The Fab Four’s films are a mixed bag, but they each provide wholly distinct insights into the world’s most beloved band.
Nearly sixty years after their formation, the Beatles still occupy a comforting, omnipresent place in our media landscape. On Christmas Eve in 2015, The Fab Four’s catalog finally arrived on most notable streaming sites, and eternal classics like “Let It Be,” “Hey Jude,” “Here Comes The Sun,” and “Come Together” have now each surpassed a thunderous 100,000,000 listens on Spotify. In 2016, the Ron Howard-directed The Beatles: Eight Days a Week — a documentary exploring the group’s touring years from 1962 to 1966 — grossed 12 million dollars worldwide, despite its limited release in less than 200 theaters. Last year, the revered Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band celebrated its 50th birthday, escorted by the album’s lavishly remixed anniversary edition and copious thinkpieces on its enduring appeal. Also, the band’s inventive animated film, Yellow Submarine, is currently returning to theaters for its 50th anniversary.
Clearly, the Beatles remain an accessible and illustrious part of our past; their dense, vulnerable, and entertaining contributions to pop culture continue to awe old and young fans alike. Out of all the diverse art the band has bestowed to the world, fans and critics tend to focus on their music — unsurprisingly and rightfully so. However, as evidenced by the special screenings of Yellow Submarine, the Beatles’ cinematic forays are also deserving of commemoration.
John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison, and Ringo Starr appeared in five movies together; these collaborations comprised of two live-action films, one animated film, a documentary, and a TV movie. The quality of these projects range from incredible to delightfully amateur to lackluster, but they each admirably aim to exist as legitimate artistic endeavors, as opposed to cheap promotional tools for the band’s music.
Some of the Beatles films effectively stand in their own right as enjoyable, influential counter-cultural touchstones, while others offer riveting commentary on Beatlemania and the performativity of rock stardom. The less successful films don’t meet either of these achievements, but they nonetheless cement the Beatles’ talent beyond their musicianship and remain a unique document of one of the most famous, beloved bands of the 20th century. The following list chronicles the band’s five films, from A Hard Day’s Night to Let It Be.
A Hard Day’s Night (1964)
Directed By: Richard Lester
Soundtrack Highlights: “A Hard Day’s Night,” “Can’t Buy Me Love,” “If I Fell,” “I Should Have Known Better,” “I Wanna Be Your Man”
The Scoop: The Beatles travel to London for a televised concert. Along the way, they encounter crazed fans, Paul’s “clean” and mischievous grandfather, and managers who argue about height.
Why Watch? A Hard Day’s Night is a breezy and irreverent film pervaded with incisive commentary on fame and some of the best songs The Beatles ever wrote. Accompanied by the famous chords of the title track, the opening sequence begins with the jovial Paul, John, George, and Ringo running on a narrow street from zealous fans. George trips and Ringo falls behind him; they get back up and self-effacingly laugh at themselves. These first few moments not only establishes the film’s infectious energy, but it also seamlessly renders the excitement of The Beatles and celebrates their youth, fame, and music without overly sensationalizing it.
In fact, the film matter of factly comments on the banal minutiae of the superstars’ day-to-day lives, with Paul’s grandfather lamenting, “I thought I was supposed to be getting a change of scenery and so far I’ve seen a train and a room, a car and a room and a room and a room. Well, that’s maybe all right for a bunch of powdered gee-gaws like you lot but I’m feeling decidedly strait-jacketed.” He later rephrases these sentiments to Ringo, which prompts the drummer to embark upon a thoughtful, forlorn wandering outside the studio, comprising of a pensive photoshoot at a river and bonding session with a 10 and two-thirds-year-old boy. While we may scoff at Paul’s grandfathers’ histrionic words, they are not without any validity: at the height of their popularity, The Beatles were largely confined to their demanding touring and recording schedule, without much freedom to — as Paul’s grandpa states — “parade the streets … trail your [their] coat[s] … bowl along … live!”
The film never teeters too far on the edge of melancholy, though. The Fab Four cheerfully grin while they play to an audience, and they are eventually able to escape their jobs and playfully frolic in an open field, masterfully set to “Can’t Buy Me Love.” The film was joyously directed by Richard Lester, who refused the film to become a easy, exorbitant cash out; instead, he infused the film with lighthearted moments, accentuated and cheeky versions of the Beatles’ personalities, puns, innovative filming techniques … and some great songs. Adopting a semi-documentary style with handheld cameras, interviews, and quick cuts, Lester masterfully captures The Beatles at the exhilarating peak of their careers.
Directed By: Richard Lester
Soundtrack Highlights: “I Need You,” “Ticket to Ride,” “You’re Going to Lose That Girl,” “Help!”
