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The Beatles Onscreen: The Top 12 Fab Four Films
With its title plucked from a beloved Paul McCartney tune, Danny Boyle’s just-released movie Yesterday proves that 54 years after the Beatles first recorded that song and almost a half century after the pioneering band broke up, the Fab Four remain a popular, potent cultural force. Indeed, the impact of McCartney, John Lennon, George Harrison and Ringo Starr has been so powerful that by 1964 they surpassed the concert stage and recording studio, appearing in major big and little screen productions.
In this film/TV history we’ll take a look at the best of them. This retrospective will include features, documentaries, animation and television works featuring the Beatles — jointly and individually. Excluded from consideration are mere TV appearances, such as the Four Mop Tops on the The Ed Sullivan Show, rocking 73 million viewers who’d tuned in to watch the British invaders on the CBS variety show over three Sundays in a row in February 1963, John and Yoko co-hosting The Mike Douglas Show for a week in 1972 or Paul’s “Carpool Karaoke” 2018 riff on CBS’ Late Late Show with James Corden, driving and crooning around McCartney’s old stomping grounds in Liverpool.
Because there have been so many screen works dealing with John, Paul, George and/or Ringo, in our quest for the Top Twelve best of them all, a number of productions will of necessity be relegated to the “Pete Best” category, such as Alan G. Parker’s 2017 documentary It Was Fifty Years Ago Today! released half a century after the groundbreaking Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Band was startled listeners. Before Albert and David Maysles co-made 1968’s Monterey Pop and 1970’s Gimme Shelter the Maysles Brothers co-created the 1964 documentary What’s Happening! The Beatles in the U.S.A., shot as the Beatles led the British Invasion but not included here.
Another honorable mention is musicologist Scott Freiman’s Educational Journeys, a 2016 seven-part, multi-media lecture series Deconstructing the Beatles that takes an academic look at albums by the Lads from Liverpool, like Rubber Soul. The Monty Python comedies Harrison produced through his Handmade Films production and distribution company also didn’t make final cut. Neither did the 1965-1969 Saturday morning cartoon TV series The Beatles, which the musicians “privately loathed,” observed author Irv Slifkin in VideoHound’s Groovy Movies, Far-Out Films of the Psychedelic Era.
Here, then, in chronological order, is the narrowed-down, highly opinionated list of the Top Twelve Beatles screen productions:
A HARD DAY’S NIGHT
Your humble scribe’s favorite Beatles screen production also happens to be the Fab Four’s first film. 1964’s A Hard Day’s Night –– which scored Oscar nominations in Writing and (for George Martin) in Music categories — captures the postwar joyful exuberance of youth. Not only were John, Paul, George and Ringo all in their early twenties when this black and white masterpiece was shot on location in Britain, but director Richard Lester was only 32. Lensed with great visual panache, in both content and form — including inventive montages — this ebullient, energetic, cinematic picture is an ode to young people, the emerging counterculture and the rockers’ irrepressible joie de vivre.
Night is also full of playful wit. For instance, when a middle-aged man on a train takes exception to the Lads’ freewheeling ways and snaps at Ringo, “Don’t take that tone with me, young man. I fought the war for your sort,” Starr quips: “I bet you’re sorry you won.” Night’s zany humor went beyond commentary on the growing generation gap. In a scene where a tailor uses a tape measure Lennon cuts it with scissors, joking: “I now declare this bridge open!”
Lester’s camera and rapid editing also captured the frenetic quality of Beatle-mania, with the quartet constantly on the run from mobs of fans — in particular, enraptured adolescent females. This 85-minute rollick is jam-packed with music, with the Four Mop Tops belting out a dozen hits, including the title song, “Can’t Buy Me Love”, “All My Loving” and “She Loves You.” The fact that variants of the word “Love” appears in the names of four pieces on the soundtrack epitomizes the developing Beatles’ philosophy. Overall, Night’s jubilant sensibility could be simply summed up as: “Yeah! Yeah! Yeah!”
Night turned out to be such a phenomenon that in that great Hollywood tradition, a follow-up was made. As with Elvis, the film industry wanted to extract more nuggets from the goldmine that was Beatle-mania. In 1965 Lennon, McCartney, Harrison and Starr returned to the big screen playing versions of themselves (and their instruments) in living color in another feature also helmed by Richard Lester. This time around the script was influenced by the UK’s other pop culture sensation — the James Bond espionage movies. Just as the first 007 picture, 1962’s Dr. No, was shot on location in Jamaica, Help! was partially lensed at the Bahamas, which had also been a British Caribbean colony (and where scenes for the fourth Bond flick, 1965’s Thunderball, were also filmed).
