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Two decades and four Beatles ago ...

By Arthur Unger / February 17, 1984

A modified form of Beatlemania is upon us again. The current wave of Beatles nostalgia - from Beatles anniversary segments on TV news shows to a radio station converting to Beatles-only programming - is based on the fact that this is the 20th anniversary of their first live appearance in America. Riding the crest of this wave is the theatrical release of ''The Compleat Beatles.'' Originally made for home video cassettes, this film is the first of its kind to get general movie-theater bookings.

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In either form, ''The Compleat Beatles'' is an incisive portrait of a phenomenon of the 1960s. As narrator Malcolm McDowell points out, ''The 1970s and beyond were only to feel their influence.''

''The Compleat Beatles'' is not merely a fan-film. It is a serious study of the formation of a rock group, the influences of family and environment as well as their musical roots. Director Montgomery delves into the social differences between the middle-class skiffle-addicts of London and the lower-class fans of Liverpool who got their inspiration from rhythm-and-blues records brought back from American gulf ports by Liverpool merchant mariners.

The film takes the Beatles from their home base in Liverpool to Hamburg, where they honed their craft, and then back home to such clubs as the Cavern, where the filmmakers managed to dig up early footage of the group actually performing before they became famous. Family snapshots of all the Beatles, along with interviews with those who knew them ''when,'' give the otherwise slickly professional film a homey touch. One learns not only the origins of the individuals in the group, but one gets to know the origins of their music as well. While there is an obvious effort to minimize the scandals (the Beatles's involvement with police, drugs, and transcendental meditation; John's relationship with Yoko; Brian Epstein's role; the divorces; etc.), the film cannot totally ignore such events. But it keeps them in proper perspective.

Aside from the marvelous snippets of Beatles music (director Montgomery told me that he made stereo copies of the music from Captitol Records masters), there is superb footage from record promos which have not been seen since the 1960s. If there are errors - and there is a bit of manipulation of dates and events for dramatic purposes - they are excusable.

Perhaps the most informative and revealing segments of the film are the interviews with musical director/producer George Martin, the man responsible for much of what we know today as ''the Beatles sound.'' In the beginning, the musically-untrained Beatles had to hum their tunes to him for transcribing. With utter restraint and modesty, he nevertheless reveals much about his own influence on Beatle music.

George Martin is also an accurate interpreter of the impact which the Beatles have had on our society. ''The great thing about the Beatles,'' he says, ''is that they were of their time. Their timing was right. They didn't choose it; somebody chose it for them. But it was right and they left their mark in history because of it. I think they expressed the mood of the people of their own generation.''