The Scoop: In the possession of a desirable ring, Ringo finds himself to be the forthcoming human sacrifice victim by an evil cult. The members of the cult chase Ringo, John, George, and Paul through London, the Bahamas, and the Austrian Alps.
Why Watch? As The Beatles’ second collaboration with distributor United Artists and director Richard Lester, Help! operates on a grander spectacle than Hard Day’s Night: it was given a larger budget, shot in color, and filmed across the world. While Help! retains some of the charming witticisms and characterizations of A Hard Day’s Night, the inferior follow-up film does not reach the same artistic and comedic heights as its predecessor. The cartoonist depiction of the villainous Eastern cult is latent with outdated stereotypes, and the inconsistent gags range from brilliant to flat. Notably, the Fab Four did not enjoy the production of the film — a time where they “were smoking marijuana for breakfast,” which led to a lack of communication with Lester — or the final product.
Regardless, Help! is deserving of some praise: the film’s penchant for nonsense and spontaneity is engrossing, and the wonderful “I Need You” and “You’re Gonna Lose That Girl” sequences decidedly influenced the development of music videos. The scenes in The Beatles’ garish, weirdly awesome house — complete with sunken beds, multiple front doors, a cafe, and a trapdoor Wurlitzer piano — are well-choreographed and innovative. The engaging opening sequence, wherein the cult members throw darts at The Beatles as they perform the title track on television, remains one of the best Beatles movies scenes, period. Slapstick gags pervade the movie, but the most memorable moment instance surfaces when the four Beatles get their bodies drenched and their shirts sucked off by bathroom hand dryers (the various “arghs” “hew-hhhuooos” and “woahs,” and “hoohoos” are an ingenious use of sound design). Thus, while Help! doesn’t stand as an especially remarkable film by itself, it’s an enjoyable one, elevated by the innovative set designs and classic Beatles tunes.
Magical Mystery Tour (1967)
Director: Paul McCartney, John Lennon, George Harrison, Ringo Starr (also the film’s director of photography)
Soundtrack Highlights: “I Am the Walrus,” “Blue Jay Way,” “Magical Mystery Tour”
The Scoop: A 52-minute television movie starring Ringo and his Aunt Jessie, who join a surreal, mystery tour with the other members of the Beatles.
Why Watch? According to Ringo, Paul came up with the idea of the improvised, psychedelic Magical Mystery Tour and presented “a great piece of paper — just a blank piece of white paper with a circle on it” to his bandmates, encouraging them to make up the script as they went along. The resulting film allows viewers to enter the head-spaces of the Beatles, who demonstrate a lack of concern over conforming to a clean-cut, accessible rock n’ roll image. Their delightful, boundless creativity manifests in several shapes and forms in the 1967 film, and while it’s fascinating to witness the band do just about anything at the peak of the career, Magical Mystery Tour fails as a film.
Despite its brief 52 minute runtime, the sprawling film drags from one surrealistic, clunky scene to the next, without any real narrative crux or gripping characters. The Beatles simply aren’t filmmakers, and Magical Mystery Tour feels more like an acid trip than anything else, with its nonsensical plot, vivid and sugary color palette, and perverse scenes. Among these scenes, though, are the seeds of a strangely captivating film, from John shoveling muddy spaghetti onto Aunt Jessie’s plate and virtually all of the featured performances. The animal masks and egg-men in “I Am The Walrus” are simply iconic pieces of Beatles imagery, and “Blue Jay Way” features George sitting cross-legged, playing a chalked-on keyboard on the ground while hazing, hallucinatory images swirl around him. The scene is dated, but it nonetheless remains an effective and gorgeous emblem of 60s counterculture — if only the same could be said for the rest of the film.
Yellow Submarine (1968)
Directed By: George Dunning
Soundtrack Highlights: “Eleanor Rigby,” “Nowhere Man,” “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds,” “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band,” “Hey Bulldog,” “All Your Need Is Love”
The Scoop: In a clash between art and love against rigidity and regression, the idyllic utopia of Pepperland is conquered by the music-hating Blue Meanies. Via his yellow submarine, Captain Fred escapes to Liverpool to alert the Beatles of the injustice. Ringo, John, George, and Paul accompany Fred on a multi-dimensional, psychedelic adventure to restore the peace and music in Pepperland.
Why Watch? The Beatles were under a contractual obligation to make a third movie with United Artists, but their sour memories of the production of Help! rendered an enthusiasm for the project. They agreed to an animated film, which would feature their songs without requiring any additional input or acting. Thus, Yellow Submarine was born, and the Beatles enjoyed the rough-cut of the film so much that they agree to make a live-action cameo performance of “All Together Now” in the final scene.
