Category Archives: Film

Brian Epstein and the Beatles: All he needed was love

How Brian Epstein’s passion for the Beatles
shaped world history.

 

 

epstein copy
Brian Epstein

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.

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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.

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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.


Tripping over Tricia: The Cockettes on film

San Francisco filmmakers David Weissman and Bill Weber restore the long-lost Cockettes film  Tricia’s Wedding.   

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A scene from ‘Tricia’s Wedding’.

Preserving cultural trivia is no easy task. Much of the fluff of life disappears without a whimper, gone before anyone notices. By the time anyone realizes a thing’s importance, it may be too late to salvage. Fortunately, the world has documentary film makers such as David Weissman and Bill Weber, two San Franciscans feverishly dedicated to preserving the legacy The Cockettes, one of the more outrageous queer hippie performance collectives of the 1970s.

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A scene from ‘Tricia’s Wedding’.

In the course of assembling their documentary, Weissman and Weber salvaged a precious piece of trivia, a campy film produced by The Cockettes, called Tricia’s Wedding, long lost and mostly forgotten, but now restored, thanks to their efforts. Scenes from that film will show up in their documentary when they complete it (in roughly a year). Meanwhile, the story of Tricia’s Wedding and its restoration deserves telling, because it says a lot about how queer culture has evolved, and what it takes to ensure that a colorful part of the past remains accessible to us at present.

Tricia_Nixon_Wedding
Wedding day 1971: Pat Nixon, President Richard Nixon, Tricia Nixon and Edward Finch Cox.

It was 1971, and Tricia Nixon, the President’s daughter, was about to wed beneath the klieg lights of the national press corps. Meanwhile, back in San Francisco, a gaggle of wild drag performers calling themselves The Cockettes decided they wanted to celebrate the joyous occasion in their inimitable way. The manager of the flock, a fellow named Sebastian, proposed they film their own version of the wedding. They would screen it on wedding night at the Palace Theater in North Beach, where they had been holding regular Friday night “Nocturnal Dream Shows,” at which gender-bent hippies gathered to take acid, watch offbeat movies, display their feathered finery, and camp it up until dawn.

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A scene from ‘Tricia’s Wedding’.

“It took two days to make the movie,” says Weissman, who works out of an office in the South of Market space occupied by Frameline, the organization dedicated to promoting queer cinema. “It was made at a place called Secret Cinema on 16th Street. This was Steven Arnold’s warehouse. They put together the sets overnight, and filmed the sort-of-sober parts on Saturday, with the understanding from Sebastian that Sunday was the day they would all go completely berserk and have the post-LSD reception. There was a certain amount of consumption of substances during filming.”

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Reggie spikes the punch in a scene
from ‘Tricia’s Wedding’.

As Weissman describes it, the film Tricia’s Wedding is “basically is a psychedelic drag parody.” Among its huge cast of characters – all portrayed by wacky transvestites – were many of the notable political and cultural figures of the time: Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir; Lady Bird Johnson; Vice President Spiro Agnew; India’s Indira Gandhi; Martha Mitchell, the wife of Nixon’s attorney general; and Mamie Eisenhower, the former president’s wife. The recently widowed Coretta Scott King was portrayed by Sylvester, whose rise to fame as a disco diva was just beginning. A Cockette named Reggie played the key role of Eartha Kitt, who spikes the wedding punch with LSD in revenge for having been blackballed from the White House, the result of criticizing the Vietnam War during an intimate performance for Lady Bird Johnson, which had caused Lady Bird to cry.

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A scene from ‘Tricia’s Wedding’.

“It wound up being a huge, wild orgy at the end of the show,” says Weissman, describing the film’s wedding-reception scene. “Wigs and clothes come off and people flip out and have a lot of fun. Mamie Eisenhower, who was the mother of our country, has a wonderful drunken performance.” And Tricia Nixon herself was played by “the eternally hideous Goldie Glitters.” That she was marrying a man named Cox was ripe for Cockettes parody.

Weissman recalls first viewing the half-hour-long Tricia’s Wedding when he was about 20 years old, a few years after it was made: “I don’t know exactly when I saw it, but it changed my life. It really brought home to me the subversive power of comedy and particularly of drag. It was a really entertaining assault on all the norms of bourgeois American culture. It was just one of the funniest things I’d ever seen.”

For years, Weissman has wanted Tricia’s Wedding to be shown publicly by Frameline or some other group, “because I knew it was a piece of gay history.” Yet one big stumbling block prevented this: the only print anyone in existence was in the hands of Sebastian, and it was in very bad condition.

“Every time it would play,” says Weissman, “it would catch at a particular point and burn in the projector, and everyone in the audience would scream and yell.”

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A scene from ‘Tricia’s Wedding’.

Weissman knew that Sebastian, who now lives in Los Angeles, had made a video copy of it, but it was made from the one bad print, so he worried Tricia’s Wedding would be lost once this print finally shredded. But making a fresh print proved highly problematical since neither Sebastian nor Mark Lester, the film’s producer, had any idea what happened to the original materials. They assumed everything had been lost.

Undeterred, Weissman looked up the film’s cinematographer, Paul Aratow, figuring he might know which laboratory the film was done in. Through an Internet search, he found Aratow in Los Angeles, and asked him “Did you shoot Tricia’s Wedding? He laughed and said: ‘Oh my god, I haven’t thought of that in 25 years!'”

Aratow said he thought the film had been processed at a lab on Columbus Street, Monaco, which still exists. Weissman called there and asked: “What are the chances of finding a piece of film from 29 years ago in your vaults?”

The person he spoke with knew the film, but said it had been processed at Palmer’s, which had long since closed down. The inventory from Palmer’s, he later learned, had been picked up by Pacific Film Archive in Berkeley, and by an archive in New York City.

It was at the latter that Tricia’s Wedding turned up.

“They had no idea what it was,” says Weissman. “They had the original sound track, and the original negatives.”

Once Sebastian authorized the release of the materials to Weissman and Weber, the two were quick to turn it around: “We just now completed making a brand new, absolutely perfect print and preservation negative of Tricia’s Wedding to save for posterity,” says Weissman.

And in this way, yet another chapter of queer history gets beefed up.

For information about Tricia’s Wedding and the making of The Cockettes documentary, contact David Weissman at GranDelusion Production, 346 Ninth St., San Francisco, CA 94103. Phone (415) 703-8661.

 

This article originally appeared in print in the Bay Area Reporter.