By Phil Hall | June 1, 2012

BOOTLEG FILES 430: “Beatlemania” (1981 film version of the Broadway show).

LAST SEEN: The film is on YouTube in an unauthorized posting.

AMERICAN HOME VIDEO: A VHS release in 1984.

REASON FOR BOOTLEG STATUS: A film that was at the center of a thorny lawsuit.


Thirty-five years ago this week, the show “Beatlemania” opened on Broadway. This production ushered in the genre of the “jukebox musical,” in which a skein of old pop tunes were strung together as the score of a new theatrical presentation. In this case, the Lennon-McCartney hit songs were dusted off and laced into a revue-style production that featured four actors playing the celebrated Liverpool singers.

“Beatlemania” quickly became one of the hottest tickets on Broadway and the show ran for two years. I was fortunate enough to see the show shortly after it opened – I was only 12 years old and my older sister won free tickets from a radio promotional contest – and I can recall the show as being a little tacky but very entertaining. Granted, the cast did not look very much like the Beatles and they only occasionally managed to duplicate the band’s distinctive sound. But in 1977, when rumors kept popping up about a possible Beatles reunion, this was the closest that Beatles fans would get to see their idols on stage together.  After the show’s Broadway run ended in 1979, its producers set forth a series of profitable touring companies across the U.S. and into other countries.

In 1980, plans were made to create a film version of “Beatlemania.” In retrospect, that was not a very good idea.

For starters, the cinematic version was little more than a filmed record of the stage show. Unfortunately, the camera magnified all of the stage show’s problems. For starters, anyone sitting in the rear balcony of a Broadway theater would not be too perturbed over the lack of physical resemblance between the cast and their musical inspiration – after the initial “uh oh” moment regarding appearance, it was easy to put the problem aside and relax with the production. But in the film version, the constant close-ups of the cast made it impossible to avoid the utter lack of resemblance – and things literally became hairy in the second part of the show, when an assortment of ill-fitting wigs and phony mustaches and beards were used to recall the Beatles during their more hirsute period.

Even worse, the cast that was assembled for the film edition – David Leon as John, Mitch Weissman as Paul (playing right-handed guitar!), Tom Teeley as George and Ralph Castelli as Ringo – failed to achieve a sound that was anything even vaguely similar to the Beatles’ output. As cover bands go, the “Beatlemania” crew were among the most inept – the undercooked rendition of “Revolution” is a masterwork of unintentional comedy – and their shortcomings made a mockery of the film’s opening reminder that the performers were “not former members of the musical group known as the Beatles.”

But even if the cast looked and sounded like the Beatles, “Beatlemania” strangely presented the Fab Four classics out of chronological order. “Michelle” follows a suite of “Sgt Pepper” songs, which is then followed by “Get Back,” which is then followed by “Fool on the Hill.” This was actually a mistake from the Broadway show – why this happened and why it was never corrected is unclear.

Even worse, the songs were shown amid a visual kaleidoscope of irrelevant film clips (“Help!” has a cigar smoking orchestra conductor getting hit with a pie, “Get Back” shows two lumpy wrestlers in grappling action, “Penny Lane” has a collage of body parts in a split-screen effect) and news photographs from the era (“Eleanor Rigby” shows the American military might heading to Vietnam, “Hey Jude” has a U.S. flag burning in an anti-war protest). Every now and then, news ticker headlines flash across the screen – often with less than memorable announcements. My favorite headline: “Brigitte Bardot Turns 30.”

“Beatlemania” might have worked if there was a genuine creative artist behind the camera to reconfigure the show for the cinematic medium. Unfortunately, the directing assignment was given to Joseph Manduke, an accomplished producer (“Alice’s Restaurant,” “A New Leaf”) whose work as a director was mostly limited to TV episodes and the barely-remembered 1975 black-oriented feature “Cornbread, Earl and Me.”  But Manduke had no concert film experience, and it shows.

“Beatlemania” was also co-produced by Ely and Edie Landau, the creative forces behind the their ill-fated American Film Theatre series. Obviously, they did not learn from their previous mistakes about filmed versions of stage shows.

“Beatlemania” opened in cinemas in August 1981, when the cultural scars of the December 1980 murder of John Lennon were still fresh. (The film never acknowledges Lennon’s then-recent death.) The major critics were uncommonly cruel to the film. Janet Maslin of the New York Times stated that “Beatlemania” was a “horror on the stage, and it’s even more of a horror at close range, where the seams really show. This isn’t a loving impersonation, or even an honest one. It’s cheap, disingenuous and loathsome.” Jonathan Rosenbaum of the Chicago Reader was even more vicious, claiming that his “idea of hell is being forced at gunpoint to resee this 1981 atrocity.”

American Cinema Releasing, a tiny distributor that specialized in low-budget Chuck Norris action flicks, dumped the film in theaters for a brief release; the company went out of business shortly afterwards. “Beatlemania” turned up in 1984 on VHS video as part of the USA Home Video label; it was also released on laserdisc in Japan.

Oh, in case you are wondering what the surviving Beatles thought of “Beatlemania,” it seems that they were not fans of the production. Actually, that is an understatement – in June 1986, a Los Angeles Superior Court judge ordered the creative entities behind the stage and screen versions of “Beatlemania” to pay Apple Corps. Ltd. $10 million for the commercial exploitation of the Beatles’ popularity. Apple, which represented the band’s business interests, alleged that the stage and film producers virtually hijacked the Beatles’ trademarks, goodwill and fame and made a dishonest profit by offering an inferior imitation of the celebrated band.

Today, it appears that some sort of truce has been achieved by the one-time courtroom adversaries, because “Beatlemania” is still being performed as a stage show – although the production’s website clearly notes that the endeavor is “not endorsed by or affiliated with Apple Corps Limited.” However, the lawsuit seems to have put the film permanently out of circulation. The possibility of a commercial DVD release seems impossible, which is probably for the best. Unfortunately, die-hard Beatles completists are keeping the title alive via bootleg DVD sales, and the full film can be found on YouTube.

But, honestly, why accept third-rate phonies when there are genuine Beatles films and video footage to be enjoyed? In the case of this wretched film, take a tip from Mother Mary’s words of wisdom and let it be.

IMPORTANT NOTICE: The unauthorized duplication and distribution of copyright-protected material, either for crass commercial purposes or profit-free s***s and giggles, is not something that the entertainment industry appreciates. On occasion, law enforcement personnel boost their arrest quotas by collaring cheery cinephiles engaged in such activities. So if you are going to copy and distribute bootleg material, a word to the wise: don’t get caught. Oddly, the purchase and ownership of bootleg DVDs is perfectly legal. Go figure!

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