It was bound to happen in the 50th anniversary year of The Beatles' “Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band” that someone would make a movie about one of the Beatles' most iconic albums. It didn't turn out to the Beatles, however. “It Was Fifty Years Ago Today!: The Beatles: Sgt. Pepper & Beyond,” which comes out on DVD in the U.S. Sept. 8, is an attempt to cash in on that anniversary in the wake of the Beatles own authorized documentary, “The Beatles: Eight Days a Week: The Touring Years” and look at their later years.
“It Was Fifty Years Ago Today!: The Beatles, Sgt. Pepper and Beyond,” directed by Alan J. Parker, does tell the story of the period using original interviews of various members of the Beatles family among them Beatles associate Tony Bramwell, fan club secretary Freda Kelly, John Lennon's half-sister Julia Baird, Mersey Beat founder and editor Bill Harry, authors Hunter Davies, Ray Connolly, Philip Norman and Steve Turner and Brian Epstein's secretary Barbara O'Donnell, plus a collection of archival interviews with many others including the Fab Four themselves. What it doesn't have is any input from the living Beatles or a note of the group's music.
As do most unauthorized films like this, “It Was Fifty Years Ago” features a collection of vintage footage. In this case, however, the film has some longer (and not usually seen) versions of that footage. Credit for that should probably go to archival producer Keith Badman, also an author of several excellent reference books on the Beatles.
The two-disc set also includes a second disc with bonus features. There's a tour of Beatles sites in London and Liverpool and interviews with Julia Baird and original Beatles drummer Pete Best. But maybe the most astonishing piece is BBC broadcaster Andy Peebles' interview about talking with John Lennon and Yoko Ono about the Lennon-Ono “Double Fantasy” album in one of the last interviews before he was shot. The emotion of the moment notwithstanding, but Peebles' critical comments about Yoko Ono and “Double Fantasy” are very much out of place.
Though “It Was Fifty Years Ago Today!: The Beatles: Sgt. Pepper & Beyond” tries hard to be a companion to the authorized “The Beatles: Eight Days a Week: The Touring Years,” it's not. The collection of archival Beatles footage makes it a better-than-average addition to the many unauthorized Beatles documentaries, but the lack of Beatles involvement and music hurts. “It Was Fifty Years Ago Today!: The Beatles: Sgt. Pepper & Beyond” is a decent effort to tell the story, but it's not a memorable film like it could have been.