This review is by Amy Hughes
The lens through which we see The Beatles can be a prismatic collage of idol worship, fan participation, and undying gratitude. For most, the forming of those perspectives – beyond the music – was through the medium of film.
As a scholar and author, Stephanie Fremaux demonstrates in The Beatles On Screen: From Pop Stars To Musicians (Bloomsbury Academic, 2018), how the band portrayed numerous versions of themselves that helped convey their image as witty moptops, groovy guys, psychedelic creators, and gutsy soul-baring artists.
Of course, from a realistic standpoint, most of the above descriptors have a caveat attached. Fremaux brings us through a studied course of their films (including Ron Howard’s ‘Eight Days A Week: The Touring Years’) and illustrates several touchpoints within the media. Most notable is how each fits within a specified genre and timeframe and pointedly, how their film image interacted with the fans.
1964’s ‘A Hard Day’s Night’ was not the success or ground-breaking film it set out to be. Conceived before the group hit big in the US, director Richard Lester shot the film with the idea, as Fremaux notes, of a fictionalized account of what it was like to be The Beatles at that time. The advantage of the big screen brought the devoted as close as possible to their idols, highlighting the close-up, stylistic camerawork (mostly handheld) Lester thought necessary to convey their fast-paced lifestyle.
With the tide of Beatlemania shifting to closer examination of each ‘personality,’ Fremaux dissects the ‘real’ from the ‘fantasy,’ comparing and contrasting several notable scenes including the surrealistic sequence of The Beatles running/cycling alongside the train, taunting an old veteran (“Hey Mister, can we have our ball back?!”) to the film-within-a-television broadcast-within-a-film (‘And I Love Her’), surrounded by schoolgirls intercut with a performance (‘I Should Have Known Better’) and creating general calamity (with broad Liverpool humor) throughout the movie.
As Starr emerged as the film’s protagonist, 1965’s ‘Help!’ further showcased his persona as the centerpiece of the plot. Fremaux correctly points to several problematic aspects with the follow-up: as a mirror of the moment, the premise is non-tangible and moves their fans away from the center of attention. The plot is of the day (James Bond-ish), the locales are removed from the storyline and The Beatles themselves have no other job than to lip-sync to their songs (albeit wonderfully filmed by Lester) to avoid a sacrificial sect bent on killing Ringo.
While Fremaux notes that ‘Help!’ as a whole is weak, the individual songs used as connecting links hold up over time apart from the film. Considered among the first ‘music videos’ the segments were a showcase for what was coming in the next year as The Beatles moved away from live performances and into the studio to craft their future.
There would be no feature film in 1966, however several songs would make their debut for television broadcast as filmed shorts, the most noteworthy being ‘Rain’ and ‘Paperback Writer.’ Insofar as the band appears disenchanted or mocking in other versions (or as in ‘We Can Work It Out’ going off the rails in lip-sync laughter), the two color videos (directed by Micheal Lindsay-Hogg) helped to break the monotony, while furthering the experimentation that was on the horizon.
As The Beatles cartoon series chugged along in the US (much to the disdain of the band), Fremaux exams the seismic shifts happening as 1966 yielded to the iconic year of 1967. The ‘lads’ were morphing into serious musicians and their individualism – first noticed in the Lindsay-Hogg videos – were ignited full force with the release of ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’ and ‘Penny Lane.’
A notable characterization study, both films find the foursome further removed from ‘performing:’ recasting themselves with ‘Swinging London’ apparel, moustaches (!) and no instrumentation, their perceived aloofness mixed with a creative detached air of avant-garde musicianship, gave pause to the young audience they had seized upon only three years hence. That coolness factor – adult, yet child-like in execution – did not serve them well in their next film endeavor.
After the death of Brian Epstein, The Beatles moved forward with ‘Magical Mystery Tour,’ despite the lack of planning and some say, script. While Paul McCartney loosely directed, the remaining three were given creative license with their ‘characters.’ Fremaux argues that although the end result was much maligned by the press, in hindsight ‘MMT’ brought about certain far-out visuals that predicted the future of music presentation. However the majority of the public, while making the soundtrack a hit, could not understand the psychedelic freeform narrative, resulting in the first major ding in The Beatles armor of commercial value.
In should then come as a slight surprise that 1968 saw a rebirth of their image to the general record-buying public. As their next feature film ‘Yellow Submarine’ was toiling away in the background without their direct supervision or input, the release of ‘Hey Jude/Revolution’ put them squarely back in favor with their fans.
‘Yellow Submarine’ in spite of the perceived lack of support, was a cinematic feast for the eyes. Although they eventually appeared at the end (minus the planned special effects), this animated image of The Beatles has endured, untethered from the real world and pleasantly living as a creative tribute to the men and women who placed their lives on hold because of their love for The Beatles.
Fremaux poses some interesting subjective viewpoints on the ‘Hey Jude’ clip, noting that Lennon, Harrison and Starr seem removed from the proceedings while McCartney (on piano, minus his iconic bass) takes the lead, with only the invited audience streaming in for the coda singalong to enliven the scene. This tendency to read into the tense environment that was slowly evolving, cast the next feature as a 50-year-old conundrum that since the publication of this book, has been turned inside out.
The dirge that ‘Let It Be’became known for, the “visual struggle” as Fremaux describes, is now in 2022 something of a misnomer. While Fremaux can only provide insight for the 1970 chain of events and the version available to critique, it’s exactly where most of the public saw the group at the movie’s release: four grown men, struggling creatively or not participating to the fullest degree, on the precipice of fallout and literally removed from the public who could not see the rooftop performance at 3 Savile Row.
The conclusion showcases the long journey The Beatles travelled from Liverpool favorites to global social influence. ‘Eight Days A Week,’ was their most recent film endeavor (until 2021’s ‘Get Back’) involving the approval of everyone connected. As fans and admirers, the celebrities and notables interviewed onscreen nearly reach the same conclusion: that despite what was going in their personal lives, The Beatles had spoken to them through music and film. Fremaux incidentally notes with no irony, that this film should have been the one between ‘Help!’ and ‘Magical Mystery Tour,’ an idea not too far flung. Director Ron Howard was able to paint a portrait that encapsulated the enormous influence and reach they had during those hectic years criss-crossing the world (not altogether satisfactorily sometimes), while maintaining a connection via concerts and movies for their audience.
“It is interesting to think that some fifty years before social media, before the idea of collective individualism that such platforms encourage, and before the extent to which anyone can be celebrities today, the Beatles used their films to project their ordinariness even at the height of their success.”
Fremaux’s words are in the end, worth a rating of 4 out of 4 beetles.