A gay Jewish man walks into a bar…
Yes, this may sound like the introduction to a crude joke, but this is what Brian Epstein had to deal with on a regular basis. Ironically, despite the hardships he faced, Epstein helped influence the course of popular music as we know it.
When it comes to portrayals of gay characters, the media usually depicts them as figures of comic relief or weakness. Yet author Vivek J. Tiwary manages to portray Epstein as a fully-realized human being with strengths and flaws.
In the Eisner Award-winning graphic novel The Fifth Beatle, Tiwary focuses on the life of Brian Epstein, the man who discovered and managed the Beatles before dying in 1967. For six years, he championed and promoted their sound, which reshaped the state of rock and roll music.
Recently, Epstein was posthumously inducted as a Non-Performer into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame for his role in the Beatles’ success.
Former Beatle Paul McCartney has been quoted as saying, “If anyone was the fifth Beatle, it was Brian Epstein.”
Set from 1961 to 1967, the story follows Brian as he goes from being an average salesman to the manager of the world’s most famous band. Upon seeing the leather-jacketed Beatles performing in a club, he is awestruck by their charisma and stage presence.
Despite not being a fan of rock and roll, Brian decides to become their manager and clean up their act. He tries to promote them and get a recording contract, but many people in the music industry laugh at his declaration that the Beatles will become “bigger than Elvis.”
Finally, Brian secures the band a deal with producer George Martin and Parlophone Records.
From that point, the Beatles gain a following across the United Kingdom and Europe, but Brian has far greater aspirations for the group. By 1964, they are massively popular in the United States, which kicks off the British Invasion in North America.
While the band loves their fame, Brian becomes increasingly overwhelmed with business and personal problems. He mismanages the Beatles’ growing merchandising campaign, which costs the group a great deal of revenue.
Due to anti-gay laws in socially-conservative Britain, Brian is unable to be open about himself and resorts to clandestine affairs. He becomes reliant on prescription medications for exhaustion, insomnia and what the doctors call “the intimate inclinations.”
After a disastrous concert tour, the Beatles become a studio band, and Brian’s control over the group begins to slip as they record Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.
Brian’s story arc is well-written and handled with sensitivity. As a gay man, he is forced to keep his orientation hidden, because homosexuality is outlawed in both Britain and America. He also has to contend with anti-Semitism and his own self-doubt.
Flashbacks reveal he struggled with finding his place in the world; having attempted to be an actor as well as a fashion designer, and having an unsuccessful stint in the army. However, Brian is shown to be a loving son and cares deeply for the Beatles’ well-being.
Beautifully drawn by artist Andrew Robinson, The Fifth Beatle depicts the universal themes of humanity, love and perseverance. Instead of telling a “rise to fame” formula, the plot manages to keep the characters at the heart of the story, while the Beatlemania phenomenon is mostly kept in the background.
Each of the Beatles are given a moment to shine in the narrative, but it is John Lennon’s professional relationship with Brian that gets the most focus. Paul McCartney’s interest in the music business is also explored in the latter part of the graphic novel.
The Fifth Beatle is a stellar work that warrants solid endorsement. Tiwary succeeds in portraying Brian Epstein as a complex man who helped change the course of music in the latter half of the twentieth century. If it weren’t for Epstein, we might never have gotten the Beatles’ message of love and peace.