Last night my friends and I went to see a special screening of songwriter Seth Swinsky’s film Beatles Stories (2010). Filmed over a four year period, the movie features interview footage with all sorts of people – from co-workers and celebrity fellow travellers to confidantes and fans – who had real life, face to face encounters with John, Paul, George and Ringo. My expectation of the film was that it was going to explore the nature of fandom, but it weighed in more like the celluloid edition of a good rock biography: funny anecdotes and personal stories from those who knew and loved the band. Perhaps the biggest revelation came from Lennon’s house keeper Fred Seamen, who said that the acerbic singer expressed political allegiance with Ronald Regan. Seamen’s claim seems, to say the least, out of character given John Lennon’s life long political stance, but he argues that Lennon changed and mellowed as he settled down and went through the life cycle. Other anecdotes come from a wealth of musicians including Ray Manzerak of The Doors, who expressed his pleasant surprize when he saw the cover of the Rubber Soul album and concluded that the Beatles were stoners. Swinsky asks, “Did it mellow out your trip?” and Manzerak replied “no” with a strangely comical seriousness. Henry Winkler, meanwhile, remembered the day that The Fonz accidentally met Paul McCartney on a busy street.
Beyond all the Beatles stories, various insights into music fandom were there for the gleaning. For instance, George Harrison actually wrote and dedicated a song to his the clutch of loyal fans that followed him. He called it ‘Apple Scruffs’. Another story was told by a Harrison impersonator who recalled how George Martin came to see his musical, then brought his family backstage. His daughter then asked the replica-Beatle for his autograph (in character, I’m guessing)! The final story I will recount here concerns Susanna Hoffs, formerly of the 1980s pop group, The Bangles. In a section of the film called ‘The Gush of Love’ she recalled that when she met Ringo, all she could tell him – as he turned his back on her and walked away – was, repeatedly, that he was the greatest drummer in the world.
The term “gush of love” intrigues me here, as the notion of the “gushing fan” implies an kind of involuntary expression of redundant adoration: “I gushed.” While the totemic importance of the celebrity object can explain the strength and direction of the gush (“We are not worthy”), what is interesting is why it would involve so many apparently redundant statements. The gush implies that at the very moment when equality is possible (meeting Ringo in person at the party), Hoffs could help herself in assuming the role of his fan, almost as if his presence brought it out of her. We have to conclude that it must be beneficial to emphatically establish one’s identity as a fan-meeting-their-idol rather than two equals meeting up. Consequently, fan gushing is not a kind of subservience as many critics of fandom assume (squeeing, hysterical “gushing fandom”), but instead the embrace of a great opportunity. At that moment to say, “I’m your biggest fan” is to assert the pleasure in being a fan where it counts most – upon finally meeting one’s idol.
If Beatles Stories is a celebrity biography for the big screen, finally Swinsky cannot help but aceed to the band’s immense aura. Not only does he end the film with his own children bopping to the Fab Four; he also writes his own fandom into the story by explaining how the Liverpudian quartet inspired him to take up music, and how the process of making his film has enabled him to meet so many of his personal heroes. As the closing credits roll, many of the interviewees are shown giving their answers to questions like “What is your favourite Beatles song?” and “Who was your favourite Beatle?” The result is that all of the celebrities shown are portrayed as fans too. Although they may have mass popularity in their own right, the film seems to be saying that the collective charms of the Fab Four can reduce even the highest and mightiest to the role of admirers. It verifies the idea that maybe there is a Beatles fan in all of us.