Aug 31 2009
by Jade Wright
Jade Wright revisits the Fab Four's forays onto the silver screen and
finds out how the films charted the band's rise and fall
WITH the news that Yellow Submarine is to be remade by American
director Robert Zemeckis, and the 40th anniversary of the release of
Let It Be having been celebrated in May, the Beatle films are
enjoying something of a renaissance.
The Fab Four appeared in five main feature films, each with the same
name as their associated soundtrack album, and through the films you
could see their progression as a band.
From the screaming girls of Beatlemania to the tense rivalries and
that final gig captured on Let It Be, the films act as a chronicle of
the careers of those four lads from Liverpool.
A Hard Day's Night
Starting out in evocative black and white, the boys made A Hard Day's
Night, a loosely scripted comic farce, drawing from the Marx Brothers
in style, in 1964.
Directed by Richard Lester, who had previously worked on The Goon
Show's off-beat short film The Running, Jumping and Standing Still
Film, with Peter Sellers and Spike Milligan, it focused on
Beatlemania and the band's hectic touring lifestyle.
The screenplay was written by Alun Owen, who was chosen because The
Beatles were familiar with his play No Trams to Lime Street, and he
had shown an aptitude for Scouse dialogue. McCartney commented: "Alun
hung around with us and was careful to try and put words in our
mouths that he might've heard us speak, so I thought he did a very
It's essentially a mockumentary, following the band as they make
their way to a London TV studio. The film, released at the height of
Beatlemania, was well-received by critics, and remains one of the
most influential jukebox musicals.
In 1965 came Help!; an Eastmancolour extravaganza, also directed by Lester.
The film was shot on location on Salisbury Plain, with Stonehenge
visible in the background; the Bahamas; and Salzburg and the Tyrol
region of the Austrian Alps.
This time Lester had chosen the style of a James Bond spoof along
with even more Marx Brothers-style madcap fun.
But the Beatles did not always enjoy the filming of the movie. In
1970, John Lennon said they felt like extras in their own movie.
"The movie was out of our control," he said. "With A Hard Day's
Night, we had a lot of input, and it was semi-realistic.
"But with Help!, Dick Lester didn't tell us what it was all about. I
realise, looking back, how advanced it was.
"It was a precursor for the Batman 'Pow! Wow!' on TV that kind of
stuff. But he never explained it to us. Partly, maybe, because we
hadn't spent a lot of time together between A Hard Day's Night and
Help!, and partly because we were smoking marijuana for breakfast
during that period. Nobody could communicate with us, it was all
glazed eyes and giggling all the time. In our own world."
The film is dedicated "to Elias Howe, who, in 1846, invented the
Magical Mystery Tour
Paul McCartney dreamt up the idea for this 1967 movie as he returned
from a trip to America.
It was loosely inspired by press coverage that McCartney had read
about Ken Kesey's Merry Pranksters' LSD-fuelled American bus odyssey.
McCartney took this idea and blended it with the Liverpool tradition
of charabanc mystery tours, in which children took chaperoned bus
rides through the English countryside, destination unknown.
The film was critically dismissed when it was aired on BBC1 on Boxing Day.
Many viewers complained they found it plotless and confusing.
Compounding this culture clash was the fact that the film was made in
colour and made use of colour filters for some of the scenes,
particularly in a sequence for Blue Jay Way.
In December, 1967, practically no-one in the UK owned a colour
receiver, the service only having started a few months earlier.
The animated Yellow Submarine followed in 1968, but had little direct
input from The Beatles, save for a live-action epilogue and the
contribution of five new songs.
There was All Together Now, It's All Too Much, Baby You're a Rich Man
(which made its first appearance as the B-side to the All You Need Is
Love single), Only A Northern Song, a Harrison song originally
recorded during sessions for Sgt Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band and
Hey Bulldog, a John Lennon piano echoing of Lady Madonna. It was
acclaimed for its boldly innovative graphic style and especially
stinging pangs of heartbreak, along with the soundtrack.
At the beginning of the story, Pepperland is introduced by a narrator
as a cheerful music-loving paradise under the sea, protected by Sgt
Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, which falls under a surprise attack
by the music-hating Blue Meanies, who seal the band inside a
music-proof bubble, turn the Pepperlanders into statues, and drain
the countryside of colour.
Just before his own capture, Pepperland's elderly Lord Mayor sends a
soldier called Old Fred (whom the mayor calls "Young Fred") in a
yellow submarine to get assistance.
Old Fred travels to Liverpool, where he follows the depressed and
aimless Ringo and persuades him to help. Ringo collects his "mates"
John, George and finally Paul. The five journey back to Pepperland in
the yellow submarine, passing through a series of fantasy worlds along the way.
The Beatles were pleased with the result and attended its highly
publicised London premiere.
They appeared only in the closing scene of the film, with the Beatles
characters in the film voiced by other actors. Each Beatle reputedly
complained that their voice was not quite right, while saying that
the other three were perfect.
Let It Be
Forty years ago, there was an ill-fated documentary of the band that
was shot over a four-week period.
The documentary which was originally intended to be simply a
chronicle of the evolution of an album and the band's possible return
to live performances captured the prevailing tensions between the
band members, and in this respect it unwittingly became a document of
the beginning of their break-up.
The Beatles assembled at Twickenham Film Studios on January 2, 1969,
and began rehearsing.
There were disagreements among the band, and, after a week, George
Harrison announced that he was leaving the band, although this is not
documented in the film.
He was persuaded to return and the band resumed work on January 22 at
their own new basement recording studio at Apple's headquarters in
Savile Row, London. For the sessions at Apple, Harrison brought in
keyboardist Billy Preston to play electric piano/organ.
The chaos within the band is mostly missing from the film, but there
is a heated exchange between McCartney and Harrison, and a scene
where McCartney talks about his ideas for the band's future to
Lennon, to be met with stony silence.
The original concept for the film called for the documentary to end
with a live show, their first since August 29, 1966, at Candlestick
Park, in San Francisco.
They struggled to agree on a venue.
Eventually they settled for an unannounced concert on their own roof,
at Apple's headquarters in Savile Row near Piccadilly Circus.
The Beatles, accompanied by Preston, performed on January 30, 1969.
It was to be the final public performance by the band.
They played five songs, Get Back (three times), Don't Let Me Down
(twice), I've Got a Feeling (twice), One After 909, and Dig A Pony.
They also played a brief version of God Save The Queen and a brief
rehearsal of I Want You (She's So Heavy) while second engineer Alan
Parsons was changing tapes. Those performances were omitted from the film.
After the final song, McCartney said "Thanks, Mo!" for the
enthusiastic applause and cheering from Maureen Starkey. Then Lennon
closed with "I'd like to say 'thank you' on behalf of the group and
ourselves, and I hope we passed the audition!".
The band initially rejected both the film and the album, instead
recording and issuing the Abbey Road album. But with so much money
having been spent on the project, it was decided to finish, and
release, the film and album (the latter with considerable
post-production by Phil Spector) in the spring of 1970. When the film
finally appeared, it was after their break-up had been announced.