Love them or hate them, 40 years after they went their separate ways -- the Smart One, the Cute One, the Quiet One and Ringo -- the Beatles will not be denied. With the remastering and long-awaited digital release of their pop-encyclopedic back catalog, and the video game The Beatles: Rock Band reuniting the living members with the dead as animated computer puppets, they dominated the news in 2009 and made a lot of money.
My 6-year-old neighbor performs "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band" with choreography, Robert Zemeckis is planning a 3-D motion-capture remake of "Yellow Submarine," and as I write these words, "Let It Be" is coincidentally streaming onto my computer from a French radio station. They are intercontinental. They are colossal. They are permanently current.
And according to Leslie Woodhead's funny and touching “How the Beatles Rocked the Kremlin,” airing tonight on KCET -- in a rock block with “Paul McCartney in Red Square,” a 2003 concert film -- they helped bring down the Soviet Union with their sexy big beat, their cultural iconoclasm and their long-haired air of self-determination. It is a thesis based entirely in anecdote and one you will likely not see elaborated upon in the pages of Foreign Affairs, but as a tale of the power of pop it is more persuasive for its personal slant. This is an alternative history of Beatlemania, set in a land where the band never appeared and where their records were banned. If in the West the Beatles were the property of teenagers with disposable income, in the East they were the heroes of a state-created criminal underground.
"In the big, bad West they had whole institutions which spent tens of millions of dollars for undermining the Soviet system," Russian "rock commentator" Artemy Troitsky says here, "and I'm sure that the impact of all those stupid Cold War institutions has been much smaller than the impact of the Beatles." There is no way to prove this, of course, short of going back in time, preventing the band from forming, and running the whole experiment again. Perhaps this psychic liberation would have happened with some other group -- ABBA, the Ting Tings. Or not.
Woodhead, who famously filmed the pre-gear Fabs at Liverpool's Cavern Club, cruises the former Soviet republics, listening to old fans, some of whom have themselves become musicians, record producers and full-time Beatles experts. The story they tell is one of homemade electric guitars, pickups fashioned from stolen telephone receivers; of bootlegged Beatles albums cut in streetside recording booths on the celluloid from discarded hospital X-rays; of school uniforms with the collars scissored off; and of fabulous Beatles sightings, the most potent and widespread tale being that en route to Japan the group stopped somewhere in the Soviet Union to refuel and played an impromptu concert on the wing of their plane.
Eventually, though they had split by then, the Beatles triumphed in the U.S.S.R., as they always will everywhere. Their records were released, their songs became part of the common culture -- no longer dangerous but not stripped of their power. (The "Kremlin" soundtrack is made of local covers of Beatles tunes and of songs about the Beatles.) And finally, there was Paul McCartney in Red Square, the first Russian appearance of a Beatle who was not Ringo. (The drummer's 1998 concert is not even mentioned in Woodhead's film.) In the souvenir concert film that follows "Kremlin" tonight, the man even the Russians call Sir Paul leads his 21st century band of energetic whippersnappers through an impeccable bash at the hits. Still, the performance matters less than the moment, a delirious fusion of past and present, dreams and reality. "There were rivers and waterfalls of tears," says Troitsky, "something that sums up your whole life."