The Beatles In Film

film reviews | movies | features | BRWC The Beatles In Film

By Joseph Conaghan aka Joe Blogs.

On the eve of the 50th anniversary of the release of the first Beatles film we look back at their celluloid contribution which often are often overlooked when considering their history.

The Beatles legacy encompasses a library of Classic Albums and Singles throughout the Sixties which transcend any other recorded output of the 20th Century and are constantly replayed and feature in modern life some fifty years later. Amazingly they managed to squeeze in five major films in the short 6 year period from 1964 to 1970, these brief reviews are a reminder of that period.

A Hard Day’s Night  1964 *****

By 1964 The Beatles were everywhere, radio, TV such as Juke Box Jury and their own one hour special show, concerts sold out around the world and record sales dominating the charts. But they couldn’t be everywhere for everyone at the same time and the idea of a feature film came to fruition.

Originally designed as a low budget vehicle for the accompanying soundtrack album the black and white film eventually became one of the most successful movies of the 1960’s and is credited with influencing both the Monkees TV series and the fast cut style of modern pop videos.

Richard Lester directs the film as a mock documentary following a few days in the hectic schedule of the Beatles during the height of Beatlemania as they flee fans, are holed up in their hotel rooms and ultimately make a TV recording of the key songs from the film. Actors of the period such as Ireland’s Wilfred Brambell and Wales’ Victor Spinetti play supporting roles to enable a story line to unfold but the film centres on the dynamic within the fab four and reveals the humour and wit that had only been seen in brief TV interviews before, some of the ad-libs sound like real ad-libs and we’ll never really know how much sticking to the script took place as the pace and movement of the film always veers towards comedic rather than serious analysis. The “Can’t Buy Me Love” sequence is the most accomplished filming of a pop song that had ever occurred up to that time.

No film fan should underestimate the exuberance and joy of the film. It is considered as a stand alone best movie of the 20th century, is critically universally acclaimed with the highest rating of any reviewed movie both at the time of release and it’s reputation has grown ever since.

It has iconic status, the suits, haircuts, humour and banter all contained in 87 minutes of black and white with some of the best songs belted out in glorious mono, it is both of it’s time and and of our time. A student favourite, a BBC Christmas schedulers favourite, a tour bus favourite, the reviewers top choice and most importantly the best record of the phenomenon that went on to change the world.

Help  1965 ****

Originally working titled “Eight Arms To Hold You” by 1965 it was clear that a follow up to the previous year’s runaway success of “A Hard Day’s Night” film was inevitable for The Beatles.

Re-united with Director Richard Lester the budget was reported to be three times bigger than “A Hard Day’s Night” was in colour, with locations including London, Salisbury Plain, the Alps and the Bahama’s (then still a British Colony) more of a script and a wealth of supporting talent including Leo McKern, Eleanor Bron and a return of Victor Spinetti. There is more polish to “Help”, it’s a good yarn about the ring that has ended up on Ringo’s finger needed for a bizarre ceremony elsewhere and the crazy antics spent by a strange Eastern cult trying to retrieve it.

There are moments of surrealism with a lion in a basement of a pub  as well as a shrinking Paul, cutting the grass coloured rug with dentures and something of a premonition of the future to come as The Beatles themselves are almost cartoon like in many sequences, especially in their frock coats and semaphore flag waving on the slopes of the Alps and is a world away from the Fab Four image created over the three short years since their first release.

The film is highly enjoyable and embraced by fans who can chart the transition and promise that the  music holds to a future ground breaking purple period just within grasp. The songs that make up the  “Help” soundtrack shine seem to suit the zany mad-cap antics of the action. It is worth noting that recent DVD and Blu-Ray releases feature a DTS 5.1 surround soundtrack that breathe new life into the music ensuring the enduring appeal of the package. Thus marked the end of the high watermark of Beatles movies, their next contribution was to confound audiences and critics alike.

Magical Mystery Tour   1967 **

Originally broadcast in colour on Boxing Day 1967 on the newly launched BBC 2 TV Station, both the critics and public were confounded for a number of reasons. This was no high end budget,studio backed, named Director Beatles film as was expected but a self produced collection of set pieces resembling an extravagant home movie interspersed with songs that came hot on the heels of the summer’s landmark Sgt. Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band album albeit less cohesive in structure.

The idea of a mystery tour in the English countryside with a collection of eclectic characters may not have been the general public’s perception of must see Boxing Day TV but hard core fans were happy if not a little anxious. These were changing times and on reflection the film is a snapshot in time and appears to be promo videos linked by a very spurious ill conceived story. The film has a curiosity value for completists and a running time of less than an hour. The recently restored DVD release has the benefit of a 5.1 surround soundtrack. The film has a large cult following and in the renown strip club scene contains the quirky rendition of a non Beatles song Viv Stanshall and Neil Innes’ “Death Cab For Cutie” sung by Stanshall and inspiring the band of the same name.

Yellow Submarine  1968 ***

The years have been kind to Yellow Submarine a full length animation that only had a 2 minute cameo from the band in the final credits whilst actors played the individual members in a storyline derived from imagery inspired by and including some of the bands best known songs. It has recently enjoyed something of a renaissance cited by animators including Simpsons creators as being truly influential in both it’s direction and pioneering use of various animation techniques. Languishing in a form of time trap unreleased apart from a few early formats (VHS and Laserdisc) the promise of a restored soundtrack and frame by frame restoration to be done by hand over a long period in London gave this film a renewed buzz in 2012.

Now considered a classic of it’s form it sits alongside Disney’s Fantasia as the most pioneering musical animation. The Beatles were hoping their brief input (four new songs out of the eleven featured) and appearance would free their obligation to United Artists but it was not to be. The individual Beatles were pleased with the result of “Yellow Submarine” and attended the premiere but the 3rd movie obligation was still to be fulfilled.

Let It Be  1970 **

It is a poignant prologue to the Beatles exciting seven years at the top that the split that had become almost inevitable is chronicled on film in the actual documentary film “Let It Be”. 

Fulfilling their contractual obligation to United Artists for a full third film the band set about recording every aspect of their in depth rehearsals which ultimately led to their impromptu live lunchtime performance on the roof of the Apple offices in Saville Row which is universally considered to be the highlight of this painfully honest almost blow by blow account of their break up as a band. On the roof they rock, smiling getting on with the back to basics style they had pioneered in their early days playing lunchtime sessions in Hamburg and the Cavern Club in Liverpool just seven years earlier. Lennon closes proceedings with the famously ironic request “And I hope we passed the audition”. The soundtrack ended up shelved until Phil Spector was drafted in, the album cover shows 4 separate pictures of the group, looking like they’d already split.

This is the “Marmite” Beatles film: it is either loved for it’s honesty or disliked for the pain and rawness detailing the disintegration it displays of a once all conquering band. Unlike the other films “Let It Be” is not so easily available and has not been restored or re-released  and has never been heard with a 5.1 surround soundtrack. Maybe soon ??

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Alton loves film. He is founder and Editor In Chief of BRWC.  Some of the films he loves are Rear Window, Superman 2, The Man With The Two Brains, Clockwise, Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind, Trading Places, Stir Crazy and Punch-Drunk Love.



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