Book Review: The Fifth Beatle: The Brian Epstein Story by Vivek J. Tiwary, Andrew Robinson, and Kyle Baker

The graphic novel attempts to tell the story of the Beatles' manager--with mixed results.
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This holiday season has seen an astonishing number of Beatles-related books and CDs, some tying in with the upcoming 50th anniversary of the group’s first visit to America.  One figure that remains a mystery, however, is the Beatles’ manager Brian Epstein.  Through the years he has emerged as a tragic figure, a drug-addicted man tortured by his homosexuality (in the 1960s, homosexuality was illegal in Britain), hopelessly in love with the unattainable John Lennon, and a good-intentioned but ultimately naive businessman.  The graphic novel The Fifth Beatle: The Brian Epstein Story attempts to reveal his life through a cinematic technique—not surprising, since the story will become a future feature film.  While an interesting experiment in telling Epstein’s brief but complicated story, the novel is plagued with inconsistencies that will frustrate hardcore Beatles fans, presumably the very audience most attracted to this work.

Typical of a graphic novel, the Fifth Beatle is the result of a team effort: screenwriter Vivek J. Tiwary wrote the text, while artists Andrew Robinson and Kyle Baker created the artwork.  Tiwary explains that he has had an “unrequited love affair with the Brian Epstein story” for two decades, and wished to present an accurate picture of “a flawed and imperfect hero.”  Other than Epstein’s whitewashed 1964 autobiography A Cellarful of Noise, few sources exist that fully describe the enigmatic Beatles manager.  Though Tiwary states that he conducted his own research, much of the information in The Fifth Beatle has been documented elsewhere.  Where he does add some insight, however, is Epstein’s struggle with his sexual orientation, settling for clandestine encounters that rendered him vulnerable to physical harm and blackmail.  The authors depict him popping pills in various scenes, suggesting that this turmoil contributed to his drug addiction.

Other sections, however, will prove distracting to hardcore Beatles enthusiasts.  In the recreation of Lennon’s infamous 1966 “apology” press conference in Chicago, the artists draw Lennon alone except for the Beatles’ handlers.  In reality, all four Beatles attended the conference, although subsequent footage has often shown a cropped image of just Lennon.  At the 1967 Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band launch party, the Beatles are shown sans mustaches and psychedelic clothes—many photos exist from this event, so the accuracy would have been easy to check.  Drawings of the Kennedys reinforce the oft-told myth that the Beatles would not have been successful in America if the country hadn’t been paralyzed in grief from the assassination.  The authors take some liberties with Epstein’s life story, adding a female Epstein employee who is helplessly in love with him.  While it may be true that Epstein recruited female employees to escort to events, no definite evidence exists of an employee suffering from unrequited love—in fact, his homosexuality was an open secret in Beatles circles.

The drawings are not absolutely realistic depictions of the Beatles, Epstein, and other characters, and perhaps they are not meant to be.  Several dream sequences where Epstein envisions himself as a hero suggest that the Fifth Beatle should not be taken as a literal biography.  Some dialogue is questionable as well, with the Beatles occasionally taking on the personas portrayed in their films and the early Beatlemania press rather than full-fledged human beings.  

The Fifth Beatle: The Brian Epstein Story is an original approach to telling the story of a conflicted man.  Despite the highly visual narrative, it falls short of presenting a well-rounded picture of the manager.  Factual inaccuracies also complicate the book; perhaps the author and artists should have clarified that the story is based on Epstein’s life, not a factual depiction.  It will be interesting to see if the accompanying film will be more successful at lifting the curtain on this mysterious but important figure in the history of rock music.  

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