It’s easy to see why The Beatles liked Yellow Submarine so much: even though their avatars were voiced by other actors, the film aptly illuminates the band’s esprit de corps and peace-and-love sensibility. The fanciful and striking animation — with expressive imagery of interdimensional holes, diamond-studded figurines, and bellies with teeth — undoubtedly also appealed to the band members.
The introduction of their avatars also hilariously riffs off the public perceptions of the Fab Four. Ringo is a sentimentalist who asserts nothing exciting happens to him, John emerges from Frankenstein’s monster, George’s hair gracefully blows in the wind to the music cue of “Love You To” (because, per Ringo, it’s “Sitar-day”), and Paul adjusts his tie and blithely asks, “What’s the matter fellas? Blue Meanies?” when he joins the group.
50 years after its release, Yellow Submarine succeeds both as a cultural artifact of the 1960s and a refreshing trip full of shameful puns, fast-paced vignettes, an unsurprisingly great soundtrack, and a subversive, often sophisticated take on the animated film. Yellow Submarine’s story is beautifully naive and childlike, but it is also admirably erudite — take the “Eleanor Rigby” sequence, for example. In this atmospheric scene, we see the ruins of a gray cityscape, bare streets, factories, solitary human figures (the “lonely people”). As this sinister yet grounded representation of 1960s Liverpool unveils, we consider the perils of a society struggling to cut ties from the strife and stagnancy of its past. It’s a mature and downbeat idea — one that is certainly going to overheads of children, who can marvel at the scene’s striking visual stimuli all the same. The film’s aptitude to pander to both children and adults has influenced modern television shows (The Simpsons, Adventure Time), not to mention the near entirety of Pixar’s output.
Let It Be (1970)
Directed By: Michael Lindsay-Hogg
Soundtrack Highlights: “Don’t Let Me Down,” “I Me Mine,” “Octopus’s Garden,” “Across the Universe,” “Let It Be,” “You’ve Really Got a Hold on Me”
The Scoop: A documentary about The Beatles’ attempt to recapture their old spirits and make a back-to-basics album, despite the group’s general indifference and disillusionment with each other.
Why Watch? Filmed in January 1969 in the Twickenham Film Studios and the Apple studio, Let It Be captures a critical moment in Beatles history. Let It Be is less a film than it is a frank fly-on-the-wall behind-the-scenes exploration of the recording sessions for the band’s final album. It does not possess the downright goofiness and charm as Help! and A Hard Day’s Night, but it still endures as an insightful examination of the group’s dynamics with each other.
While the film is credited for supposedly documenting the ultimate downfall of the band, the film mostly comprises of Paul, John, Ringo, and George jamming in the studio, with little additional insights or stylistic flourishes. Occasionally, the tensions are suggested: we see a stoic Yoko Ono perpetually hovering over John’s side, and Paul nervously attempts to delineate the band’s preparedness (or lack thereof) for public performances to John, who gives him a vacant, disengaged look in return.
Throughout the film, Paul appears the only member interested in keeping the band intact, to a fault. Paul and George have a tense discussion over how George’s guitar part should be performed; Paul states, “I always seem to be annoying you … I’m trying to help you …” to which George — clearly trying to withhold his contempt — replies, “I’ll play whatever you want me to play, or I won’t play at all if you don’t want me to play. Whatever it is that would please you, I’ll do it.” Meanwhile, a grave Ringo looks upon the scene as if he was witnessing a fight between his parents.
Crucially, the featured number of positive, even uplifting moments between the band members far outweigh the negative ones. In one scene, Ringo presents the rough outline of his new song, “Octopus’s Garden,” to a gleeful George, who then becomes inspired, rushes to a piano, and spontaneously pounds out the chords that would later become the song’s official chorus. Uncharacteristically, John then goes to the drum set and starts banging out a percussionist backbone for the song. There is something equal parts tragic and idyllic watching these gifted musicians working so sincerely and harmoniously together, knowing that their acrimony will soon lead to their disbanding. Plus, seeing the band members enthusiastic to help Ringo with his own composition — a relatively rare occurrence — is deeply heart-melting.
And, of course, there is the film’s climax: the iconic, impromptu roof concert on top of the Apple Building. As the group masterfully play songs like “Don’t Let Me Down” and “I’ve Got A Feeling,” the entire city of London is disrupted; the music generates hundreds of stunned people to gaze up at the band’s concert with wonder and awe. Paul, John, Ringo, and George each appear in their element, breezing through the set together with an exuding chemistry and confidence (and amazing fur coats). The gig abruptly stops after threats from the police, and as the band’s performance of “Get Back” ends, John remarks, “I’d like to say thank you on behalf of the group and ourselves, and I hope we passed the audition,” a nod to both the band’s failed auditions over the years and their subsequent unparalleled success. Because the rooftop concert was the band’s last public performance, John’s words signify an end of an era — and a perfect Beatles swansong.