Documentary Review: Sgt. Pepper’s Musical Revolution

It’s been a while since I did a review of a music documentary – the last one that comes immediately to mind is a documentary review on the career of Pink Floyd. Well, this year is the year that the Beatles concept album Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Heart’s Club Band has it’s 50th anniversary, and the BBC did a documentary on the album, which also broadcast on PBS, which is where I saw it.

In broad strokes, the documentary goes briefly into where The Beatles career was before the album came out, before getting into the album itself, both in terms of the mechanics of how the album was put together, and the artistic influences of the album. In particular – this is the first album the Beatles put out after they stopped doing live performances. They had experimented with the process of building an album in the studio before (in Rubber Soul), and other performers and producers had been inspired by that (as with Brian Wilson, the Beach Boys and Pet Sounds). However, the thesis that the show puts forward is that Sgt. Pepper was meant to be an album that would basically justify to their fans the end of The Beatles touring – you’re going to get an album that could never be replicated live – and it’ll be worth it.

The documentary from there goes more or less track-by-track through the album, with only “Fixing a Hole” being omitted from discussion, and the title track and “Lovely Rita” getting the shortest discussion time. The documentary goes in depth on the influences (getting song concepts from newspaper articles and – in the case of “Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite” a Victorian Circus poster) and the details of how the album was put together, especially considering the recording technology of the time.

Unlike most music documentaries, the presenter – Howard Goodall, is on camera for a large portion of the documentary, and as he has some musical talent himself, he uses that to illustrate particular points of the album – breaking down several musical parts into their relevant tracks, and how they overlap to get the final result. We don’t get any new interview footage with the surviving Beatles. Instead, their voices are present either through archival interview footage or through audio from the studio recording sessions.

Probably the most interesting part of the documentary is a discussion of the song “Within You, Without You”, where the documentary delves into Ravi Shankar’s earlier career, George Harrison’s time with Shankar, and how the track merges Western song structure with traditional Indian instrumentation, complete with studio audio of Harrison talking with the Indian musicians as the track was laid down.

The documentary makes for a really interesting portrait of the Beatles creative process, and how albums were put together in the late ’70s, making for a spectacular documentary – especially for those interested in music history, not only people who are interested in the Beatles.

The documentary has yet to receive a physical release. Until then, should it come up on reruns on your local PBS station (which you should totally support), or on the BBC (for any UK readers), you should definitely check it out.

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