The Beatles at the Movies

In my list 5 Great Movies to Watch Whenever, I recommended at the number 2 spot one of my all time favorite movies, A Hard Day’s Night. I’m a fairly hardcore fan of the Beatles, and consequently I have seen some of their movies (other than Yellow Submarine or Let It Be. Now I shall await the stoning from fellow Beatlemaniacs). From what I have seen, I want to tell you my opinion of Beatle movies.

I’ll start by talking about A Hard Day’s Night (1964) again.

The Beatles had released their first record Love Me Do not even two years prior to the release of A Hard Day’s Night. While they were on the rise having recently released the wildly successful I Want to Hold Your Hand, the Beatles were still not quite the household name they would become very soon. In 1964, they then teamed up with director Richard Lester and screenwriter Alun Owen to make A Hard Day’s Night, a mockumentary about 2 days in the life of the Beatles. AHDN, despite being a way to promote an up and coming rock band, was actually filmed on a really modest budget. Despite all that, AHDN featured great music (as to be expected from The Beatles) as well as terrific performances both from the Fab 4 and Wilfred Brambell as Paul’s grandfather. The quality of the performance had quite a bit to do with the absolutely terrific screenplay Alun Owen wrote, very cleverly using the distinctive Liverpool dialect. Needless to say, you need to pick up the associated soundtrack album, but I think everyone who hasn’t seen AHDN yet should drop what they’re doing now (including reading this blog) and see it. Now. An interesting fact was that the movie was filmed with no title in place. After a day of shooting, Ringo happened to exclaim, “That was a hard day’s night!” which became the inspiration of the film’s title song.

Help! (1965):

The Beatles followed up A Hard Day’s Night the following year with Help! The working title was Eight Arms to Hold You until John Lennon and Paul McCartney competed to see who can write a title song first, which Lennon won. Once again, the Beatles worked with Richard Lester. Unlike its predecessor, Help! featured a real plot. Ringo finds his finger stuck in a ring that is meant to signify a human sacrifice. It is then up to John, Paul, and George to protect him from an Eastern cult and a mad scientist (Victor Spinetti).

What is pretty obvious is that Help! was made on a significantly higher budget than A Hard Day’s Night using, among other things, color photography. I will say that Help! really tried to be as good as the movie that preceded it. However, the James Bond parody story (which involved them randomly going to the Alps and then to the Bahamas) didn’t really cut it for me. Unfortunately for the film crew, particularly Lester, the Beatles had discovered the wonderful thing called marijuana by then. Thus, filming became a complete nightmare as the main stars of the show were stoned almost all the time and almost always forgetting their lines. Still, the movie had great song sequences, my favorite one being Ticket to Ride.

While I can see why the Beatles felt they were “extras in their own movie,” I’m not really sure it’s fair to blame anyone like Richard Lester as I think he had to cut several scenes the band appeared in due to their inability to perform them. Thus, the Beatles didn’t seem like they were the central focus of the movie which they were in A Hard Day’s Night. Despite costing almost three times to make, Help! was definitely not anywhere near as good as A Hard Day’s Night.

After a couple years, the Beatles then made the made-for-TV movie Magical Mystery Tour (1967):

We saw what happened in Help! when the Beatles started smoking marijuana. Now, in Magical Mystery Tour, we get to see what happens when they started dropping acid. Magical Mystery Tour is about a bus that goes on an incredible magical mystery tour. It’s impossible to describe the plot beyond that as there was none. This movie very much was made by the Beatles. While they always will be known as four of the all time greatest pop musicians, MMT shows that filmmaking wasn’t really their forte. For instance, they didn’t even write a script, and used some notes scribbled down somewhere instead as a guide for shooting. Interspersed were totally psychedelic song sequences, with I am the Walrus being by and far the most memorable one.  Still, despite being only an hour long, the movie’s story just spiraled out of control as it was apparent even the Beatles didn’t know where they were going with it. The movie, which was described by John Lennon as the most expensive home movie ever made, aired on BBC to meet with hilariously low ratings. I have to agree with the British television-watching public of the time that watching MMT will leave you an hour closer to your death with nothing to show for it. Just buy the soundtrack album and skip the movie.

So I haven’t seen Yellow Submarine (1968) or Let It Be (1970), but I have seen Across the Universe (2007):

Across the Universe follows starcrossed lovers (Jim Sturgess and Evan Rachel Wood) with the Vietnam-era America as the backdrop. If you ask me, AtU proves that while he is one of the greatest pop musicians of the century, Paul McCartney is also an amazing sellout. While a few of them were good, I wasn’t a fan of many of the covers of Beatle songs the movie had. Unlike A Hard Day’s Night, AtU very much was intended to be a musical. As a result, more often than not, plot points served to be weak excuses to sing another cover of a Beatles song. I did like seeing Bono’s cover of I am the Walrus, but TV Carpio’s rendition of I Want to Hold Your Hand made me want to strangle her. The movie had some amazing visuals, which is the result of Broadway Lion King director emeritus Julie Taymor directing. Still, personally, I didn’t like how AtU ultimately was an attempt to take great music from the 1960s and sell it so the tween Avril Lavigne aficionados of 2007 could appreciate it. In fact, I’m pretty sure mostly everyone has forgotten about this movie by now.

So basically there is exactly one Beatle movie you need to see: A Hard Day’s Night.