The Real Fifth Beatle

Graphic novel tells graphic tale of drugs, homosexuality in the Swinging Sixties and Brit Brian Epstein, the man behind the band.

02/14/2014
Jewish Week Online Columnist
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The Fifth Beatle: The Brian Epstein Story chronicles in surrealist, comic-book-style fashion the rise and fall of one of the most successful music managers of all time. It is the untold tale of Brian Epstein, the Beatles’ Jewish, homosexual manager, who guided the group during their atmospheric rise to fame and whose vision changed the world. “If anyone was the fifth Beatle, it was Brian,” Paul McCartney famously stated in a 1999 BBC interview.

This is his story; or at least, the creator’s take on it. With such rich subject matter, it’s a wonder a high profile work hasn’t been attempted before. It’s a graphic novel, or a story told with comics (the way Art Spiegelman’s “Maus” was). Clearly a labor of love, it brings together the unlikely team of Vivek Tiwary, a twenty-five-time Tony-award-winning Broadway producer; Kyle Baker, an Eisner and Harvey Award-winning artist and Andrew C. Robinson, an impressive artistic talent.

The man behind the Beatles was gay when being so was a felony in the United Kingdom, Jewish in an anti-Semitic place and time, and from Liverpool – not exactly the center of opportunity.  The Beatles, or “The Boys” as Brian refers to them, are supporting cast members.

Still, that The Fifth Beatle has debuted so strongly on the New York Times bestseller list isn’t surprising. The focus on Epstein’s homosexuality and drug abuse is catnip in the current American political climate. It is hard not to see art responding to life in these sections, given the recent American movement toward a leaner drug policy and more widespread homosexual acceptance. Plus, anything with The Beatles attached is sure to sell and bring in the reviews.

But The Fifth Beatle is not a history book. It isn’t a detailed account of the fame and fortune of The Beatles. Major historical Beatles events get placed on the back burner. The novel pays lip service to the release of albums and the Beatles’ American tour, but the scenes are shown in quick montage. While integral to the band’s legend, these events don’t seem as important to the manager, and are therefore glanced over.

Because of this, I imagine many readers will feel a sense of vertigo trying to keep up with the tale. It’s a fast paced, drug-induced soliloquy of what it might’ve been like to be alive and gay in the British sixties. Things get trippy, especially toward the end, with saturated colors, understated scene dressing and a focus on faces. This is fitting. It’s the sixties, after all, and the main character is a drug addict who died at age 32.

The work could’ve benefited from more nuance. At best, the character is a reminder of history our current progressive nation would rather sweep under the rug, as this very British record store manager took over the world and embodied so wonderfully the American dream; at worst, he is a caricature.

The pace is so fast one doesn’t get a great understanding of Brian Epstein the man in all his complexity. Never did I feel the character lived up to what he espoused — that he would make an unknown rock group from Liverpool bigger than Elvis. Brian is shown hitting the streets, using his family recording industry connections to try to secure record deals – with little luck. His constant claims that The Beatles would one day become bigger than Elvis feel unfounded in the context of the story. Granted, they were likely unfounded when the real Brian Epstein made those claims in 1961, but we’re given very little in the actual novel to suggest that he was capable of creating super stars. It’s a bit jarring to go from the virtual unknown pop group playing in the Cavern, a seedy bar, to a sensation over the course of a few pages. More time could’ve been spent showing Brian’s difficulties successfully creating this pop phenomenon. I hope the film version, due to begin production in 2014, will delve a bit deeper.
 
The result is an uneven work that boasts gorgeous art and several clever panel layouts, but ultimately comes up short. I doubt its weaknesses will stop the interested from purchasing the novel (nor should it). Unlike novels, graphic novels are a collaborative medium and the artwork alone is enough to recommend this book. But while the art resonates as strongly as the best guitar solo, the entire band isn’t singing.

editor@jewishweek.org


 

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