By Dennis Hartley
(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on December 16, 2017)
Here’s a Fab Four fun fact: The original U.K. and U.S. releases of the Beatles LPs prior to Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band did not contain all the same songs (even when the album titles were the same). This was due to the fact that the U.K. versions had 14 tracks, and the U.S. versions had 12. That’s my perfect excuse to offer up picks for the Top 14 Beatles films.
I don’t really want to stop the show, but I thought that you might like to know: In addition to documentaries and films where the lads essentially played “themselves”, my criteria includes films where band 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. 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).
Eight Days a Week: The Touring Years– As a Beatle freak who has seen just about every bit of Fab Four documentary/concert footage extant, I approached Ron Howard’s 2016 film with a bit of trepidation (especially with all the pre-release hype about “previously unseen” footage and such) but was nonetheless pleased (if not necessarily enlightened).
The title pretty much says it all; this is not their entire story, but rather a retrospective of the Beatles’ career from the Hamburg days through their final tour in 1966. As I inferred, you likely won’t learn anything new (this is a well-trod path), but the performance clips are enhanced by newly restored footage and remixed audio. Despite the familiar material, it’s beautifully assembled, and Howard makes the nostalgic wallow feel fresh and fun.
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’s meticulously constructed, Lester’s film has a loose, improvisational feel; and it feels just as fresh and innovative as it was when it first hit theaters all those years ago. 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.
Marc Behm and Charles Wood’s script has a few good zingers; 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 by 1965. It has 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. Don’t miss the clever 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 in 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 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 the 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 intended to document the “making of” the eponymous album (although interestingly, there is also footage of the band working on several songs that ended up appearing on Abbey Road). There’s also footage of the band rehearsing on the sound stage at Twickenham Film Studios, and hanging out at the Apple offices.
Sadly, the film has developed a rep as hard evidence of 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 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 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.
Magical Mystery Tour– According to a majority of critics (and puzzled Beatles fans), the Fabs were ringing out the old year on a somewhat sour note with this self-produced project, originally presented as a holiday special on BBC-TV in December of 1967. By the conventions of television fare at the time, the 53-minute film was judged as a self-indulgent and pointlessly obtuse affair; a real psychedelic train wreck. Over the years, it’s probably weathered more continuous drubbing than Ishtar and Heaven’s Gate combined.
Granted, upon reappraisal, it remains unencumbered by anything resembling a “plot”, but in certain respects, it has held up remarkably well. Borrowing a page from Ken Kesey, the Beatles gather up a group of friends (actors and non-actors alike), load them all on a bus, and take them on a “mystery tour” across the English countryside.
They basically filmed whatever happened, then sorted it all out in the editing suite. It’s the musical sequences that make the restored version released on Blu-ray several years ago worth the investment. In hindsight, sequences like “Blue Jay Way”, “Fool on the Hill” and “I Am the Walrus” play like harbingers of MTV, which was still well over a decade away.
Some of the interstitial vignettes uncannily anticipate Monty Python’s idiosyncratic comic sensibilities; not a stretch when you consider that George Harrison’s future production company HandMade Films was formed to help finance Life of Brian. Magical Mystery Tour is far from a work of art, but when taken for what it is (a long-form music video and colorful time capsule of 60s pop culture)-it’s lots of fun. Roll up!
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 crucially formative period of the musical icon’s life beginning just prior to his meet-up with Paul McCartney, and ending on the eve of the “Hamburg period”. The story is not so much about the Fabs, 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 handily walks away with the film as the woman who raised John from childhood.
Produced by George Martin– While no one can deny the inherent musical genius of the Beatles, it’s worth speculating whether they would have reached the same dizzying heights of creativity and artistic growth (and over the same 7-year period) had the lads never crossed paths with Sir George Martin. It’s a testament to the unique symbiosis between the Fabs and their gifted producer that one can’t think of one without also thinking of the other. Yet there is much more to Martin than this celebrated collaboration.
Martin is profiled in an engaging and beautifully crafted 2011 BBC documentary called (funnily enough) Produced by George Martin . The film traces his career from the early 50s to present day. His early days at EMI are particularly fascinating; a generous portion of the film focuses on his work there producing classical and comedy recordings.
Disparate as Martin’s early work appears to be from the rock ’n’ roll milieu, I think it prepped him for his future collaboration with the Fabs, on a personal and professional level. His experience with comics likely helped the relatively reserved producer acclimate to the Beatles’ irreverent sense of humor, and Martin’s classical training and gift for arrangement certainly helped to guide their creativity to a higher level of sophistication.
81 at the time of filming, Martin (who passed away in 2016) is spry, full of great anecdotes and a class act all the way. He provides some very candid moments; there is visible emotion from the usually unflappable Martin when he admits how deeply hurt and betrayed he felt when John Lennon rather curtly informed him at the 11th hour that his “services would not be needed” for the Let it Be sessions (the band went with the mercurial Phil Spector, who famously overproduced the album). Insightful interviews with artists who have worked with Martin (and admiring peers) round things off nicely.
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 Lennon-esque 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 1973 film (written by Ray Connolly) is a character study in the tradition of the “kitchen sink” dramas that flourished in 60s UK cinema. Essex (best-known for his music career, and hit, “Rock On”) plays Jim MacLaine, an intelligent, angst-ridden young man who drops out of school to go the Kerouac route (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 seasoned carny (Starr) who befriends him.
Early 60s English rocker Billy Fury performs some songs 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 a bit more screen time in Stardust).
Yellow Submarine– Despite being a die-hard Beatles fan, over the years I’ve felt somewhat ambivalent about this 1968 animated feature “starring” the Fab Four; or rather, their cartoon avatars, voiced over by other actors. While I adored the music soundtrack, I never quite “got” what all the fuss was over the “innovative” animation (which could be partially attributable to the fact that I never caught it in a theater, just on TV and in various fuzzy home video formats).
But, being the obsessive-compulsive completist that I am, I snapped up a copy of Capitol’s restored version a few years ago, and found it to be a revelation. The 2012 transfer was touched-up by hand, frame-by frame (an unusually artisan choice for this digital age), and the results are jaw-dropping. The visuals are stunning. The audio remix is superb; I never fully appreciated the clever wordplay in the script (by Lee Minoff, Al Brodax, Jack Mendelsohn and Erich Segal) until now. The story itself remains silly, but it’s the knockout music sequences (“Eleanor Rigby” being one standout) that make this one worth the price of admission.