There's a dual cinematic treat for fans of the Fab Four this year, as not only has Yellow Submarine
been restored to its full psychedelic glory to mark its 50th anniversary, but this autumn also sees the release of The Beatles in India
, a documentary about the combo's quest for enlightenment at Maharishi Mahesh Yogi's ashram in Rishikesh. With the anthemic 'Hey Jude' also about to turn 50, Cinema Paradiso looks back at the screen careers of John, Paul, George and Ringo.
With so many unofficial documentaries available on disc, it's not easy to know where to embark upon the long and winding road that took four lads from the backstreets of Liverpool to the toppermost of the poppermost. The best place to start, however, is The Beatles: Anthology (1995), as Bob Smeaton and Geoff Wonfor's 674-minute record was sanctioned by Paul, George and Ringo, who share their recollections of everything from their Cavern heyday and Beatlemania to Sgt Pepper and their acrimonious break-up. Genuine Apple Scruffs might like to detour to take in Wonfor's Pete Best of The Beatles: The Greatest Rock'n'Roll Story Never Told, Steve Cole's Stuart Sutcliffe: The Lost Beatle (both 2006) and David Bedford's Liddypool: Birthplace of The Beatles (2011), while those seeking a slick dramatisation should check out Iain Softley's Backbeat (1993).
As Elvis Presley, Tommy Steele and Cliff Richard had all cashed in on their chart success by branching into movies, it was inevitable that the Fabs would follow their lead. However, their screen career might have been over before it had begun if they had accepted director Robert Hartford-Davis's invitation to cameo in his teen pregnancy drama, Yellow Teddybears (1963). But Lennon and McCartney were reluctant to write new material for the project and the producers plumped for The Embers. Seeking something more suitable, manager Brian Epstein hired playwright Alun Owen to produce a `day in the life' scenario and he spent three days with the Mop Tops in Dublin and London in November 1963 to witness Beatlemania at close quarters. The resulting screenplay prompted documentarists Albert and David Maysles to claim that Owen had plagiarised their vérité approach in shooting What's Happening! The Beatles in the USA (1964), the making of which is recalled in Kathy Dougherty and Susan Frömke's The Beatles: First U.S. Visit (1994). But, a month after launching the so-called British Invasion on The Ed Sullivan Show, The Beatles started filming A Hard Day's Night at Paddington Station on 2 March 1964.
Taking his cues from Free Cinema, the nouvelle vague and his own Oscar-nominated Goons short, The Running Jumping & Standing Still Film (1959), American director Richard Lester found such novel ways to incorporate songs into the narrative that revered critic Andrew Sarris declared it 'the Citizen Kane of jukebox movies'. Working wonders with a £200,000 budget, Lester also helped the Fabs subvert their 'boys next door' image with the cheeky banter that had won over the media. But the film received the royal seal of approval when Princess Margaret attended premiere at the London Pavilion on 6 July 1964, while the screen élite recognised its value by rewarding Owen and score producer George Martin with Oscar nominations.
Ringo had come up with the film's title and his naturalistic performance persuaded Lester to base a follow-up feature around him. However, the script for Eight Arms to Hold You, in which Ringo was stalked by a hitman, bore too many similarities to Philippe De Broca's Up to His Ears (1965). So, writers Charles Wood and Marc Behm had the drummer targeted by a fanatical religious cult and set scenes in the Alps and the Bahamas to lampoon the jet-setting style of the James Bond franchise. Made in colour with a markedly bigger budget, Help! (1965) lacked the cutting edge of its predecessor and drew mixed reviews. But, while the fans lapped it up, their heroes were beginning to tire of being public property and, as Ron Howard reveals in The Beatles: Eight Days a Week: The Touring Years (2016), they longed to jettison their hectic schedules and spend more time in the studio.
We Can't Work It Out
Despite producing their first two features, Walter Shenson failed to persuade The Beatles to sign up to either his adaptation of Richard Condon's Western, A Talent for Loving, or Owen Holder's original screenplay, Shades of a Personality. Convinced that the latter project had merit (even after the prospect of working with Michelangelo Antonioni had failed to pique the group's interest), Shenson commissioned playwright Joe Orton to rework the material as Up Against It and his meeting with McCartney is recalled in Stephen Frears's classic Orton biopic, Prick Up Your Ears (1987).
