Mods And Rockers Festival: Really With The Beatles

07/14/2007 07:48 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

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Beatles expert David Haber reviews "What's Happening! The Beatles In The U.S.A." - the opening night film at the "Mods & Rockers Film Festival" and documents its creation.

It was not that many years ago, but it was such a different time. There were no computers, there were no ipods. There were no DVDs or CDs. There was only records. And the AM radio that played those records.

And TV and the movies.

In February 1964, the British TV company Granada, contracted the already renowned documentary makers, Albert and David Maysles, to film the Beatles' first visit to America for a 30-minute TV special to air in Britain. A small amount of the footage they shot was indeed shown later that month on British TV, but the Maysles brothers went on to make a feature-length theatrical documentary from the extensive amount of footage they had shot with the Beatles.

They called their film "What's Happening! The Beatles in the U.S.A." Unfortunately for Beatles fans, because of the very impending release of the movie "A Hard Day's Night", the Maysles' film was shelved, and has never seen the light of day in its full form in a commercial release. It has only ever been shown here and there at a few film festivals over the years. In 1991, the Beatles' company Apple released a made-for-video program on VHS (subsequently reissued on DVD in 2004) titled "The Beatles: The First U.S. Visit" - that combined some of the content from the original Maysles film with other footage from that February 1964 trip including TV clips and newsreel. But it was certainly not the full-length film created by the Maysles brothers.

And the footage used in the Apple compilation project provides only a small taste of the Maysles' film. The complete footage in the Directors' cut of "What's Happening!" really gives the viewer the full experience of what it was like to be a Beatle in 1964.

That was, by the way, also the underlying theme of the Beatles' first movie, "A Hard Day's Night." It is staggering how similar the portrayal of the life of the Beatles in "A Hard Day's Night" is to their real life captured in "What's Happening!" Especially so because it is well-documented that the shooting script for "A Hard Day's Night" was completed over two months BEFORE the real events captured in "What's Happening." The reality that "A Hard Day's Night" screenwriter Alun Owen observed in his three days spent with the Beatles in November 1963 (as research for the script he wrote the following month) was the same reality that the Maysles brothers captured when their cameras rolled in February 1964. It underscores that what Owen and Lester created in "A Hard Day's Night" was very close to the reality of the Beatles' lives at that time.

For example, early in both movies, there are similar scenes of young girls mobbing the Beatles, which we see from the Beatles' perspective inside their car. There is also a scene in "What's Happening!" with John and George on the train taking them to Washington DC which looks exactly like a scene between George and Ringo in "A Hard Day's Night". Much of the Maysles' film was shot with the Beatles in their room at the Plaza Hotel. The scenes filmed later of the Beatles in their hotel room in "A Hard Day's Night" are uncannily similar in their look and also feeling of the Beatles being prisoners of their fame. In "A Hard Day's Night", the Beatles escape their hotel room and go dancing at a club. In the Maysles film, we see the Beatles go to New York's Peppermint Lounge. In both films, the other Beatles sit among the crowd while Ringo jumps and gyrates on the dance floor.

Not only was the script of "A Hard Day's Night" (including all those scenes) written prior to the real-life scenes that the Maysles caught on film - but history records that director Richard Lester didn't see the solitary UK broadcast of the 25-minute Maysles film (which was transmitted just a few days before Lester started shooting his already scripted movie) until long after his film had been completed.

"What's Happening!" is made in the classic verite documentary style, completely unscripted and with hand-held cameras, and with no narration or captions to identify the various people were who were on-screen - still considered a bold style in that era. Although 1964 audiences would not have known many of the people surrounding the Beatles, today's Beatles fans may recognize people such as faithful road manager Neil Aspinall, heard in the film referred to by Paul and John by his nickname "Nell".

There is also a segment in the middle of film following Brian Epstein, the Beatles' manager who died tragically young in 1967. There is a sad moment of him in a car, and the person with him asks if he has had time for any fun while in New York. Brian replies that the Beatles went to the "21 Club" but that he couldn't go. And the previous night they had gone to the Peppermint Lounge, but again he couldn't go, as he had to get up very early in the morning.

However, Epstein did of course accompany the Beatles to Washington DC for their concert at the Washington Coliseum, and there is footage of him watching the concert on closed-circuit television backstage, with a proud smile on his face. That one small moment says so much, about how he cared so deeply about the Beatles and took such pride in their success, not for himself, but for them.

Back in their small suite at the Plaza Hotel, George is tuning his little transistor radio and finds two different stations playing Beatles records at the same time. Ringo seems to be constantly drumming with his fingers when they're otherwise unoccupied. Murray The K seems happy and excited when on the radio with 'the boys', then becomes morose and quiet when off the air. Scores of other loud, unnamed, cigar-smoking people fill the small hotel room. And through it all, because of the Maysles' cameras we can see that even in their most unguarded and candid moments, the Beatles remain the Beatles, as we knew and loved them. It's a special experience not to be missed by any Beatles fan, or anyone who wants to understand more about who the Beatles were and why the world loved them so much - and still does.

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