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The Beatles on Screen


With Peter Jackson's Get Back documentary delayed again, I realized that we've yet to see a real blockbuster tell-all bio-pic about the most influential band of all time, and got to thinking about what we've gotten instead. That is, films about the Beatles, fictionalized or otherwise, not just featuring them as performers, or their music (SPL!NG already covered the romcom Yesterday).

The best Beatles films happen to be the ones they were directly involved in, whether it be the inventively casual comedy of A Hard Day's Night, the broader slapstick of HELP!, or the psychedelic and imaginative animation of Yellow Submarine (where the Beatles are voiced by performers, only to show up for the final scene, because they liked the film too). Of their original run, only Magical Mystery Tour was poorly received, too loose and strange even for their flower power followers. Still, each of these is driven by the strength of the fab four's music, in its original form, and their distinctive sense of humour.

Once John Lennon started dating Yoko Ono, the two began creating experimental films, always under the credit of “by John and Yoko” (which translates roughly to “by Yoko”). John only features in a handful of them; Apotheosis, shot from a hot air balloon ascending into the clouds, Smile, in which he goes from stone faced to a cheeky grin repeatedly in super slow motion (taking about 51 minutes) and most curiously, Self-Portrait. This one is 42 minutes of John's nude waist, as his unassisted member… well, you can guess. Hilariously, Yoko already had a film called Erection, about a building being constructed. I figure these aren't exactly the sorts of films Beatles fans are clambering for.

Unfortunately, the height of the band's fame and creative output tends to be the realm of documentaries; most movies opt to explore the nebulous early period, spanning from before the Cavern Club to performing on the Ed Sullivan show. There's the fairly dated Birth of the Beatles, which at least manages not to play favourites with members, and the much better Backbeat, about the band's early connection to Stu Sutcliffe. Backbeat can rub fans the wrong way, since the mop tops are depicted performing modernised, punk covers of the songs they were performing at the time. Both films opt to only suggest the vast heights to come, and this might be for the better. Some biopics try to condense so much that they fall a little flat (this could be especially true of the Beatles, none of whom had a particularly clear life story, and who experienced more intermittently amazing and horrible things in individual weeks then some musicians do in their lifetimes).

Most biopics covering the members as individuals focus on John Lennon, who's untimely death mythologized him and inspired something of a consensus that he was the world's most beloved Beatle, which is only being challenged more recently. The best Lennon centric biopic is Nowhere Boy, which explores John's early life and his relationship with Paul as they first became writing partners, but of particular note is how the film investigates John's feelings towards his absent mother, who re-enters his life. Listening to the music he wrote about her, sometimes sounding romantic and weaving in verses about Yoko, it isn't difficult to feel that John had a strange view of his mother, and the film occasionally pushes this to appear downright oedipal. Plenty of these movies don't shy away from criticizing Lennon, but Nowhere Boy is the only one to bring this forward, and perhaps not coincidentally, the only film co-written by a family member. My favourite exclusively Lennon film, or rather short film, remains I Met the Walrus, animated musings from John, recorded by a 14-year-old Jerry Levitan, who snuck into a hotel room to interview him in 1969.

The next most popular Beatle over is Paul, whose wife got a movie before he did (The Linda McCartney Story). For my money though, George Harrison needs more attention on this front. Specifically, January 1969, the start of the Let It Be sessions, during which George's wife left him, and he quit the group. It seems to me that this time in his life is a good confluence of George's personal problems with infidelity, the band's falling out, and his emerging artistry during an infamous moment in the Beatle's history, and would make for an interesting movie.

P.S. Ringo has no biopic, despite ironically having been in the most films of any of the four, being a decent actor. The closest we have is a bizarre TV special featuring Ringo Starr in a dual role as himself, and his fictional brother Ognir Rrats, who trade places in a Prince and the Pauper scenario. It's on YouTube for free (creatively titled: Ringo), and it is just as goofy as it sounds.