The Beatles, for all their utopian good vibes, were no strangers to the dark side of the ’60s. They were, of course, at the center of a rather obsessive conspiracy theory — the first one after the JFK assassination to indicate that conspiracy theory had joined the flow of the times, and that it wasn’t just limited to the murder of a president. That theory said that Paul McCartney was dead, that he’d been killed in a car crash in 1966 and replaced by an imposter. (The incident that touched this off was a traffic accident, early in 1967, that involved McCartney’s Aston Martin.)
If the Paul Is Dead rumor was true, then an awful lot of people had to be in on pretending that the fake Paul was the real Paul. To me, though, the ultimate proof that the conspiracy theory was false always came down to Paul McCartney’s eyes. Just study them sometime; they’re among the most distinctive set of celebrity peepers of the 20th century. They are ever so slightly, and beautifully, cockeyed — Paul’s left eye slopes down, and his right eye tilts up just above the other one. They’re the special soul of his Cute One factor. Does anyone really think that a replacement Paul McCartney could have been found who had those exact eyes? As is so often the case, there’s only one thing you should ever lean toward believing about conspiracy theory, and that’s that when you look at it closely, it tends to fall apart.
Yet “The Sixth Beatle,” a documentary about the group’s earliest days, is rooted in a conspiracy theory. That’s why it’s one of those annoying films that forces you to deconstruct it as you’re watching it. It opens with what is surely one of the most elaborate disclaimers ever seen in a documentary: a long statement to the effect that Mark Lewisohn, the British author and historian who is considered one of the leading — if not the leading — authorities on all things Beatles, agreed to be interviewed for the film, but that once he’d had the chance to see it, he felt that parts of it were so inaccurate that he demanded to be cut out of the movie entirely. The version of the film that I saw at the Toronto Film Festival (and am reviewing here) still included Lewisohn’s commentary. From this point on, though, those comments will be excised. Which means that “The Sixth Beatle” will now be an even bigger pile of much ado about nothing.
The Beatles had a complicated history during the five years, starting in 1957, when they honed their chops in the clubs of Liverpool and then, in a legendary rite of musical and spiritual passage that began in 1960, when they played for nights on end in the sweat-soaked, tough-as-leather clubs of Hamburg, Germany. The movie centers on one of their key managers during this period: Sam Leach, who was already a veteran Liverpool concert promoter when he helped to guide their rise on the local European scene. “My story is the last untold story of the Beatles,” says Leach, who in his eighties still has the mop of hair and slightly startled bird eyes that give him his distinctive, befuddled-leprechaun appearance. Since most people have never heard of him, his assertion, at first, seems fair enough. Leach’s anecdotes take us deep into the nitty-gritty of the era when the Beatles were kids playing in the claustrophobic rec room that was the Casbah Coffee Club — a rock venue, opened by Pete Best’s mother, Mona, that literally occupied the basement of their home.
Most of this terrain has been covered before, and exhaustively, in books and films, which makes you wonder what Tony Guma and John Rose, the co-directors of “The Sixth Beatle,” have up their sleeve. The answer, in a word, is conspiracy theory — but it’s a conspiracy theory infused with a very particular revisionist attitude of indie-rock snobbery. To the alt-rock snob, mainstream things are inherently suspect, and one of the yardsticks that measures indie rock as a superior art form is its lack of commercial recognition as a key signifier of its virtue. These are the people who will tell you why Arcade Fire is, of course, superior to Lady Gaga. It’s the whole Rockist Integrity vs. Pop thing that goes back to the cult of the Velvet Underground (as transcendent as they were).
In “The Sixth Beatle,” this sensibility gets applied, retroactively, to the Beatles, in order to pump up the role of Sam Leach. And what that means is that the movie turns into an attack on the reputation — and the place in pop history — of Brian Epstein, the silken, worldly Liverpool record-store operator who had the chutzpah, and the vision, to see that the Beatles were diamonds in the rough, and that for all their natural genius their image had to be transformed. That’s what he famously did.
But “The Sixth Beatle” picks away at Epstein in a manner that’s both naïve and, on some level, offensive. It implies that because he didn’t come from the rock & roll world, he was simply an opportunist. There is endless parsing of the anecdote Epstein always told about how he first heard of the Beatles when a kid came into his shop asking for one of their records. The movie insists that the anecdote isn’t true — that Epstein already knew about the Beatles. But let’s assume, for the sake of argument, that that’s correct. So what? He embellished his legend with an apocryphal story. It doesn’t mean that he was some diabolical “schemer” (a perception the movie pushes that has ugly overtones). He didn’t exploit the Beatles, or force himself upon them; he took them over at the perfect moment and had the worldly cunning to conjure them into pop stars. He managed them to fame. He also got rid of Pete Best, who is interviewed extensively in “The Sixth Beatle,” and the movie can’t seem to wrap its head around why Best was ever replaced (more conspiracy). Opinions vary, and the real assassin may have been George Martin, but even if you buy the notion that he was a good drummer, all you have to do is look at Pete Best, who was handsome in a square-jawed ’50s-bruiser way, to see why: He didn’t have the vibe of a Beatle. He was too sullen and macho for this quartet of future moptops. Ringo — sublimely — completed their image.
“The Sixth Beatle” is an outrageous pile of malarkey. It portrays Brian Epstein as nothing more than a posh seducer who stole the Beatles from Sam Leach — but then (and this is where the film gets downright loopy) it has the nerve to come out and say that if Epstein had never come along, and Leach had remained their manager, then he would have enjoyed the exact same rocket to the moon. Epstein, in this movie’s view, stole the glory that could — and should — have been Sam’s. He’s the facile commercializer, and Leach is the pure one, but the movie still wants Leach to ride on the coattails of everything that Epstein so uniquely and inspiringly commercialized. That’s called having your snob cake and eating it, too. If you play this movie backwards, it says, “I buried Brian.”