ABC's 'Beatles Anthology' Delivers Poignant Account

BEATLEMANIA enters a new phase as fans of the Fab Four eagerly await ''The Beatles Anthology.'' ABC, which is airing the three-day, six-hour special, has augmented the hype by temporarily changing its name to ''ABeatleC'' and threading Beatle allusions into its regular programming.

Fans, be assured: ''The Beatles Anthology,'' a work nearly 25 years in the making, is well worth the wait. Beatle experts will revel in a bonanza of never-seen-before home movies and Beatle interviews. Those less familiar with the lads who began the ''British Invasion'' will discover a wealth of information and a captivating assemblage of songs.

''The Beatles Anthology'' recounts chronologically the Beatles story - from the births of the band members in the early '40s to their breakup in 1970. In addition to a variety of stellar footage, the TV special features current interviews with George Harrison, Paul McCartney, and Ringo Starr. The late John Lennon is represented by archived audio and videotape that was provided by his estate.

Only two others are included in current interviews: Neil Aspinall, executive producer of ''The Beatles Anthology,'' and George Martin, Beatles recording manager. The program is thus shaped by what the Beatles have to say - not by what other performers, music-industry experts, social commentators, or friends might think.

From this vantage point, the program is decidedly intimate and poignant. Yet it also points up how fragile history-recording is: The Beatles each present slightly different versions of how things happened - and in some instances can't recall certain details.

In this sense, ''The Beatles Anthology'' is not the ''definitive chronicle'' it is billed to be; no overriding voice draws conclusions from the information presented. Viewers, for example, who expect to discover the origin of the Beatles name will instead receive several answers (from a motorcycle gang called ''The Beetles'' in the film ''The Wild One''; from a dream John Lennon reportedly had in which a man appeared on a flaming pie saying, ''You will be Beatles with an 'a' ''; and from the name of Buddy Holly's band, the Crickets).

Mirroring their phenomenal break onto the global scene, Part 1 of ''The Beatles Anthology'' is a whirlwind of innovation. This segment of the program rarely settles too long on one piece of footage; rather, photos, early recordings, and film are creatively spliced together at a brisk pace. Often, the present-day Beatles are only heard, and not seen, as images flow across the screen - which can be confusing to those unfamiliar with the musicians' voices.

For those interested in catching a glimpse of the show, Part 1 is a must-see: The program conveys the euphoria of the Beatles' early years with clips from their fan-mobbed landing at New York's John F. Kennedy International Airport and their performance on ''The Ed Sullivan Show.'' It also premieres the new Beatles song ''Free as a Bird.''

Parts 2 and 3 switch the pace slightly, as the program reverts to a more conventional format of longer segments accompanied either before or after by commentaries by the Beatles. Full-length (or close to full-length) performances of several songs, including ''Yesterday,'' ''Twist and Shout,'' ''Hey Jude,'' and ''Let It Be'' emphasize the songwriting genius and musical development of the group. Part 2 includes another new Beatles song, ''Real Love.''

One of the most bittersweet scenes is early in Part 3, when Harrison, McCartney, and Starr come together for an interview for the special.

As they relax on a lawn outside, jabbering back and forth about their songwriting in India, Harrison sings a tune with his ukulele that he composed there - ''Deradoon'' - which he had never performed or recorded. The three look like old friends reunited - but Lennon's absence is unmistakably felt.

The group talks frankly about its breakup, although the program's chronology stops just short of McCartney's announced departure and the immediate reaction from fans and the media. The program also refrains from examining the Beatles' influence through the past 25 years, which would have been an interesting component in the present-day interviews.

''When it came down to it, really,'' Harrison says near the end of the program, ''the only thing we could do was write songs and make records and be Beatles - successfully.'' Considering the thriving Beatlemania movement still afoot today, so ''let it be.''

* ''The Beatles Anthology'' airs on ABC Sunday, Nov. 19; Wednesday, Nov. 22; and Thursday, Nov. 23, from 9 to 11 p.m. each evening.

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