs about fending for yourself, and despite the honor the songs saw in the prospect, it was a cruel development given the camaraderie that the Beatles had always embodied, always promised.

From utopia to exile in six or seven years is a bruising journey, and "The Brian Epstein Story" understands that Epstein traversed it faster and more intensely than any Beatles fan. Or, rather, that he traversed it as the ultimate Beatles fan, the one who was closest to the center of the story and yet not one of the charmed four, insider yet outsider.

This is the territory the film stakes out as its own. The movie focuses on what it meant for Epstein to be an outsider, not just as a gay Jew growing up in the '50s in northwestern England, but as a budding sophisticate in the provinces, an "artistic" type in a family of retailers, and a mannered, quiet aesthete who finds himself in the midst of a pop phenomenon.

Implicit in the movie's approach is an acceptance of the liberating power of a true pop phenomenon. To Wall, there is no contradiction in the notion that people can feel themselves a part of a wildly popular movement without sacrificing their singularity or individuality. "The Brian Epstein Story" understands that the people swept up by the Beatles -- as were those swept up by Elvis and, later, punk -- were not simply acted on as fans but found the energy and inspiration to act for themselves. Certainly, Epstein did. Closeted though he was, this gay Jew found himself a place to belong in mid-'60s Britain.

And yet the filmmakers convey that Epstein's sense of belonging was limited. He could never be truly himself, could never get over his self-loathing. His friend Geoffrey Ellis, the managing director of the Epstein business NEMS, says that Epstein both enjoyed gay sex and didn't want to be gay. Joe Flannery, a quiet, gentle man whose father made furniture for the Epstein shop, explains what he and Epstein were up against as young gays in Liverpool. In those days, he says, you were a queer, "but you know you're not queer in your head." Homosexuality was still illegal in Britain and they knew of gay men taken to the lunatic asylum outside of Liverpool. It was probably Epstein's self-loathing that led him to seek out rough trade. Flannery tells a horrifying story of Epstein's leaving the house one evening in a white shirt that, when he returned a few hours later, was "brilliant red."

Part of the release for Epstein was being accepted as a member of what someone in the film calls "the international set." It was a thrill for him to find himself in the company of Orson Welles as they both followed the bullfighting season in Spain. The irony, though, is that the glamour of the pop world Epstein created made the "showbiz" world he aspired to seem stodgy and dull -- even mummified -- by comparison. When we see newsreel footage here of Noel Coward attending some anonymous first night, he might as well be Archie Rice, the third-rate vaudevillian of John Osborne's "The Entertainer."

And yet the center of the excitement of the Beatles' world was not always a safe place to be. Early in the film we hear the guitar feedback from "Tomorrow Never Knows" over a montage that includes both footage of the Liverpool suburbs where Epstein grew up and images of cops wrestling Beatles fans to the ground. This is the distance Epstein and the Beatles would travel and it's a reversal of every trite image of shiny, happy Beatlemania -- what's waiting in the wings is chaos.

In a section on the group's hellish 1966 tour, the film shows just how close to chaos Epstein and "the boys" came. As the Beatles traveled the world, a right-wing group attempted to hatch an assassination plot against them in Japan; in the Philippines, a perceived slight to that glorified gangster's moll Imelda Marcos ended with thugs lining up to beat them on their way to their plane; and Americans gave in to the worst yahoo clichés of themselves following John Lennon's "bigger than Jesus" comment, burning Beatles' records in bonfires and having the KKK show up outside arenas where they played.

Journalists often portray the Beatles' music as a refuge from the unrest of its time: the group's eruptive popularity of early 1964 as a reaction to JFK's assassination a few months earlier and so on. "The Brian Epstein Story" insists that the terror of the 1966 tour is part of the story, too. It's what explains the insularity of retreating to the studio (who would want to tour under such conditions?), and the insular -- if still brilliant -- tone of the records that followed: After "Sgt. Pepper's," with a few shining exceptions -- "Hey Jude" among them -- the Beatles' music no longer sounded as if it were reaching out to meet us but drawing us into a private, cryptic place. The film reminds us of the horrible irony of Beatlemania: Those swept up in it may have gained freedom, but the Beatles themselves did not.

To Epstein, terrified of failure and of letting down his "boys" more than anything else, Beatlemania was both liberating and enslaving. At times, "The Brian Epstein Story" seems an act of tremendous decency. Epstein is presented to us without any of the protective barriers he had to employ in real life. One of the highest aims of documentary filmmaking is to allow people to present themselves as they are; "The Brian Epstein Story" achieves that. Everyone interviewed in the film appears fully themselves, nothing more and nothing less -- Epstein's elderly Aunt Stella, whose manner and house speak poignantly of the well-bred existence Epstein left in Liverpool; Lonnie Trimble, Epstein's American cook and manservant, whose devotion, after all these years, can break your heart; Joanne Petersen, Epstein's assistant, who discovered his body; Gerry Marsden, of Gerry and the Pacemakers, who has never lived anywhere other than Liverpool's Merseyside and who has had to live out the meaning of "Ferry Cross the Mersey," the song he sang when it looked like his future would take him so much further; and, most of all, Paul McCartney, who has simply never appeared as warm or articulate or generous as he appears here.

The film is brilliantly made. The first half contains crisp readings from Epstein's unpublished diaries by Jude Law (who is in the midst of setting up his own film on Epstein, and whose readings make a better case for him as an actor than any of his performances). The film has been scripted by Jon Savage, one of the finest writers on pop music. (His "England's Dreaming" remains the great account of the heroic saga of British punk rock.) And the editing, by Roy Deverell and Guy Crossman, encompassing some eerie, slowed down images of Epstein on a bank of TV monitors, manages the tricky task of making the film pleasing aesthetically without ever getting in the way of its human content.

"The Brian Epstein Story" is a rarity not just for its excellence and the way the filmmakers have set about to explicate -- rather than explain -- the mystery of its subject. It's a rarity because very few documentaries or biographies can take as their subject someone who absolutely and irrevocably changed the world. As the man who brought the Beatles out of Liverpool, Brian Epstein did that. The distance of the journey they undertook may explain something of the inevitable sadness of such an incredible triumph. In a recent conversation, producer Debbie Geller observed, "Maybe it's common to all pop stories, but there is something sad about having to reinvent yourself or at least to put on a persona that's different to your real self. At that time, in that country, neither [Epstein nor the Beatles] could stay as they were." The grace of "The Brian Epstein Story" is that it allows the masks to drop and assumes the audience's love for its subject will still be there. Or will be, if American audiences ever get a chance to see it.

By Charles Taylor

Charles Taylor is a columnist for the Newark Star-Ledger.

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