In this wacky spoof of thrillers, for religious reasons bumbling members of an Eastern cult are in hot pursuit of a ring that — who else?- – Ringo is wearing, threatening to make the drummer a human sacrifice. (This sect is an interesting precursor of sorts to the Beatles’ future interest in Indian music and spirituality.) The 97-minute meandering movie also finds the Fab Four in the Austrian Alps, where Lester shot some free spirited skiing sequences. In a memorable, delightful London scene that expressed the foursome’s friendship, John, Paul, Ringo and George walk from the street to four different doorways an apartment house — only to enter one single flat they all share.
Although A Hard Day’s Night was lighthearted and certainly had a sense of humor, with its slapstick plot Help! is much more of an attempt to make an outright comedy. However, despite the fact that Help! had triple ($1.5 million) the budget of their first movie, the Beatles’ second feature film arguably has about a third of Night’s disarming charm. Help!’s soundtrack has 11 tunes written by the Beatles, including “Ticket to Ride”, “You’re Going to Lose That Girl” and the title track, plus music by Beethoven, Wagner and Rossini, as well as “The James Bond Theme.”
Lester is arguably the definitive director of Beatles productions. In 1967 he helmed the antiwar satire How I Won the War, co-starring future peacenik Lennon as the WWII soldier Gripweed, plus the documentaries Paul McCartney in 1989 and 1991’s Paul McCartney’s Get Back, a chronicle of Paul and Linda’s world tour, which was also Lester’s final film.
MAGICAL MYSTERY TOUR
Interestingly, the Beatles share the directing and writing credits on their most far out film. 1967’s surrealistic Magical Mystery Tour was so psychedelic and unconventional in terms of narrative movie-making that, according to Irv Slifkin’s VideoHound’s Groovy Movies, while it was “intended originally as a feature film, [Mystery was] then clipped to a -minute holiday special for British TV” aired at Christmastime. Mystery may have befuddled viewers and made British stiff upper lips sag, but the musical wags’ LSD-infused phantasmagorical “trip” on a yellow bus around the UK countryside is, given their creative control, arguably the Fab Four’s most fabulously imaginative screen adventure.
(Although, to be fair, the Beatles seem to have been influenced by One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest author Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters’ 1964 cross country road trip in a converted, outrageously painted school bus named “Further”, driven by Neal Cassady, who was dubbed “Dean Moriarty” in Jack Kerouac’s On the Road.
Throughout Mystery John, Paul, George and Ringo appear in a variety of outlandish costumes, ranging from wizards’ raiment to white tuxedos to animal outfits. Of course, they periodically perform the tracks from their eponymous album, including “Strawberry Fields Forever” and “Penny Lane.” These “various segments … in retrospect, come off as pre-MTV music videos,” notes Slifkin. The author adds, “There’s a definite Goon Show — Monty Python brand of irreverence to the whole journey …”
Of course, the Beatles’ cheery if cheeky impertinence dates back to their first big screen outing. However, with Mystery –– which was released the same year Sgt. Pepper’s astonished the world — the musicians seemed intent on eliminating their Mop Top image once and for all, as they evolved into exemplars of counter-cultural cosmic consciousness.
Indeed, in their next motion picture, which may be even more mind-expanding, the Beatles are depicted as saving the hippie utopia of Pepperland from the music-despising Blue Meanies, Apple Bonkers and other villainous characters in the 1968 animated feature Yellow Submarine. The animation, rendered by a team including Robert Balser, Jack Stokes and Heinz Edelmann, is ideal for expressing songs such as the trippy “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds.” As Slifkin wrote, Yellow Submarine “became a signature ‘head movie’ for the tuned-in, turned-on, and dropped-out generation.”
Interestingly, as Submarine fulfilled their three-picture deal with United Artists, Lennon, McCartney, Harrison and Starr did not voice the cartoon character versions of themselves, although the quartet does appear in the 85-minute animated film’s live-action epilogue. However, they do perform eight songs derived from a variety of previous Beatles albums, plus about four new numbers. And before novelist Erich Segal wrote the bestseller Love Story he co-wrote Submarine’s screenplay.
