How Brian Epstein’s passion for the Beatles
shaped world history.
No figure in rock ‘n’ roll history did more to trailblaze the road for future band managers – defining the path to success for all great bands – than Brian Epstein, who managed the Beatles, boldly shaping their ascent from Liverpool obscurity to global superstardom. Elvis may have had Colonel Parker, but compared to Epstein, Parker was a mere carnival barker. In marketing the Fab Four to the world and setting countless precedents in doing so, Epstein set in motion cultural forces that irrevocably changed not just the music industry, but global society. What motivated him therefore becomes a question of significance not just to Beatles fans, but to those who want to understand Western Civilization in the late 20th century.
Epstein had the bad luck to be gay in Britain at a time when that country’s criminal penalties for homosexuality were particularly harsh. The fact of Epstein’s gayness, however closeted he may have been out of necessity (his homosexuality was well known to and accepted by those close to him, just not talked about publicly), figures hugely not just in his own life, but in the Beatles’ vast legacy. Though Epstein hardly conjures up the image of a conquering warrior, his gayness turns out to be as significant in the course of human events as that of Alexander the Great. The decisions Epstein made in orchestrating the Beatles’ meteoric rise were both revolutionary and hugely informed by his being gay.
Though Epstein hardly conjures up the image of a conquering warrior, his gayness turns out to be as significant in the course of human events as that of Alexander the Great.
Whether these statements accurately reflect the historical record, or exaggerate for the sake of erecting yet another icon in the pantheon of manmade deities, they are impressions inescapably drawn from viewing Arena: The Brian Epstein Story, a documentary film by British television and film producer and director Anthony Wall, to be screened at this year’s San Francisco Lesbian and Gay Film Festival.
“He was one of the great original tragic stories of the new rock era,” Wall told the Bay Area Reporter during a recent visit to San Francisco, “a kind of person that changed the world. He died in 1967, four years after he was running a record shop in Liverpool, absolutely unknown to the world. Then he managed to become one of the most famous people on earth.”
Brian and ‘the boys’
Wall’s documentary, produced in cooperation with Paul McCartney and many others close to Epstein, benefits enormously from having first-hand access to archival footage of Epstein and his “boys,” as he was forever calling the Beatles. We get to see intimate views of John, Paul, George and Ringo, often together with Epstein, learn about their party habits, meet their friends and colleagues of yore, hear them as they rehearse and perform, and relate to them on a profoundly human level, rather than at the level of untouchable superstars.
The striking thing in the film is the contrast starkly revealed between the rough-and-ready boys, with their working-class accents and manners, and the refined, impeccably tailored, elegant Epstein, whose personal style masked his attraction to “rough trade,” as made clear from interviews with those close to him. Though Wall steers away from delving into the details of Epstein’s love life, he in no way shies from conveying the nature of Epstein’s desires. The film revels in telling the story of Epstein’s gayness, in many ways emphasizing that being gay determined the course of his life. In particular, especially in a contemporary interview with an affable and articulate Paul McCartney, it seems clear that the question of whether Epstein’s well-known love for John Lennon remained unrequited or not becomes central to almost everything else in assessing the man’s life and tragic death.
Did he or did he not have a one-time fling with Lennon in the south of Spain, just a week after Julian Lennon was born? Did he or did he not commit suicide over the hopelessness of his love, or was his death accidental, as officially ruled?
“The trouble is, the only two people who really know are dead,” says Wall, who nimbly raises the issues in the film, delicately balancing points of view and, perhaps, softening the edges of the controversy. Moreover, he adds, “Lennon would certainly not have been above saying one thing to this person and another thing to that person.”
The film’s US producer, Debbie Geller, joins with Wall in explaining that “one of the evergreen and reductionist views of the Beatles and Brian Epstein was that Epstein was in love with John Lennon, and that was really his only interest in the group, and that had he not had that hangdog, unrequited love – which only came true in that one little instance in Barcelona – then the Beatles never would have happened.” This view, she insists, does “a real disservice to Brian Epstein.”
Lennon the tease
Geller does feel that Lennon most likely teased Epstein about being gay, maybe even manipulated his attraction “as a way of maintaining power over him.” From the outset, Epstein’s gayness was known to the Beatles and completely accepted. But a bit of perversity in the relationship seemed inevitable.
“Brian liked a bit of punishment,” says Wall. “So Lennon – that was his stock in trade, dishing out, taking people to the end of their tether, seeing how far he could push them. And they were all very amusing, witty, but Lennon had that sort of ambitiousness about it, seeing what he could do next.”
In the film, McCartney addresses the question of whether Epstein and Lennon ever had sex, and considers the possibility unlikely but not impossible. Even if something did happen between them, though, he believes the matter relatively insignificant.
McCartney’s obvious eagerness to address the question on screen is remarkable. Geller explains that during the interview, McCartney said: “Are you going to ask about his being gay? No one ever asks me about that.” Considering the extent to which the Beatles’ lives and careers have been put under a microscope, this omission in the record seems astounding, but it helps explain McCartney’s readiness to take part in the film project. Says Wall: “He didn’t need any persuasion, because he himself had come to this point where he thought it was time to tell the story. He was quite clear that he wanted to do it because it was time the record was set straight, and that Epstein had been largely forgotten and hadn’t been given his due.”
The portrait of Epstein that emerges is one of a fantastically ambitious, driven, fastidious and brilliantly passionate man, handsome yet woefully unlucky in love, who repeatedly put himself in harm’s way because of his secret desires.
Apart from his obvious (and necessarily platonic) love for his “boys,” Epstein was never able to establish a lasting love relationship. One California lad, Diz Gillespie, whom some characterize as a hustler, for a time seemed to be working out for Epstein. But the relationship turned sour.
“Everybody’s down on Diz,” says Wall. “But Epstein seemed to find some kind of consolation in Diz, although Diz fucked him around knowingly.”
And thus was gay life in Britain, even for the man who helped move his once bombed-out, burned-out country back into modernity and renewed prestige on the world stage.
The Brian Epstein Story screened at the Castro Theatre on Monday, June 19, 2000 at 12:30 p.m.