By Dennis Hartley
(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on October 22, 2011)
Recently, I was browsing at my favorite Barnes & Noble when I happened upon a display table with a Beatles theme. Among the usual biographies, chord books and calendars, they had a stack of album cover jigsaw puzzles that sort of caught my eye. Although I am not really a puzzle person (disarray makes me anxious) I thought it was a clever concept, and started sorting through what they had. Ah, Revolver…that’s a good one (with that great Klaus Voormann design). Beatles for Sale (how appropriate). Oh look! Abbey Road…now that’s cool. The White Album. Wait a sec. The White Album?! Is this some kind of a sick joke? But no, it was for real. My first reaction was cynicism (Jesus, people will buy anything). But then, I thought, I would have to respect someone who would sit down in earnest to assemble a 500-piece jigsaw largely comprised of solid white. There’s a kind of Zen in that. I felt somewhat humbled.
So I now humbly offer my picks for the Top 10 Beatles films. I don’t really want to stop the show, but thought you might like to know: In addition to docs and films where the lads essentially played “themselves”, my criteria includes films where members worked as actors or composers, and biopics. As per usual, my list is in alphabetical order:
The Beatles Anthology-Admittedly, this opus is more of a turn-on for obsessive types, but there is certainly very little mystery left once you’ve taken this magical 600 minute tour through the Beatles film archives. Originally presented as a mini-series event on TV, it’s a comprehensive compilation of performance footage, movie clips and interviews (vintage and contemporary). What makes it somewhat unique is that the producers (the surviving Beatles themselves) took the “in their own words” approach, eschewing the usual droning narrator (I suspect even Morgan Freeman couldn’t hold one in thrall for a full ten hours). Very nicely done, and a must-see for fans.
The Compleat Beatles– Prior to the Anthology, this theatrically released documentary stood as the definitive overview of the band’s career. What I like most about director Patrick Montgomery’s approach, is that he delves into the musicology (roots and influences), which the majority of Beatles docs tend to skimp on. George Martin’s candid anecdotes regarding the creativity and innovation that fueled the studio sessions are enlightening. It still stands as a great compilation of performance clips and interviews. Malcolm McDowell narrates. Although you’d think it would be on DVD, it’s still VHS only (I’ve seen laser discs at secondhand stores).
A Hard Day’s Night– This 1964 masterpiece has been often copied, but never equaled. Shot in a semi-documentary style, the film follows a “day in the life” of John, Paul, George and Ringo at the height of their youthful exuberance and charismatic powers. Thanks to the wonderfully inventive direction of Richard Lester and Alun Owen’s cleverly tailored script, the essence of what made the Beatles “the Beatles” has been captured for posterity. Although it is in reality very meticulously constructed, Lester’s film has a loose, improvisational feel-and therein lays its genius, because it feels just as fresh and innovative as it was when it first hit theaters all those years ago. There’s much to savor; to this day I catch subtle gags that surprise me (ever notice John snorting the Coke bottle?). Musical highlights: “I Should Have Known Better”, “All My Loving”, “Don’t Bother Me”, “Can’t Buy Me Love”, and of course, the fab title song.
Help! – Compared to its predecessor (see above), this is a much fluffier affair, from a narrative standpoint (Ringo is being chased by a religious cult who wish to offer him up as a human sacrifice to their god; hilarity ensues). But still, it’s a lot of fun, if you’re in the mood for it. Luckily, the Beatles themselves exude enough goofy energy and effervescent charm to make up for the wafer-thin plot line.
There are a few good zingers here and there in Marc Behm and Charles Wood’s screenplay; but the biggest delights come from director Richard Lester’s flair for visual invention. The main reason to watch this film is for the musical sequences, which are imaginative, artful, and light years ahead of their time (pretty much the blueprint for MTV). And of course, the Beatles’ music was evolving in leaps and bounds. Talk about a killer soundtrack; in addition to the classic title song, you’ve got “Ticket to Ride”, “You’ve Got to Hide Your Love Away”, “The Night Before” and “I Need You”, to name a few. And don’t miss those end credits!
I Wanna Hold Your Hand– This modest sleeper was the feature film debut for director Robert Zemeckis and writer Bob Gale, the creative tag team who would later collaborate on bigger box office hits like Back to the Future and Who Framed Roger Rabbit. Sort of a cross between American Graffiti and The Bellboy, the story concerns an eventful “day in the life” of six New Jersey teenagers.
Three of them (Nancy Allen, Theresa Saldana and Wendy Jo Sperber) are rabid Beatles fans, the other three (Bobby Di Cicco, Marc McClure and Susan Kendall Newman) not so much. Regardless, they all end up falling in together on a caper to “meet the Beatles” by sneaking into their NYC hotel suite (the story is set on the day that the band makes their 1964 debut on The Ed Sullivan Show). Zany misadventures ensue.
Zemeckis overindulges on the door-slamming screwball tropes and the slapstick, but the energetic young cast and Gale’s breezy script keeps the story moving along nicely. Allen has a very funny (and very Freudian) scene where she lolls around the Beatles’ hotel suite, taking fetishistic stock of their possessions. The film also benefits from original Beatles songs (licensing fees must have been a steal before Michael Jackson bought the catalog).
Let it Be– By 1969, the Beatles had probably done enough “living” to suit several normal lifetimes, and did so with the whole world looking in. It’s almost unfathomable how they could have achieved as much as they did, and at the end of all, still be only in their twenties. Are there any other recording artists who have ever matched the creative growth that transpired over the scant six years that it took to evolve from the simplicity of Meet the Beatles to the sophistication of Abbey Road ? So, with hindsight being 20/20, should we really be so shocked to see the four haggard and sullen “old guys” who mope through this 1970 documentary?
