In 1964, Americans viewed the Beatles as seemingly coming out of nowhere, rapidly scoring hits and inciting Beatlemania. In reality, the group painstakingly learned their craft, toiling in Liverpool and Hamburg clubs until finally signing with the EMI label in 1962. The documentary The Beatles Made on Merseyside attempts to trace this early period, following them from teen years through 1962. Now available on DVD, the film may appeal to casual Beatles fans, but hardcore enthusiasts will find little new information.
Wisely dispensing with narration, The Beatles Made on Merseyside relies on interviews with Beatles insiders and archival footage. Beatles insider Tony Bramwell, original drummer Pete Best, official Beatles fan club president Freda Kelly, Mersey Beat editor Bill Harry, and many more provide insight as to the group’s humble beginnings. Bramwell recalls carrying the Beatles’ equipment during their numerous club dates, while Kelly explains the magnetism of the band’s Cavern Club shows in Liverpool. Members of John Lennon’s first band, the Quarrymen, reminisce about their short-lived group, describing their amazement watching the Beatles finally achieving success.
After being fired from the group almost 60 years ago, Best seems to have made peace with the other members. He still winces at criticism of his drumming abilities, but adds that he enjoys his current life touring with the Pete Best Band and spending time with his wife, children, and grandchildren. Archival footage of his mother, Mona Best, illustrates her anger toward the group; she had previously served as a sort of manager for the Beatles, and booked them in her Liverpool Casbah Coffee House. More archival footage includes an interview with manager Brian Epstein; one wishes the documentary would have shown even more clips from that appearance. Cynthia Lennon weighs in on future husband John’s complex personality through an old interview dating from the '80s. A spotlight is shown on Stuart Sutcliffe, Lennon’s best friend and the group’s onetime bassist. His musicianship is defended in the film; while his talents mostly lay in painting, the documentary argues, he was more competent on the bass than typically given credit for. When the Beatles returned to Hamburg after securing their record contract, they were horrified to learn that Sutcliffe (who stayed behind after falling in love with German artist Astrid Kirchherr) had died of a brain hemorrhage. Friends recall it being the only time Lennon was seen crying in public.
While the anecdotes are mildly intriguing, they will come as no surprise to longtime Beatles fans. As is typical with straight-to-video documentaries, The Beatles Made on Merseyside contains no original music, only covers of their hits. Since little footage exists of the Beatles’ early years, the film relies on photos previously printed in numerous books. Past interviews with Paul McCartney are sprinkled throughout, most dating from the past 20 years. Clearly director Alan Byron had to work within a tight budget, thus dissuading him from using more footage of the Beatles or past interviews with the four individuals.
New or casual Beatles fans may find The Beatles Made on Merseyside to be interesting only if they are largely unfamiliar with the group’s history. The Beatles Anthology documentary provides more detail on a period that deserves more examination.