Looking back at the original Beatles films

From A Hard Day's Night to Magical Mystery Tour, Yellow Submarine and Help!, we revisit the original Beatles films...

Of all the art that the Beatles brought into the world, their cinematic misadventures are probably less fondly remembered than their music. But in addition to 12 studio albums, 13 EPs, and 22 singles, the Fab Four also released five films in their comparatively few years together. These efforts comprised two feature films, a TV movie, a cartoon, and a documentary, all of admittedly inconsistent quality. Looking back now, these films provide a fascinating insight into the phenomenon of Beatlemania.

For Beatles fanatics such as myself, the music alone makes them a joy to watch and re-watch, but as pieces of cinema in their own right there’s plenty to still be enjoyed and appreciated. Their influence on modern culture can be felt from music videos to animated films – perhaps not quite as iconic or ubiquitous as the band’s songwriting, but nonetheless essential in the story of British cinema.

The first Beatles film, 1964’s A Hard Day’s Night, was conceived by United Artists as a cheap cash in on The Beatles’ exploding popularity, and was shot in black-and-white for a limited budget of £500,000. Thanks to director Richard Lester, however, it’s probably the band’s most artistically successful live-action film. These days, Lester is often derided as the man who ruined Superman II, but it’s difficult to fault his work in elevating A Hard Day’s Night into something cinematically spellbinding.

The film ostensibly portrays a day in the life of the world’s four most famous musicians, with Steptoe And Son’s Wilfrid Brambell playing Paul McCartney’s mischievous grandfather. It has a realist, almost faux-documentary style that’s clearly rooted in the British New Wave, but whenever the music kicks in the film veers into hyper-real montage sequences. As the four lads play cards on a train, the first bars of I should Have Known Better drift onto the soundtrack and suddenly their instruments are in their hands, playing along to the beat. These interludes are beautifully shot and edited in a way that captures the energy of the Beatles’ music – it was a new and dynamic style of film-making which crystallised the carefree spirit of sixties Britain.

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Roger Ebert said in 1996 that the legacy of A Hard Day’s Night can be seen whenever we turn on the TV, so pervasive was the cinematic style that it pioneered. It’s also a film in which the band members themselves seem to be having a lot of fun, particularly Ringo, who’s given disproportionately more screen time and his own sub-plot. Alun Owen’s script, which was deservedly nominated for an Oscar, plays to each of their strengths without expecting too much of the four non-actors. At its core, the film is a fun and often hilarious 87 minutes with the Beatles and their music, and you can’t ask for more than that.

The band’s second film, Help!, is more of a mixed bag. The critical and commercial success of A Hard Day’s Night emboldened United Artists into throwing their financial weight behind a sequel, released the following year. The realistic façade adopted in the previous film was disposed of, opting for a more fantastical approach which parodied the hugely popular James Bond series. The plot sees the Beatles fleeing an evil Eastern cult, as Ringo has inadvertently found himself wearing their ancient sacrificial ring. Moving between London, the Austrian alps, and the Bahamas, the group attempt to record their next album whilst dodging variously convoluted attempts at assassination and kidnapping.

Critics were less enamoured with this second outing, as were the band themselves. For most of the film they appear disinterested and confused, hardly surprising considering that, by John Lennon’s own admission, they were “smoking marijuana for breakfast during that period”. Despite this, Help! still makes for enjoyable, if slightly bemusing viewing, with plenty of laughs along the way and some delightfully over the top performances from the supporting cast. Victor Spinetti deserves particular recognition for his turn as a mad scientist, hot in pursuit of Ringo’s ring for his own diabolical ends.

Help! would prove to be the Beatles’ last foray into live-action fiction. Their next effort, Magical Mystery Tour, was instead broadcast on BBC One for Boxing Day 1967. If you found Help! confusing, then prepare to be left confounded and discombobulated. It’s an essentially plotless, meandering romp through four drug addled minds, moving swiftly from one inexplicable set-piece to the next. One moment has the Beatles dressed as wizards over a bubbling cauldron, while another involves John Lennon literally shovelling piles of bolognese and dessert onto the plate of an overweight diner. An abstract dream sequence mid-way through even borrows outtakes from Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Audiences and critics were left appropriately incredulous by Magical Mystery Tour. Nevertheless, it acts as an intriguing time capsule of the Beatles during one of their most creatively daring periods; a sort of beginner’s guide to sixties psychedelia. In retrospect, the film’s comic surrealism can be appreciated as a precursor to Monty Python’s Flying Circus, even if the execution is less successful. The musical sequences are typically excellent, notably the now iconic performance of I Am The Walrus, and the closing rendition of Your Mother Should Know (a criminally underrated song). Taken as a whole, the film is a valuable piece of history – as entertainment, you can probably give this one a miss.

