Review Of Composing The Beatles Songbook: Lennon And McCartney: 1966-1970 And The Cool School
Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 6/27/14
There are right ways to do arts documentaries and wrong ways to do them. The right way can best be illustrated by the documentary Composing The Beatles Songbook: Lennon And McCartney: 1966-1970, which I recently streamed on Netflix, and which was released in 2008, apparently with no credited director, while the wrong way to make an arts documentary is exemplified by Morgan Neville’s 2007 documentary, The Cool School. The former is a precise and educational glimpse on what made the Beatles click in their latter stages, while the latter is a banal hagiography about bad artists from Los Angeles in the 1950s: all white, all male, and all figuratively fellating each other’s nihility.
While I never grew up as a fan of the Beatles, and believe that they suffer from what I term ‘Founders Syndrome’: i.e.- ridiculous overpraise, the truth is that they were a very good pop band. They lacked the musicianship of the Yardbirds or Led Zeppelin, the power of Cream or The Who, the poesy of the Doors, the attitude of the Rolling Stones, and even the peerless harmonies and balladeering of the Zombies, but they were a good, even great, pop group, and this 111 minute long documentary shows why, with performance clips, movie outtakes, archival footage, and insightful dissections of key songs by music critics and experts. While it touches on the Lennon and McCartney partnership, rivalry, and split, it does so cursorily, and not in a tabloid way. This film is focused on the art alone. It starts with the album Rubber Soul and charts the band’s successes through Revolver, Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, Magical Mystery Tour, The White Album, and Abbey Road.
While the film contributes to the hagiographic view of the Beatles (at one point an expert says the Beatles outrocked the Who with Helter Skelter (suppressed chuckle), much of what is claimed is backed up. Hovering behind this documentary is the figure of Bob Dylan, but, fortunately, the film wisely refrains from the well overstated influence of Dylan because, frankly, the Beatles went so far beyond anything Dylan has done in his career that the comparison is simply silly. The film is a sequel to an earlier documentary- Composing The Beatles Songbook: Lennon And McCartney 1957-1965- that I have not seen, but which I shall endeavor to see in the near future.
The film is, despite a named director, an independent feature, therefore not merely a PR film by the legal heirs of the Beatles. It is focused and details the rise of Paul McCartney as driving force of the band, whereas Lennon languished in proto-PC blatherings and drug use. McCartney, by contrast, propelled the band forward by sheer will, often to the resentment of George Harrison. But that’s as far as the film goes on personal squabbles or clashes. Even the death of manager Brian Epstein- homosexual neurotic and manic depressive, is thankfully sidestepped. In this film, art (the songs) is king. We learn their origins, why they work, and whose contribution certain aspects were. For this, alone, Composing The Beatles Songbook: Lennon And McCartney: 1966-1970 is worth watching. Add to it the quality of the film and commentators and one has a winning package.
Not so for the 85 minute long documentary from 2007, titled The Cool School. The film is all hagiography and features not one single scene where the art nor artists under review are discussed for their quality, despite a seemingly limitless pool of interviewees and critics, including noted architect Frank Gehry and actor Dennis Hopper. The whole film is one long piss rant about how dissed L.A. art of the 1950s and 1960s was, vis-à-vis the then dominant schools of Abstract Expressionism and Pop Art that held sway of New York. But, just as the titans of that scene- Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning- were frauds, so were their lesser known counterparts on the left coast: losers like Ed Ruscha, Robert Irwin, Ed Moses, Wallace Berman, and Ed Kienholz. Trust me, I’ve seen these guys’ work, long before this film, in books and in galleries and museums, and it’s every bit as awful as the above mentioned New Yorkers’. The only thing worse is how derivative their crap was. Even their ‘innovations’ are lightweight.
But the film never addresses this, in its long and ever-changing line of talking heads that burble on. Instead, macho competition and dickwaving rule the day. The film spends more time letting us know what sorts of alcohol the boys in the film prefer than any coherent reason why their art should have been known, much less why most of it is now forgotten. The center of the film is Walter Hopps who, along with Kienholz, founded the Ferus gallery, a shithole turned haven for celebrities and drinkers who wanted to babble on about their art. The film follows the ups and downs of Hopps’ life, from his marriage and divorce (his ex-wife marries one of the loser artists), to his abandoning the L.A. scene to his promoting of Andy Warhol out west. Now, seriously, tell me you haven’t watched this sort of arts documentary many times before, usually late night, on a PBS channel that likes to thinks its broadcasting of said film is somehow a simpatico nod to the ‘real’ artists out there. The only problem is that the ‘real’ artists are almost always phonies and frauds, like these guys, and the PBS stations (yes, this did air on PBS first) only show their utter contempt for real art by airing such tripe.
The film has some nice technical moments, and the camerawork is quite good, but director Neville clearly is clueless as to art. Again, not a single second devoted to the discussion of what art is and why this art is supposedly good. Why? Because the filmmaker knows he cannot make such a claim with a straight face because the best (although not good) art made is literally from garbage: Assemblage art. Actor Jeff Bridges narrates the film, but, sans any ideas of depth, it’s an unfortunately wasted effort.
The Cool School has absolutely nothing to say, although it often says nothing very well, technically speaking, whereas Composing The Beatles Songbook: Lennon And McCartney: 1966-1970 has much to say and says it well, from riffing on the differences between Lennon and McCartney (the former is introspective while the latter observational in the way they compose songs), to asserting that McCartney was actually, in many ways, the more intellectual and daring individual. Lennon, it claims, gets all the credit for such, but while he was blowing his mind out in a haze of LSD, McCartney was all Beatles, all the time. It also posits the bands success on three songwriters: Lennon, McCartney, and Lennon-McCartney, as a pair. This is a novel way to look at the band, and shows why this film does everything The Cool School does not. Not only does it have the advantage of being about real art, but it cares for same. Too few people, in documentary films or not, do.
[An expurgated version of this article originally appeared on the Salon website.]
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