Even though they hoped to cast Brigitte Bardot as Lady De Winter, producers Alexander and Ilya Salkind had no more luck in coaxing the Fab Four into playing the Three Musketeers, while Lennon was vehemently against the idea of working on Disney's The Jungle Book (1967). As a huge fan of Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) - indeed, he believed it 'should be shown in a temple 24 hours a day' - Lennon was keener to collaborate on an adaptation of JRR Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings. While he hoped to play Gollum, John envisaged Paul playing Frodo Baggins, while George and Ringo would take the roles of Gandalf and Samwise Gangee. However, despite selling the screen rights to United Artists in 1969, Tolkien may well have vetoed the proposal, as he had once confided in a letter: 'In a house three doors away dwells a member of a group of young men who are evidently aiming to turn themselves into a Beatle Group. On days when it falls to his turn to have a practice session the noise is indescribable.'
A second liaison with Kubrick fell through when he discarded a petition calling for The Beatles to provide the soundtrack for an adaptation of Anthony Burgess's A Clockwork Orange, with Mick Jagger as Alex. But they remained keen to make films and, in late 1966, the Fabs allowed Epstein to talk them into contributing songs to an animated feature, even though they were deeply suspicious of producer Al Brodax, as he has been the brains behind The Beatles, a 39-episode cartoon series for American television that they had despised.
Convinced that the hit single 'Yellow Submarine' would inspire a great movie, Brodax asked Lee Minhoff to devise a storyline and considered such writers as Joe Orton, Ian Le Frenais and Tom Stoppard before presenting Epstein with six treatments in different coloured folders. However, he clearly caught him on a bad day, as Epstein tossed them all aside, even though one had been written by Joseph Heller, the author of the bestselling satire, Catch-22. Ultimately, Epstein accepted a scenario by Yale academic Erich Segal, although he insisted that Mersey poet Roger McGough spiced up the dialogue with a few Scouse witticisms. He also agreed to leave the graphics to director George Dunning and Czech illustrator Heinz Edelmann, who drew upon artistic styles from Aubrey Beardsley and Andy Warhol to Peter Blake and Bridget Riley to create the Pepperland that had been overrun by the music-hating Blue Meanies.
With the Fabs unwilling to voice their characters, Brodax drafted in actors John Clive, Geoffrey Hughes, Peter Batten and Paul Angelis to play John, Paul, George and Ringo. However, Angelis had to double up as George after Batten went on the run when it was discovered that he was an army deserter. But The Beatles took little interest in the project after recording their live-action coda on 25 January 1968, as they were probably still smarting from the reception accorded to Magical Mystery Tour, which they had written, produced, financed and directed following Epstein's overdose death in the summer of 1967.
Doubtless inspired by a 1964 bus trip taken by Ken Kesey and his Merry Pranksters, this 50-minute television special consciously eschewed linearity and embraced absurdist humour to poke fun at the British establishment. However, having gone to the trouble of shooting in psychedelic colour, the Fabs were dismayed to discover that the BBC planned to transmit their offbeat odyssey in monochrome, as part of its Boxing Day schedule. Revelling in the band's perceived first failure, the press had a field day and, even though the reviews were more enthusiastic when the BBC showed the film in colour on 5 January, the damage had been done. Even Queen Elizabeth supposedly remarked: 'The Beatles are turning awfully funny aren't they?'
As Dave Lambert reveals in Magical Mystery Tour Memories (2008), this audaciously ambitious departure had a considerable impact on alternative British comedy in the late 1960s. But it also exposed the fault lines emerging within the group and these became increasingly apparent during the shooting of Michael Lindsay-Hogg's documentary, Let It Be (1970).
Gathering at Twickenham Studios in January 1969 to rehearse for a new album and a potential live gig, the foursome soon started bickering. Particularly irked by McCartney, Harrison stayed away for several days and only returned on condition that plans for the live show were scrapped. Nevertheless, The Beatles still played on the roof of their Apple offices in Savile Row to provide Lindsay-Hogg with a rousing finale. But only 3000 fans turned up for the premiere in New York, while Quincy Jones had to accept the Academy Award for Best Score on their behalf because the dream had ended on 10 April 1970. Edited down from 29 hours of often painful footage, Let It Be has long been out of circulation, although suggestions that Paul and Ringo have blocked a reissue to protect the Beatle brand seem wide of the mark.