LET IT BE
Released the same year they broke up, this 1970 documentary provides a behind-the-scenes look at the Beatles as they record what turned out to be their final album together. Let It Be has great footage of the Fab Four performing in the Abbey Road studio and on its rooftop for their last live concert together. This is the first film on our list featuring Yoko Ono and there are rhapsodic shots of Yoko and John dancing ballroom-style together in the recording studio, evoking their deep love. But there is also candid footage of the quartet quarreling, foreshadowing the end of rock’s super group. At one point George, who’d been given the moniker “The Shy One,” tells Paul: “Yeah, okay, well, I don’t mind. I’ll play, you know, whatever you want me to play. Or I won’t play at all if you don’t want me to play, you know. Whatever it is that’ll please you, I’ll do it.”
Let It Be was helmed by Michael Lindsay-Hogg, who directed a series of nonfiction shorts and documentaries featuring the Beatles and Stones, as well as the 1996 made-for-TV movie Ivana Trump’s For Love Alone, based on a novel by the current president’s ex-wife. In their cinematic swan song as a united band John, Paul, George and Ringo perform about 13 numbers, mostly from their titular album, including “Two of Us”, “Across the Universe”, “Don’t Let Me Down”, “The Long and Winding Road”, and “Get Back”, as well as a version of Conseulo Velazquez’s “Besame Mucho.”
THE HOURS AND TIMES
Although he lived less years than any of the Beatles, there are more fiction and nonfiction films focusing on John Lennon. This may be because John — who early on was nicknamed “The Smart One” — probably led the most tumultuous and controversial life, starting with his 1966 comment that “the Beatles are bigger than Jesus Christ,” which ignited outrage. Lennon’s lifestyle also sparked controversy and Christopher Munch’s 1991’s The Hours and Times deals with the touchy topic of homosexuality.
The Lads from Liverpool’s manager, Brian Epstein (David Angus), the so-called “fifth Beatle,” was gay, and supposedly attracted to John (played here by the English actor Ian Hart, who also appeared in the Harry Potter film franchise). In 1963 Epstein and Lennon went on holiday together in Barcelona. This thought provoking 57-minute black and white drama explores what the two may have done in Spain and whether or not the manager and musician had an affair. The soundtrack doesn’t include any Beatles songs (perhaps the filmmakers couldn’t afford the rights?), but there is music by Bach and Little Richard.
Three years later Ian Hart reprised his role as Lennon opposite Gary Bakewell as McCartney, Chris O’Neill as Harrison, Stephen Dorff (of Blade and HBO’s True Detective series) as Stu Sutcliffe and Scot Williams as Pete Best in Backbeat. This 1994 music history feature directed by Iain Softley dramatized the Beatles before Ringo started pounding the sharkskins for them and they were still the pre-Fab Four, performing in the Kaiserkeller club at Hamburg, Germany. With her photos, the postwar German photographer Astrid Kirchherr (Sheryl Lee), who was Stu’s lover and possessed a Bohemian sensibility, helped shape the Liverpudlians’ hip personas, from their mod hairstyles to their cool fashion sense.
Backbeat offers a fascinating insider look at the musicians during their hardscrabble days before Beatle-mania was all the rage. Astrid, who was interviewed by screenwriter Stephen Ward, is depicted positively, and not surprisingly she reportedly praised the film’s accuracy, although Paul, George and Cynthia Lennon gave thumbs down to the picture. In any case, it was so successful that Backbeat went from the screen to the stage, with a live theatrical version that toured various venues.
As the story takes place before the Lennon/McCartney songwriting team took off, Backbeat’s soundtrack includes early rock hits the Beatles covered, such as “Twist and Shout” and “Please Mr. Postman”, plus songs by Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Johnny Mercer, Eddie Cochran, Bo Diddley, Elvis and Howlin’ Wolf. Various U.S. bands, including Nirvana, Black Flag and R.E.M., recorded Backbeat’s music.
THE LINDA McCARTNEY STORY
In 2000 Gary Bakewell reprised his role as “The Cute One” opposite Elizabeth Mitchell as Paul’s wife in the made-for-TV movie The Linda McCartney Story. Directed by Armand Mastroianni, the 90-minute biopic aired on CBS two years after the heiress/rock photographer’s untimely death due to breast cancer at the McCartneys’ ranch in Tucson, Arizona. Fame and fortune hasn’t spared the all-too-human Fab Four and their loved ones from tragedy — Paul’s wife of almost 30 years and Wings band mate was only 56 when she died.
