Originally broadcast as part of Tony Palmer’s groundbreaking and hugely ambitious fifteen hour long series, All You Need Is Love: The Story of Popular Music, the critically acclaimed British director’s superb segment on The Beatles at the height of their powers is far more than just a beautifully archived document of Beatlemania. The Beatles: All You Need Is Love is a stunning illustration of Palmer’s love affair with music that has characterised his remarkable body of work. His romanticised notion of popular music and its cultural significance is never more clearly articulated than during his adoring gaze on the Beatles and their many iconic contemporaries.
Palmer’s veneration of the genre is clear and such is his reverence for these artists, most notably the Beatles, he places them on a pedestal of high art. These were not just musicians to Palmer but the spark that lit the touchpaper which ushered in a new generation of creative thinkers.
Stirring such emotion in a powerful youth, the Beatles’ music was a catalyst for an outward display of creative expression and youthful angst, and Palmer manages to show the impact their music had on this seemingly uncontrollable new generation. Paul McCartney, John Lennon, George Harrison and Ringo Starr are depicted on stage as the orchestrators of the uninhibited expressions of joyfulness happening everywhere around them.
The exploratory footage revels in the aesthetics of the age and as with any Palmer vehicle, this film has an effortless cool, a breathtaking beauty and an incredible visceral energy. The force, charisma and creative vigour of the performers are so expertly captured. The electric atmosphere and the palpable excitement generated by some of the scintillating and at times utterly groundbreaking music, resonates loudly over the overtly sexualised din of screaming teenage girls.
It was the new dawn of a sexual and political liberation, and Palmer purposefully creates his own narrative by using the lyrics of some of the genre’s most iconic songs to illustrate his belief that pop musicians were the narrators of their age.
Splicing mesmeric footage of The Animals’ The House of the Rising Sun with hippies frolicking naked in fields, induced by acid and consumed by the tangible feeling of madness and freedom, Palmer intimates songs like these were hypnotic anthems for the unruly generation emerging before their eyes. Palmer contextualises some of the most famous lyrics of the genre so that they take on greater and more profound meanings.
Palmer lingers menacingly on Eric Burden as he sings “and the only time he’s satisfied is when he’s on a drunk.” The British filmmaker has an idealised opinion of who these individuals are and he positions them as key figures in modernity; they are the Edgar Allen Poes and Charles Baudelaires of their cohort, communicating the fleeting and ephemeral experiences of life in the 1960s through their music. One generation had Enivrez-Vous the other had The House of the Rising Sun and Palmer’s film tries to argue this by showing the physical and emotional impact these songs had on their audiences.
The film infers that the emerging artists and the generation they influenced were passé about the basics of life, wanted wonderment and a greater fulfilment. Bill Graham, the manager of the Fillmore Auditorium in San Francisco which was a focal point for psychedelic music and the countercultural movement, tells Palmer that the new generation wanted to “…live fast, die young and have a good looking corpse.”
Palmer’s film, like the vast majority of his dazzling opus, is so beautifully audible that he really manages to capture the mood of this spontaneous cultural revolution. The excitement and danger lurking behind the emergence of this vibrant, innovative and experimental age is evident throughout this captivating film.
The footage of the Monetery Pop festival in California perfectly captures the essence of the ‘Summer of Love’ yet beneath it all Palmer manages to also illustrate the skulking menace that lurked. A shot of a brooding Hells Angel in the foreground or a group of policemen being informed of their powers of arrest are dangerous reminders that this was a passing moment in history.
The finale of the film is beautifully poignant. The Beatles are devastated by the death of their long-time manager and mentor Brian Epstein and Palmer expertly allows his camera to loiter on the melancholic faces of Lennon and Harrison as they articulate their sorrow. During the closing credits, Palmer films McCartney singing Yesterday and the mournful lyrics take on added significance as the 1960s come to a close, ushering in the uncertain times of the 1970s. “Yesterday, all my troubles seemed so far away, Now it looks as though they’re here to stay, Oh, I believe in yesterday.”
It is very hard to place The Beatles: All You Need Is Love into context because not only is it one small part of a far larger body of work, but we are also in an age that is currently gorging itself on endless documentaries on popular music. Therefore the groundbreaking nature of Palmer’s work and this pioneering documentary is diluted somewhat for a modern audience. Taken in isolation, however, it is an incredibly probing and thought provoking piece of filmmaking. It’s occasionally a touch indulgent and not overly objective but it remains an enormously engaging insight into the impact that these vibrant and exciting musicians had during a hugely exhilarating period of history. It perhaps lacks the heart and nuance of Palmer’s stunning portrait on Leonard Cohen, but for music fans and particularly those with a penchant for this era, allow yourself to be seduced by Palmer’s sparkling footage of these grandiose totems of popular culture.