Ringo - I Can Play the Part So Well
Despite being hailed as the best actor in The Beatles, Ringo Starr - or, to give him his full name, Sir Richard Starkey - was the last to embark upon a solo screen career. Having debuted as a Mexican gardener named Emmanuel in Christian Marquand's porn satire, Candy (1968), he played Peter Sellers's newly adopted heir, Youngman Grand, in The Magic Christian (1969), which was similarly adapted from a novel by Terry Southern and directed by Joseph McGrath, who had helped pioneer the music video with his promos for Beatle songs like 'Ticket to Ride' and 'We Can Work It Out'.
Unfortunately, cult items like Ferdinando Baldi's Blindman (1971) and Freddie Francis's Son of Dracula (1974) are currently unavailable on disc. Neither is Jeff Margolis's Ringo (1978), a TV-movie spin on Mark Twain's The Prince and the Pauper, in which Starr played both himself and his half-brother, Ognir Ratts. But it is possible to see Ringo's amusing display as Frank Zappa's stand-in, Larry the Dwarf, in the madcap romp, 200 Motels (1971), his cameo as the Pope in Ken Russell's Lisztomania (1975), and his guest appearance as one of Mae West's ex-husbands in Ken Hughes's Sextette (1978).
During this period, Ringo also flexed his directorial muscles with the Marc Bolan vehicle, Born to Boogie (1972), while also cropping up in Martin Scorsese's record of The Band's farewell gig, The Last Waltz (1978). But his finest hour came alongside David Essex, as Mike the funfair barker in Claude Whatham's That'll Be the Day (1973), the story of a rock star's rise to fame that was purportedly inspired by Starr's former bands, Rory Storm and the Hurricanes and The Beatles.
As the new decade dawned, Ringo teamed with second wife Barbara Bach in Carl Gottlieb's prehistoric slapstick, Caveman (1981), Waris Hussain's Judith Krantz mini-series, Princess Daisy (1983), and Peter Webb's Give My Regards to Broad Street (1984), which reunited him with Paul McCartney. He also essayed the Mock Turtle in a two-part interpretation of Alice in Wonderland (1985). But his time was increasingly being taken up by his new role as the narrator of Thomas and Friends (1984-86), which had been adapted by Britt Allcroft from the Reverend W. Awdry's stories about the trains operating on the Island of Sodor. Ringo had already narrated old friend Harry Nilsson's cult animation, The Point (1971), but this charming series was aimed squarely at younger viewers and it remains a firm favourite in its many subsequent guises.
Ringo has since loaned his vocal talents to episodes of The Simpsons and The Powerpuff Girls. He also turned up as himself in Akiva Schaffer and Jorma Taccone's mockumentary, Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping (2016). But the majority of his most recent releases have been showcases for the various incarnations of his All Starr Band or documentaries about his fabled past, including Francis Hanly's Produced By George Martin (2011) and Ryan White's Good Ol' Freda (2013), about fan club secretary, Freda Kelly.
John - No Thanks, I'm Rhythm Guitar and Mouth Organ
Always the rebel, John Lennon was the first Beatle to go it alone, when he appeared in the pilot of Peter Cook and Dudley Moore's BBC show, Not Only... But Also, in November 1964. Having guested as himself in 'The Executioners' episode of Doctor Who (1965), Lennon went solo on the big screen when Dick Lester directed him as Private Gripweed in How I Won the War (1967). This dark Second World War comedy was adapted from a novel by Patrick Ryan and filmed in Spain. Indeed, it provided the inspiration for David Trueba's Living Is Easy With Eyes Closed (2013), in which some fans travel to Almeria to try and catch a glimpse of their idol on location.
Yet, while Lennon delivered his lines with a disarming blend of sarcasm and vulnerability, acting was never a serious a sideline. He found greater fulfilment in his collaboration with second wife Yoko Ono on a series of avant-garde shorts that bore the influence of the Japanese artist's involvement with the Fluxus group. Long overdue a DVD release, Smile, Two Virgins (both 1968), Rape, Self-Portrait (both 1969), Up Your Legs Forever, Fly, two films named Freedom, Apotheosis (all 1970) and Erection (1971) tempered their provocative edge with a caustic wit that also characterised John and Yoko's political activism.