After the release of Help! in 1965, the Beatles were contractually obliged to provide United Artists with another theatrical film. The band were uninterested in shooting a new feature-length movie, and so the animated Yellow Submarine was conceived to placate the producers.

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At first glance, the colourful cartoon appears to be a straightforward children’s adventure. Caricatures of the four band members (voiced by impressionists) are called upon to travel from Liverpool to the mystical Pepperland, where they must save the peaceful population from marauding ‘Blue Meanies’. On the way, the audience is treated to a selection of the Beatles’ greatest hits, and a few new songs for good measure. The film’s visuals, however, were revolutionary. It launched into the mainstream a heavily stylised form of limited animation, which went on to influence the work of Monty Python’s Terry Gilliam, among innumerable others, and has been imitated and parodied ever since. This hypnotising aesthetic was a radical departure from that of classic children’s cartoons, and raised awareness of animation as a legitimate art form.

In addition to the Beatles tunes throughout the soundtrack, Yellow Submarine also has an original orchestral score by the band’s producer, George Martin. The four Beatles themselves appear in a short epilogue at the end of the picture, which was more or less the extent of their contribution. In the event, the movie proved to be an artistic and commercial triumph, but the band’s lack of involvement would leave United Artists unsatisfied and their contract unfulfilled. And so it was that 1970’s Let It Be came to fruition.

By 1969, the Beatles’ personal and creative differences had become pronounced. In January of that year, it was decided that the band would rehearse a series of stripped down rock songs, in preparation for a live performance and album. These sessions were documented by a camera team for a theatrical release, and the result is often uncomfortable viewing. Paul McCartney and George Harrison bicker about guitar riffs while Yoko Ono lingers ominously in the corner of every frame; gone are the four young lads with a lust for life we met in A Hard Day’s Night. If it all feels perfunctory, that’s because it is. Let It Be was a hastily cobbled together fly-on-the-wall documentary to satisfy a longstanding financial commitment, and the band shows as much disdain towards the cameras as they do each other.

Fortunately, it’s not just a procession of misery. The film ends with the Beatles’ iconic live performance on the rooftop of Apple Corps. Headquarters on Savile Row, during which they are repeatedly interrupted by the police and eventually forced to stop playing. Despite the studio squabbling which preceded it, this impromptu gig is an electrifying watch. For their last ever live performance, the four musicians are propelled into their element, laughing and grooving along with the music as if it were 1964 all over again. Although Let It Be showed audiences how divided the Beatles had become, it also serves as a lasting reminder of just how well they worked together.

If this has piqued your interest, then I’ve some bad news: Let It Be is nearly impossible to track down these days, beyond the usual illicit channels. Unlike the Beatles’ other filmic efforts, it hasn’t been released on home media since a dodgy transfer on VHS and Laserdisc in the 1980s. It’s often been speculated that the surviving Beatles remain concerned about the band’s image, and have thus vetoed efforts to restore and release the troubled documentary.

In a 2016 interview with Rolling Stone, Paul McCartney suggested that he was open to the idea of a re-release, stating “I keep bringing it up, and everyone goes, ‘Yeah, we should do that.’ The objection should be me. I don’t come off well.” With the rest of the catalogue now available on blu-ray, this absence is all the more bothersome. Despite its continuing controversy, seeing Let It Be finally receive proper treatment would be a coup for Beatles fans, if only for the full footage of that final rooftop concert. For the time being, however, it remains in limbo.

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The Beatles were not unique as musicians who made movies: Elvis had mastered the art almost a decade earlier, and it’s a trend that continues to the present day, from Spiceworld to Justin Bieber: Never Say Never. What makes the Beatles’ films worth studying is their sheer range of styles and genres, from British New Wave to action-comedy to animation to documentary, with each one capturing the band in a different light. They record a culture, and indeed a world, in a state of flux. And it would be a very different world without them.