The best known actor in this TV movie is George Segal, who plays Linda’s father, show business attorney Lee Eastman. Tom Piper, who presents a live one-man show about Lennon, portrays John; Chris Cound is George and Michael McMurtry is Ringo. As Linda shot portraits of rockers, Matthew Harrison plays Mick Jagger, Jane Sowerby is Chrissy Hynde and Aaron Grain is Jim Morrison. Linda’s soundtrack includes The Fab Four: The Ultimate Tribute performing “I Want to Hold Your Hand” and “Please, Please Me.”
THE U.S. VS. JOHN LENNON
Socialist presidential candidate Senator Bernie Sanders’ 2020 campaign theme song, “Power to the People,” is the first track on the album featuring Lennon’s music from the superb 2006 documentary The U.S. vs. John Lennon. The doc and CD highlight Lennon’s lefty 1970s songs when he was a leader of the antiwar movement and composed its anthem, “Give Peace a Chance.” In 1972 the politically engaged Lennon joined forces with other radical rockers to stage a series of concerts across America in order to rally newly enfranchised 18-year-olds, who had just been given the right to vote, to cast their ballots for the dovish Democrat Sen. George McGovern, who was running for president against the hawkish Republican President Richard Nixon.
John Scheinfeld and David Leaf’s 99-minute muckraking film exposes that Nixon and Attorney General John Mitchell, etc., launched a COINTELPRO counterinsurgency covert operation to derail this New Left insurgency by denying Lennon residency rights and moving to deport him from America, where John and Yoko were then living. Instead of campaigning to topple Nixon, the Lennons’ time, energy and resources were diverted from ousting Tricky Dick from office to preventing John’s deportation.
In archival footage and original interviews, top journalists, activists and figures of the tumultuous era appear onscreen, including Angela Davis, Noam Chomsky, John Dean, Ron Kovic, Carl Bernstein, Bobby Seale, Gore Vidal, Jon Wiener, Abbie Hoffman and John Sinclair — a political prisoner Lennon wrote a song about. After the Watergate scandal has forced Nixon and Mitchell out of the White House and the UK-born musician wins his immigration case, a reporter asks John if he “bears any grudges.” Lennon quips: “No, I believe time wounds all heels.” The U.S. vs. John Lennon is the best rock doc ever made depicting the intersectionality of pop music and New Left politics.
Co-directors Scheinfeld and David Leaf went on to make the 2010 documentary Who is Harry Nilsson? (And Why is Everybody Talkin’ About Him?) Given the current political brouhaha over immigration rights, unfortunately The U.S. vs. John Lennon remains extremely relevant. The nonfiction film’s soundtrack includes many of Lennon’s solo classics, such as “Working Class Hero”, “Give Peace A Chance”, “Happy Xmas (War Is Over)”, “Gimme Some Truth” and “Imagine.”
ACROSS THE UNIVERSE
Julie Taymor’s two-hour, 13 minute epic 2007 musical may be the most ambitious of all of the Beatle-related features — although not necessarily the most successful. Set against the turmoil of the sizzling sixties, Across the Universe incorporates 30-plus songs by the Beatles (jointly and singly) to express the era’s youth rebellion. Anti-Vietnam War demonstrations and street fighting battles with police form the backdrop for this love story, starring Rachel Evan Woods (HBO’s Westworld) as Lucy (as in “in the Sky with Diamonds” ) and Jim Sturgess as (“Hey”) Jude. The film references New Left touchstones — for instance, Students for a Democratic Society or SDS becomes onscreen “SDR” — Students for a Democratic Republic. There are also allusions to Fab Four folklore, such as the bus in Magical Mystery Tour.
Universe has the usual optical opulence of Taymor’s oeuvre, notably the 1997 Broadway version of Disney’s The Lion King and 2002’s Frida. Salma Hayek, who starred in the latter as the celebrated Mexican painter, has a cameo in Universe, as do Joe Cocker, Bono and Eddie Izzard. They, along with members of the cast, sing the soundtrack’s numerous Beatles songs.
