Henry Winkler was walking down Lexington Avenue with his wife when he suddenly spotted Paul McCartney walking towards him. Excited at the prospect of meeting the famous Beatle, Winkler approached McCartney, greeted him and started to introduce himself when McCartney said, “Oh, it’s the Fonz! I’ve always wanted to meet you.”
That’s just one of the stories that a laundry list of celebrities – and some people you’ve never heard of – tell about one or all of the Beatles in “Beatles Stories,” directed by Great Neck native Seth Swirsky.
“It wasn’t just famous people. It was all these other people. I just mixed and matched,” Swirsky said.
The offbeat Beatles documentary – Swirsky calls it the first Beatles documentary from the fans’ perspective – is a prime entry in the Gold Coast Film Festival, which will present 45 domestic and foreign feature films and 20 short films at five North Shore film venues including Great Neck on June 1 to June 5
The idea for the film occurred to Swirsky, an accomplished professional songwriter and musician, when he was playing a week-long gig several years ago at The Cavern, the legendary Liverpool club where the Beatles played before they were known outside of that city.
A life-long Beatles fan, Swirsky quickly discovered that there actually a few things he didn’t know about them.
“I thought I knew everything there was to know about the Beatles. Then I heard Liverpuddlians who told these offbeat stories,” he recalled.
He started taping those stories, and then found people with lots of other stories – 110 to be exact – whittled that list to 52 and strung less than two minutes of each one together. The result is “Beatles Stories.”
“I didn’t do anything special. I just have passion for what I do,” Swirsky said.
There’s also a counter-intuitive instinct at work here. The list of people Swirsky interviewed includes likely suspects such as Norman Smith, who was the sound engineer for the Beatles’ earliest recording sessions and Brian Wilson, boy genius of the Beachboys, and some very unlikely ones, including former New York Giants star and broadcaster Frank Gifford, and Indianapolis Colts owner James Irsay. (Irsay owns the Gibson SG guitar George Harrison played on the Beatles’ recording of the “Revolver” album.
The appeal of the documentary is in the kind of story that’s told.
Wilson recalls the experience of hearing McCartney sing and play the poignant ballad “She’s Leaving Home” before the Beatles recorded it.
Art Garfunkel relates an encounter with John Lennon after the Fab Four broke up when Lennon told him he wanted to get back together with Paul and asked him, “How did you get back together with your Paul?.” And we hear Garfunkel recount his advice to Lennon.
Swirsky’s quest for Beatles yarns gave him plenty of celebrity moments that became a focal point of the quest.
“For me it wasn’t just getting the Beatles stories, it was meeting all these people I always wanted to meet,” the 51-year-old filmmaker said.
One of his favorite episodes was an interview with actor Ben Kingsley. Beatles manager Brian Epstein asked Kingsley to write tunes for a film he was producing when the actor was aiming at a music career in his younger days, and Kingsley recounts meeting the Beatles.
And there were the surprising revelations, like Fred Seaman, John Lennon’s personal assistant, relating that the Lennon he knew was an arch-conservative who hated Jimmy Carter and probably would have voted for Ronald Reagan if he’d been living in the U.S. in the 1980s. That Lennon, Seaman told Swirsky, would have hated “Imagine,” Lennon’s latter day utopian anthem.
“I went for content, things that told us a little more about them,” Swirsky said.
Swirsky’s documentary had its world premiere in Paris in early April at the European Indie Film Festival, considered to be the Sundance festival of Europe. It has also been screened at festivals in Santa Fe, Las Vegas, Ojai, and Newport Beach.
But Swirsky is particularly excited about his film being the featured entry on Saturday night at Gold Coast in a Great Neck theater that is familiar turf.
“It’s at the Squire Theater in Great Neck, where I went to movies when I grew up,” Swirsky said. “It’s so cool.”
The filmmaker credits his teachers in the Great Neck schools with giving him the chance to express himself creatively.
“I just happened to have some fantastic teachers who saw the creativity in me and let me fly,” Swirsky recalled.
One of those teachers, Marion Greif, Swirsky’s sixth grade teacher at the Lakeville School, will be attending the New York debut of her former student’s screen gem.
“She’s a photographer herself, and she saw my creativity. She really opened up my eyes to the world,” Swirsky said.
Greif encouraged him to write in journals, and also encouraged him to bring his guitar to class. The guitar was a childhood fixation for Swirsky, who seems to have been destined to become the huge Beatles fan that he became.
“I was begging for a guitar in 1964,” he recalled. “I was desperate for a guitar. I wanted to be a Beatle.”
After being graduated from Great Neck North High School and Dartmouth College, Swirsky, who’d been writing jingles and a musical during his college years, became staff songwriter with Chappell Music (now, Warner-Chappell).
His best-known songs include the Grammy-nominated, “Tell It To My Heart” and “Prove Your Love” recorded by Taylor Dayne, “Love is a Beautiful Thing,” recorded by Al Green, “Instant Pleasure” (Rufus Wainwright} and “Did You Give Enough Love” sung by Celine Dion.
Swirsky’s recorded a solo CD, “Instant Pleasure,” which won the L.A. Music Award for Best Pop Album of the year. In 2007, he released a second album “She’s About To Cross My Mind.”
Swirsky’s also a writer. His three books of handwritten letters Swirsky received from, mostly, retired major league baseball players in response to his questions about their careers and lives suggests the same offbeat theme of “Beatles Stories.” His third book, “Something to Write Home About,” features letters from famous fans, including Tim Russert, President George W. Bush – and Paul McCartney.
“The Last Giant,” Swirsky’s first documentary, a 17-minute film of on-camera reminiscences of 1930s major league baseball All-Star Harry “The Horse” Danning, was a 2007 Finalist at both the Washington, D.C. International Film Festival and the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum’s second annual film festival.
And Swirsky has his own Beatles story – one that isn’t in the movie.
He saw McCartney on a treadmill at the Los Angeles gym Swirsky belongs to, and started keeping pace with Sir Paul on a neighboring treadmill. He politely introduced himself to the former Beatle, told him about the film and related his encounter with Norman Smith.
“Norman Smith, you interviewed Norman Smith. We loved him” he recalled McCartney saying, apparently transported by the memory. Finally, Swirsky said, McCartney reached out and took Swirsky’s hands and said, “I want to tell you something. You gave me a great gift today.”
“It’s one of those times when one of your idols lives up to your expectations on every level,” Swirsky said, sounding like a guy who would make a movie like “Beatles Stories.”