Filmed in 1969, the movie was originally intended to be a document of the “making of” the album of the same name (although interestingly, there is some footage of the band working on the rudiments of several songs that ended up on Abbey Road). We see the band rehearsing on the sound stage at Twickenham Film Studios, and hanging out at the Apple offices.
However, the film has developed a rep as a sad look at the band’s disintegration. There is some on-camera bickering (most famously, in a scene where George reaches the end of his rope with Paul’s fussiness). Still, there is that classic mini-concert on the roof, and if you look closely, the boys are actually having a grand old time jamming out; it’s almost as if they know this is the last hurrah, and what the hell, it’s only rock ’n’ roll, after all. I hope this film finally finds its way to a legit DVD release someday (beware of bootlegs).
The Magic Christian– The original posters for this 1969 romp proclaimed it to be “antiestablishmentarian, antibellum (sic), antitrust, antiseptic, antibiotic, antisocial and antipasto”. Rich and heir-less eccentric Sir Guy Grand (Peter Sellers) stumbles upon a young homeless man sleeping in a public park (Ringo Starr) and decides to adopt him as his son (“Youngman Grand”), and the rest of the film pretty much follows in that same spirit of spontaneity.
Sir Guy immediately sets about imparting a nugget of wisdom to his newly appointed heir: People will do anything for money. Basically, it’s an episodic series of elaborate pranks, setting hooks into the stiff upper lips of the stuffy English aristocracy. Like similar broad counterculture-fueled satires of the 60s (Candy, Skidoo, Casino Royale) it’s a bit of a psychedelic train wreck, but when it’s funny, it’s very funny.
Highlights include Laurence Harvey doing a striptease whilst reciting the “To be, or not to be” soliloquy from Hamlet, a pheasant hunt with field artillery, and well-attired businessmen wading waist-deep into a huge vat full of slaughterhouse offal, using their bowlers to scoop up as much “free money” as they can (accompanied by Thunderclap Newman’s “Something in the Air”).
Badfinger performs the majority of the songs on the soundtrack, including their Paul McCartney-penned hit, “Come and Get It”. Director Joseph McGrath co-wrote with Sellers, Terry Southern, and Monty Python’s Graham Chapman and John Cleese.
Nowhere Boy– This gem from U.K. director Sam Taylor-Wood made the toppermost of the poppermost on my list of 2010 Seattle International Film Festival faves. Aaron Johnson gives a terrific, James Dean-worthy performance as a teen-aged John Lennon. The story zeroes in on a specific, crucially formative period of the musical icon’s life beginning just prior to his first meet-up with Paul McCartney, and ending on the eve of the “Hamburg period”. The story is not so much about the Fabs, however, as it is about the complex and mercurial dynamic of the relationship between John, his Aunt Mimi (Kirstin Scott Thomas) and his mother Julia (Anne-Marie Duff). The entire cast is excellent, but Scott Thomas (one of the best actresses strolling the planet) handily walks away with the film as the woman who raised John from childhood.
The Rutles: All You Need is Cash– Everything you ever wanted to know about the “Prefab Four” is right here, in this cheeky and hilarious 1978 mockumentary, originally presented as a TV special. It’s the story of four lads from Liverpool: Dirk McQuickly (Eric Idle), Ron Nasty (Neil Innes), Stig O’Hara (Rikki Fataar) and Barry Womble (John Halsey). Any resemblance to the Beatles, of course, is purely intentional.
Idle wrote the script and co-directed with Gary Weis (who made a number of memorable short films that aired on the first few seasons of Saturday Night Live). Innes (frequent Monty Python collaborator and one of the madmen behind the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band) composed the soundtrack, clever mash-ups of near-Beatles songs that are actually quite listenable on their own.
Mick Jagger, Paul Simon and other music luminaries appear as themselves, “reminiscing” about the band. There are also some funny bits that feature members of the original “Not Ready for Prime Time Players” (including John Belushi, Gilda Radner, Bill Murray and Dan Aykroyd). Look fast for a cameo from George Harrison, as a reporter. Undoubtedly, the format of this piece provided some inspiration for This is Spinal Tap.
That’ll Be the Day– Anyone who ever doubted Ringo Starr’s acting abilities need look no further than this 1973 film, which proved that, if given the right material, he could deliver the goods. Although he is not the protagonist, Starr provides crucial support for David Essex, who stars as a Lennonesque character (whose journey is continued in Stardust, the 1974 sequel about the rise and fall of a rock star).
Set in late 50s England, Claude Whatham’s film is a gritty character study in the tradition of the “kitchen sink” dramas that flourished in the British cinema of the early-to-mid 60s. Essex (best-known for his music career, and his classic 70s hit, “Rock On”) also does a bang-up job here as young Jim MacLaine, a highly intelligent but angst-ridden young man who drops out of school to go the Kerouac route (much to Mum’s chagrin). While he’s figuring out what to do with his life, Jim supports himself working at a “funfair” at the Isle of Wight, where he gets a crash course in how to fleece customers and “pull birds” from a fellow carny (Starr) who befriends him.
Early 60s British rocker Billy Fury performs some numbers as “Stormy Tempest” (likely a reference to Rory Storm, who Ringo was drumming for when the Beatles enlisted him in 1962) Also look for Keith Moon (who gets more screen time in the sequel). Well-written (by Ray Connolly), directed and acted.
B-sides and curios: Yellow Submarine, Magical Mystery Tour (Made-for-TV), Imagine: John Lennon, The Hours and Times, Lennon Naked, How I Won the War, Backbeat, All This and World War II, Birth of the Beatles (Made-for-TV), The Concert for Bangladesh, Give My Regards to Broad Street, The Rolling Stones Rock and Roll Circus, Wonderwall (George Harrison score) The Family Way (Paul McCartney score).