Directed by Sam Taylor-Johnson (who, interestingly, also helmed 2015’s Fifty Shades of Grey), 2009’s Nowhere Boy presumably takes its title from that Lennon-McCartney ode to insecurity, “Nowhere Man.” Going further back in the past than Backbeat, Nowhere dramatizes the pre-Beatle Quarrymen days, when John Lennon (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) was still a teenager living at home with his Aunt Mimi (the excellent Cornwall-born actress Kristin Scott Thomas, who was Golden Globe and Oscar-nominated for The English Patient). Sam Bell depicted adolescent George and Thomas Brodie Sangster (2003’s Love Actually) learned how to play the left-handed guitar in order to portray the teenaged McCartney.
In this poignant picture, John strives to find true love and begins to re-form a regular relationship with his free-spirited, flirtatious, absentee mother, Julia (Anne-Marie Duff, who plays Fiona Gallagher in the BBC version of the TV series Shameless). David Threlfall, who is also in the British Shameless series, plays John’s good-natured Uncle George. Advertisements for this 98-minute movie billed Nowhere Boy as “The uplifting true story.” Based on the biography Imagine This: Growing Up With My Brother John Lennon written by his younger half-sister Julia Baird, her account of John’s troubled youth has the ring of truth.
Nowhere Boy provides insight into what shaped Lennon’s life, psyche and art — it is among the best Beatles biopics.
Nowhere’s soundtrack features the early rock hits that influenced the teenaged Lennon and McCartney (some of which they’d go on to cover) performed by Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis and Big Mama Thornton’s version of Leiber and Stoller’s “Hound Dog.” John and Paul’s “Hello Little Girl” is performed by Sam Bell and Paul and George’s “In Spite of All the Danger” is played by The Nowhere Boys. The only song in Nowhere Boy actually written and performed by one of the Fab Four is, appropriately, Lennon’s “Mother”, which he created after going solo and undergoing Dr. Arthur Janov’s “primal scream” therapy.
GEORGE HARRISON: LIVING IN THE MATERIAL WORLD
Academy Award winner Martin Scorsese is a heavyweight Hollywood helmer who has the gift to deftly move back and forth from fiction films, such as 1976’s Taxi Driver and 1990’s Goodfellas, to nonfiction films like 1978’s The Last Waltz concert picture with The Band, Bob Dylan, Eric Clapton, Joni Mitchell, Neil Young, Dr. John, Ringo, etc., and this year’s Rolling Thunder Revue, featuring Dylan’s 1975 tour with various rock superstars.
In 2011 Scorsese turned his cinematic genius to “the Quiet Beatle,” making George Harrison: Living in the Material World. This three-hour, 28 minute-long documentary may very well be the most thorough rock biopic ever made. In addition to covering his music, George’s spirituality and motion picture career producing Monty Python comedies, etc., are chronicled. With archival footage and original interviews, the “cast” of Living in the Material World is a veritable “who’s who” of rock music luminaries who were George’s contemporaries, such as George Martin, Ravi Shankar, Clapton and Ringo, to figures from the Beatles’ personal world like Julian Lennon, Pattie Boyd and Yoko, to movie actors such as Eric Idle and Terry Gilliam.
Scorsese — who scored the Best Director Oscar for 2006’s The Departed and received 11 more Academy Award nominations – won two Primetime Emmys (for Outstanding Nonfiction Special and directing) and was nommed for four more Emmys for his nonfiction film about Harrison. This project was so comprehensive that HBO originally aired it in two parts. In terms of artistry and length, Scorsese’s bravura Living in the Material World is to rock biopics what “All Things Must Pass” is to rock music history.
The soundtrack includes too many Fab Four songs to mention (even “The White Album’s” avant-garde “Revolution #9”!), all performed by the Beatles themselves, with an emphasis placed on those Beatles works created by Harrison, such as “While My Guitar Gently Weeps”, “Within You Without You”, “Something” and “Here Comes the Sun.” There’s also a cornucopia of George’s songs after he went solo and played by him, like “My Sweet Lord.”
Alas, John died when he was only 40 and George when he was 58. Today, Paul and Ringo are in their seventies. But as the latest addition to the canon of Beatles films, Yesterday, proves, John, Paul, George and Ringo’s effervescent music will follow the sun on to endless tomorrows.
A longtime contributor to Rock Cellar Magazine, L.A.-based film historian/reviewer Ed Rampell co-authored “The Hawaii Movie and Television Book”, available at: https://mutualpublishing.com/product/the-hawaii-movie-and-television-book/