Despite appearing on chat shows with the likes of Dick Cavett and Mike Douglas to promote peace and popping up in off-field movies like Ernest Pintoff's Dynamite Chicken (1972), Lennon primarily remained a musician. Having appeared with Yoko in Michael Lindsay-Hogg's The Rolling Stones Rock and Roll Circus (1968), he invited documentarist DA Pennebaker to record his live performance with The Plastic Ono Band on 13 September 1969 in Sweet Toronto (1970). But a combination of his infamous 'Long Weekend' and half a decade of domestic contentment left little room for further film assignments before Lennon was murdered on 8 December 1980 outside the Dakota Building that had provided the setting for Roman Polanski's Rosemary's Baby (1968).
In The Killing of John Lennon (2006), Andrew Piddington recreated the events that led up to Mark Chapman pulling the trigger, while documentaries like Andrew Solt's Imagine: John Lennon (1988), David Leaf's The U.S. vs John Lennon (2006) and Michael Epstein's LennoNYC (2010) attempted to make sense of the unfathomable. Subsequently, numerous actors have contributed impersonations of varying quality to biopics like Sandor Stern's John and Yoko: A Love Story (1985), Christopher Munch's The Hours and Times (1991), Sam Taylor-Johnson's Nowhere Boy (2009) and Edmund Coulthard's Naked Lennon (2010), while an animated John appeared in Josh Raskin's Oscar-nominated short, I Met the Walrus (2007).
Paul - When You Got a Job to Do, You Got to Do It Well
When The Beatles stopped touring in 1966, Paul McCartney branched out by composing 'Love in the Open Air', which was arranged by George Martin for the soundtrack of the Boulting brothers comedy, The Family Way (1966). The track won the Ivor Novello Award for Best Instrumental Theme and McCartney was invited by Kenneth Tynan to write songs for Laurence Olivier's National Theatre production of Shakespeare's As You Like It. However, he declined in order to concentrate on the epochal album, Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band (1967).
Further screen success followed when the theme for Guy Hamilton's James Bond outing, Live and Let Die (1973), was nominated for an Oscar. McCartney was cited again for the title track to Cameron Crowe's Vanilla Sky (2001), while '(I Want to) Come Home' from Kirk Jones's Everybody's Fine (2009) was nominated for a Golden Globe. However, McCartney was unfortunate to be overlooked for 'In the Blink of an Eye', which played over the closing credits of Roger Mainwood's animated adaptation of Raymond Brigg's charming tribute to his parents, Ethel and Ernest (2016).
Born with the soul of a vaudevillian, Mccartney continues to tour into his late 70s and Cinema Paradiso's extensive collection of concert movies includes Scott Rodger's Rockshow (1976), Geoff Wonfor's Put It There (1989), Aubrey Powell and Kevin Godley's Paul Is Live in Concert (2001), Mark Haefeli and Amy Tinkham's Back in the U.S. (2002), and Haefeli's In Red Square (2003) and The Space Within Us (2005). But, as Tom O'Dell revealed in Going Underground (2013), there's much more to Macca than meets the eye.
In addition to composing classical pieces like Standing Stone (1997), McCartney has also frequently contributed songs to animated shorts like Ian Emes's The Oriental Nightfish (1978), Oscar Grillo's Seaside Woman (1980) and Wide Prairie (1998), and Geoff Dunbar's Rupert and the Frog Song (1985), Daumier's Law (1992), Tuesday (2001) and Tropic Island Hum (2004). Grillo's first title won the Palme d'Or at Cannes, while Paul and Ringo teamed with their wives in Kevin Godley and Lol Creme's short, The Cooler (1982), which competed in the live-action category at the same festival.
Dunbar's delightful films can be found on Paul McCartney: The Music and Animation Collection. Frustratingly, however, while one can hear Macca's theme tune to John Landis's Spies Like Us (1985), it's not currently possible to watch Give My Regards to Broad Street (1984), even though 'No More Lonely Nights' was nominated for a BAFTA. McCartney's bid to put a pop spin on Federico Fellini's masterpiece, 8½ (1963), was mauled by the critics. But his directorial debut largely passed unnoticed, even though the documentary short, Grateful Dead (1995), made innovative use of panning and morphing techniques to link some of Linda McCartney's photographs of the iconic Californian combo at home and on stage.
