LONDON -- With a Beatles anniversary as the key, a remarkable television documentary will soon be digging beneath simple nostalgia to unlock and explain a whole era.
The show called 'It Was Twenty Years Ago Today,' designed to be shown all over the world on or about June 1, marks the 20th anniversary of the eighth Beatles album, 'Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band.'
But Granada Television, maker of the two-hour documentary, also calls it 'a film celebrating 1967.'
'That year did take about 50 years to complete,' Beatle George Harrison says wryly in one of the program's penetrating interviews. 'The whole thing was like a mini-renaissance.'
'That summer there was a social, sexual and musical revolution and Sgt. Pepper was at the heart of it,' said director-producer John Sheppard at an early preview.
'It was the year of the hippie, of Peace, Flower Power and the Summer of Love. All over the world young people were experimenting with new ways of living and seeking to create a better future. Hope was in the air.'
Yet there is a peculiar memory vacuum about the events of 1967. Few people under 35 can remember it. Few over 50 can claim to understand it. Many of those who were actually involved have memories fogged by the era's soft drugs.
'If you can remember the '60s, you weren't really there,' says Paul Kantner of Jefferson Airplane.
So 'Twenty Years Ago' sets out not only to recall the watershed year but to explain and interpret it.
Sheppard and his researchers coaxed thoughtful, introspective interviews from a vast cross-section of key figures from the 'year of the hippie' -- Harrison, Paul McCartney, Abbie Hoffman, Timothy Leary, Peter Fonda, Allen Ginsberg, San Francisco's 'Diggers' -- the list goes on.
'That period was special because there was a great upsurge of energy and consciousness,' Harrison says. 'You could have a laugh, dress up silly: that's what that whole era was about. It was against all the evil that was taking place, and is still taking place.'
'By the time we came to make Sgt. Pepper,' McCartney recalls, 'we started to incorporate more of the crazy life that we were living at the time into the music.
'We started to believe there weren't that many frontiers, not too many barriers, really, so we could do things.'
'We were ... trying a kind of shock therapy,' says actor Peter Coyote, who was in the thick of it.
'We were going to take care of the world and its problems,' says Michelle Phillips of The Mamas and the Papas, 'and we were going to do it through a unified front of people who cared.'
Timothy Leary defends his 'turn on, tune in, drop out' advocacy of LSD. Peter Fonda says 1967 'was more than just oddball clothes and things like that. It was the attitude of being something different, and that it was all right to be something different.'
Says a producer's statement, 'The film traces for the first time the common thread that linked a range of puzzling events -- the Levitation of the Pentagon, the San Francisco Be-In, the Monterey International Pop Festival and Happenings in London, New York, Los Angeles, Amsterdam, Berlin and Paris.'
'Twenty Years Ago' uses archive film of John Lennon, Ravi Shankar, Bob Dylan, Maharishi Mahesh Yogi and dozens more. It describes how the famous 'Sgt. Pepper' album cover was designed and pairs the Beatles' music with 18 of the '60s' biggest names: Jimi Hendrix and Pink Floyd, Janis Joplin and The Rolling Stones.
Besides the TV documentary, a book of the same title is being published in the United States (Fireside Books/Simon & Schuster) and Britain (Bantam Press). Its author is Derek Taylor, who organized the Monterey festival and was intimately involved with the Beatles. Taylor, interviewed extensively in 'Twenty Years Ago,' was the program's consultant.
The 'Sgt. Pepper' album itself -- still selling today after worldwide sales of 30 million copies -- is being reissued as a compact disc on the anniversary date.
What emerges most strongly from the new documentary is a lament for the innocence and energy of 1967, for the things-have-to-be-better feeling which seems to have been lost in the last 20 years.
'All the recent representation of the '60s is as a drug-induced euphoria, and that it was a failure,' says Coyote in the program.
'I don't think it was a failure. The times they are changing. They really are.'