Q&A: PBS doc explores the making of “Sgt. Pepper”

It was 50 years ago that the Beatles’ groundbreaking album, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, was released. To mark the occasion, American pubcaster PBS will be airing a documentary from director Francis ...
June 2, 2017

It was 50 years ago that the Beatles’ groundbreaking album, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, was released.

To mark the occasion, American pubcaster PBS will be airing a documentary from director Francis Hanly. Produced by Huge Films and Apple Corps Ltd., Sgt. Pepper’s Musical Revolution aims to provide an intimate look at the creation of the eighth studio album by the seminal English rock group.

Hosted by award-winning British composer and music historian Howard Goodall, the doc will feature rarely-seen archive footage and audio – including studio session recordings, as well as isolated instrumental and vocal tracks – while also exploring the back-story of the album’s major songs.

Sgt. Pepper’s Musical Revolution premieres Saturday, June 3 at 8 p.m. EST on PBS.

realscreen spoke with Hanly about the doc’s creation:

How did you decide on the concept for the doc?
Howard and I had made a film quite a while ago about John Lennon and Paul McCartney as songwriters. When the Sgt. Pepper anniversary came up, we thought that there’s been so much written about the Beatles as a cultural phenomenon, but not much about them just as musicians. Our feeling was that the only real reason why people are still talking about The Beatles after all this time, the reason they’re such a powerful force, is the music. It all starts with the music. Obviously once they became successful, then they became cultural icons and cultural leaders. But if the music hadn’t been any good it wouldn’t have taken off. So we wanted to look at the Pepper album purely from the point of view of music. There’s been tons of stuff on Pepper over the years, but very little about the music.

So it’s safe to say that you’re a fan?
Oh yeah, completely. It’s difficult to think about their best work, but Pepper did change all the rules. There aren’t that many works of art that can lay that claim.

The album has some pretty psychedelic components in it — how do you translate that into film?
You try and evoke that time through the artwork, through what people were wearing, what people painting. The actual album cover itself is a piece of psychedelic artwork, so we decided to take our cue from that. We used lots of cutouts feature heavily on the album cover. So it’s really just trying to sort of tap into what was going on in the time, visually and aurally.

What were some of the challenges you encountered?
I suppose the biggest challenge is that the music is so well known, how do you evoke the actual track? How do you sum it up? It’s really just trying to find a key visual clue for each of the tracks. So “Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds” would be “Alice in Wonderland”. “She’s Leaving Home” would be sort of gritty northern realism from the 1960s. “Day in the Life” would be swinging London psychedelia. So just trying to find a visual clue for each of the tracks that we could run with.

How do you make sure a special like this caters to the Beatles superfan as well as those who might not be as familiar with their music?
I think you’ve always making it for the non-fan. The fans know so much, it’ unlikely you’re going to tell them something that they don’t already know. But the thing about the Beatles is that everyone knows them on some level. They know that the music has an effect on them, but they don’t why. We wanted to say ‘This track has this effect on you because of these musical events or musical cues.’ If you think about a car, you know that there’s an engine, but you don’t know what makes that engine work. This was an attempt to sort of lift the hood and see what was going on musically underneath the bonnet.

From a technical perspective, how do you showcase that musical process today when the technology was so much more rudimentary while they were recording?
You have to remind people just how primitive recording techniques were compared to today and how revolutionary the Beatles were. You’ve got to remind people just what things were like 50 years ago, and it’s very difficult because things have changed so much and so rapidly. Especially for the younger generation, to think about a pre-digital era is very difficult. You have to remind people that things were incredibly primitive, and that the Beatles changed the rules by constantly questioning everything around them. They always tried to move beyond the horizon.

For the doc, you were given access to material that was never before available outside of Abbey Road Studios. What was the process behind that?
During the recording of Pepper, there were a lot of outtakes that were discarded at the time. So basically you hear the band members discussing the track, you hear them shaping the track, and you really feel like you’re in the room. It’s very intimate, to hear their voices talking and all the different elements they used to strip the tracks apart and put them back together. So really it was a question of just listening to lots and lots of studio outtakes and then selecting the ones we thought were the most interesting and the most revealing to showcase what the creative process was.

Was that tricky to do? Does Abbey Road Studios have this material locked away?
Yes, you’re not allowed to remove it from the building. You have to go in the building and you have to listen to it there. You can’t take away a digital copy. You basically listen to it with someone else in the room. It’s like a great work of art, they’re not going to let you borrow it for the weekend.

Did you have any reservations or concerns when it came to our working on this project, given what the band means for so many people?
To be honest, no. It’s such a pleasure. It’s such an honor. If you had any reservations, then don’t do it. I grew up listening to them and I never ever thought I’d be in a position where I’d be right in the inner sanctum of the Beatles’ creative life.



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