While he keeps donating songs to features like Ben Elton's Maybe Baby (2000) and Andrew Fleming's The In-Laws (2003), McCartney remains more than capable of springing surprises. Having cropped up in Carla Lane's sitcom, Bread (1986), and The Simpsons (1990), he also collaborated with Beat poet Allen Ginsberg on Gus Van Sant's short, Ballad of the Skeletons (1997), guested in Peter Kay's talent show spoof, Britain's Got the Pop Factor (2009), cameo'd as Uncle Jack in Joachim Rønning and Espen Sandberg's Pirates of the Caribbean: Salazar's Revenge and joined Michael Caine in reminiscing about the Swinging Sixties in David Batty's documentary, My Generation (both 2017). Moreover, his MPL Communications company boasts a music publishing catalogue that is said to include access to over 25,000 copyrights, including such musicals as Guys and Dolls, Grease and A Chorus Line.
George - I'd Be Quite Prepared For That Eventuality
Everything you need to know about the so-called 'Quiet Beatle' can be found in Martin Scorsese's comprehensive documentary, George Harrison: Living in the Material World (2011). But completists might want to log into Cinema Paradiso and add A Beatle in Benton, Illinois (2005), which records how George became the first Fab to touch down in the United States, when he went to visit his sister, Louise, who had conducted an unofficial PR campaign to get local radio stations to play Beatle music. A quick look at The Beatles With Tony Sheridan (2004) also reveals that 'Cry For a Shadow', the first commercially released track composed within the band, bore the credit Harrison-Lennon.
Despite this auspicious start. George's songwriting opportunities were to prove limited over the next decade. Thus, he readily accepted Joe Massot's invitation to compose the soundtrack for Wonderwall (1968), a surreal saga in which Jane Birkin plays a model named Penny Lane. After the split, however, Harrison scored the band's first solo No.1 with 'My Sweet Lord' in 1971 and invented the benefit gig, when he sought to raise funds for flood victims with two shows in New York. Saul Swimmer's documentary, The Concert for Bangladesh (1972), is not currently available. But Harrison's first attempt at producing a film is, as Stuart Cooper's adaptation of David Halliwell's play, Little Malcolm and His Struggle Against the Eunuchs (1974), forms part of the BFI's excellent Flipside series.
However, it was the Monty Python troupe's struggle to raise funds for Life of Brian (1979) that persuaded Harrison to found HandMade Films with Denis O'Brien in 1979. Having already conducted interviews in Eric Idle's Mop Top lampoon, The Rutles: All You Need Is Cash (1976), George took executive producer credits on several other Python spin-offs, including Terry Gilliam's Time Bandits (1981), Michael Blakemore's Privates on Parade, Terry Hughes and Ian McNaughton's Monty Python: Live At the Hollywood Bowl, Richard Loncraine's The Missionary (all 1982), Malcolm Mowbray's A Private Function (1984) and Jonathan Lynn's Nuns on the Run (1990).
But, while John Mackenzie's The Long Good Friday (1980), Mai Zetterling's Scrubbers (1983), Neil Jordan's Mona Lisa (1986) and Bruce Robinson's Withnail and I (1987) became cult hits, the press's delight at the chaotic failure of the Madonna-Sean Penn vehicle, Shanghai Surprise (1986), convinced Harrison to retreat from the movie business. The year after he guested in the 'Homer's Barbershop Quartet' episode of The Simpsons (1993), he sold HandMade and concentrated on music prior to his death on 29 November 2001.
Among his final film appearances was a reunion with Ringo in Dick Clement's comedy, Water (1985), which saw them play in the Singing Rebels's Band alongside Eric Clapton, who also joined the duo in Tom Gutteridge's Blue Suede Shoes: A Rockabilly Session (1986). The guitarist's tangled friendship with Harrison is explored in Lili Fini Zanuck's documentary, Eric Clapton: Life in 12 Bars (2017). But Clapton joined Paul and Ringo at the Concert for George (2003), which was recorded by David Leland. His 1989 film, Checking Out, is one of the few HandMade titles currently not available to view, along with Dick Clement's Bullshot (1983), Jack Clayton's The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne (1987) and Jonathan Wacks's Powwow Highway (1989). But Cinema Paradiso users can enjoy Richard Loncraine's Bellman and True (1987), Tony Bill's Five Corners, Nicolas Roeg's Track 29, Bob Hoskins's The Raggedy Rawney (all 1988), Alan Metter's Cold Dog Soup and Bruce Robinson's How to Get Ahead in Advertising (both 1989). So, what are you waiting for?