Documentary films often stir up controversy, but they usually wait until after they’ve started screening to do so – and most of the time, it’s the political or issue-oriented docs that cause a fuss, not films about show business.
But “The Sixth Beatle,” which had its world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival on Thursday night, is an exception to both those rules.
The film opened with an unusual and lengthy disclaimer stating that author Mark Lewisohn, one of the world’s foremost Beatle historians, felt that “many of the comments” made in the film “allege matters that are factually erroneous.” It went on to say that Lewisohn’s scenes, which are numerous and offer key perspective, would be deleted from the film after TIFF.
In the Q&A that followed the premiere, co-director Tony Guma responded to a question from TheWrap by saying that Lewisohn did a 90-minute interview for the film, but “didn’t like some of the stories” that are told in the film.
“We don’t know specifically what his problems were,” he added. “But we do know that he has been hired in the past by Apple [the Beatles’ company] to write books and things.
“He says he’s a neutral historian, but if you work for the Beatles, how neutral can you be?”
Lewisohn has written numerous books on the band, some of which are authorized by Apple and all of which are known for their detailed and meticulous research. He is also by far the most authoritative of the talking heads in “The Sixth Beatle,” which will make his absence a blow to the movie.
The film bills itself as the untold story of Sam Leach, a working-class booking agent from Liverpool who hired an early version of the band (with Pete Best on drums, pre-Ringo Starr) to perform a number of times in their hometown and also, crucially, at big shows in the Tower Ballroom in New Brighton.
“A lot of us would have starved if it wasn’t for Sam,” says one of the many early Liverpool musicians interviewed in the film, which relies on a colorful gaggle of players from bands like the Searchers, Rory Storm and the Hurricanes, the Merseybeats, Billy J. Kramer and the Dakotas and the Undertakers.
The story they tell is entertaining, raucous and frequently contradictory – nobody seems able to agree on exactly who did what to whom and when they did it, and a quote from Oscar Wilde sums it up early in the film: “History is rarely pure, and never simple.”
“The Sixth Beatle”–which, to be honest, doesn’t try to pretend that Leach was anything better than about the eighth or ninth Beatle, at best – shines when it lets its cast of characters bicker and brag and bitch about the good old days. Leach calls his early ’60s days with the Fab Four a “two-and-a-half-year roller coaster ride through rock history,” and it is that.
The problem, which is likely at the heart of Lewisohn’s differences with the film, is that the filmmakers seem to feel that building up Leach also requires tearing down Brian Epstein, who managed the band to its enormous success and was an integral part of what the Beatles achieved.
“The Sixth Beatle” is obsessed with the Fifth Beatle, as Epstein was sometimes called. It returns again and again to lengthy sections devoted to painting him as a schemer and dilettante who pushed out Leach (whose short stint “managing” the band led to a disastrous gig outside London), replaced Pete Best with Ringo Starr because he was threatened by Best’s mother, a manager herself, and then created a myth of how he discovered the Beatles that left out everybody else.
And while there’s no question that Epstein simplified the Beatle narrative for a pop press that wanted a simple narrative, and placed himself front and center in that story, the relentless hammering on Epstein in this film feels like sour grapes 50-plus years after the fact. And it turns what could be an enjoyable film into a troubling one.
“The Sixth Beatle” is looking for distribution, and it has potential if directors Guma and John Rose, while they’re cutting Lewisohn out of the film, also realize that their strength lies in celebrating Sam Leach, not blaming Brian Epstein.
In a way, their film has the potential to be a good companion piece to another Beatles doc that is almost the complete opposite: Ron Howard‘s “The Beatles: Eight Days a Week – The Touring Years” is authorized, it features interviews with all the Beatles and lots of real Beatles music, and it tells the story from the official point of view, but in a richly entertaining way.
Howard’s doc, which is coming to theaters and to Hulu during TIFF (but is not playing there) covers the group after they had put Leach in the rearview mirror, and were coming to the United States in search of … well, we don’t really know what they were searching for, though the kind of domination they achieved was probably beyond their wildest dreams.
We’ve all seen footage of early Beatles concerts, but Howard’s team came up with video that looks better and more immediate than the usual sources — and, in some particularly revelatory sequences, breaks through the material’s familiarity to show just how tough and terrific these guys could be as live musicians. (Ringo and George particularly shine.)
For a group whose every utterance has long since passed into the realm of cliché, moments like this are genuinely startling.
There are few secrets spilled in “Eight Days a Week,” but that’s not the point. The movie is fun and fresh – and while it’s not hard to achieve the first of those things in a Beatles doc, Howard can no doubt testify that second one is harder than it looks.
The makers of “The Sixth Beatle” would no doubt agree.