A short brief on The Beatles and their work in film
In the mid-60’s, well before the invention of music videos as we know them today, it was common practice for a band to capitalise on their brand appeal; Elvis did this, J-low did this, Tina Turner did this. In all of these cases the artist played a character. What is particularly interesting about The Beatles films then, are that they are a kind gateway to experience band’s enduring legacy, and they feature solid soundtracks played by The Beatles on camera. I watched these as a child and I would say they had a huge impact on my formative years, but there is one in particular that I find stands out as an artistic masterpiece: Yellow Submarine, but to find out why it happened, we need to look at the collection.
‘A Hard Days Night’ puts the Beatles in an absurdist comic light, but still manages to capture some of the (still lingering) fanaticism of Beatlemania as the band try to make their way to a London television program. Here you can see the Fab Four at their fab-iest, fresh faced and innocent. The band your parents wouldn’t mind you bringing home. Worth the watch.
‘Help!’ develops on the absurdist themes of the first film; the Marx brothers must be owed some kind of royalties for this one. Here the lads (Ringo to be precise) find themselves at the centre of a game of cat and mouse, chased by a pair of mad scientists as well as the high priestess of a non-descript eastern religion. The plot is mostly irrelevant; its purpose in the film is solely move The Beatles from one exotic gig location to the next. But what is interesting is that it portrays The Beatles as themselves, in outlandish situations. Quick question, have you ever wanted to see The Beatles ski or play curling in the winter wonderland of the Swiss Alps, or frolic on sandy beaches in the Caribbean? Well guess what? Your prayers have been answered in spades.
The film features another great soundtrack, and pioneering music video work, but is difficult to follow at points.
Next comes the one everyone loves to hate as it sees The Beatles stepping out of their family friendly absurdity, into psychedelic absurdity ‘Magical Mystery Tour’. Taking a cue from Ken Kesey’s Merry Pranksters’ LSD fuelled magic bus odyssey, this straight-to-TV film actually just makes no sense. There is no plot, there is hardly a story, it’s just a series of things that happen, which to be fair is a good representation of the direction that The Beatles are in at this point in time, just discovering themselves artistically and losing interest in anything but producing albums (The band had, prior to the film’s release, stopped touring.) The film universally panned by critics and fans alike, which set the stage for the terms of their next film, in that The Band refused to participate in making more Beatles films.
Now to the film and soundtrack really I want to talk about, my father actually bought me this movie when I was a kid, so I may be a bit biased. As a result of The Beatles’ reluctance to appear on screen, it was decided their next film ‘Yellow Submarine’ would be entirely animated and features a cast of voice actors imitating the four Beatles and their mannerisms. For a Beatles film that only features the band on-screen for a short five-minute vignette at the end of the film (fulfilling a contractual obligation to appear in the film) this is by far the best and most influential Beatles film. The Soundtracks are perfect illustrators for the content of the film, which takes The Beatles from drab and dreary Liverpool to through the Seas of Time, Science, Monsters, as well as the Sea of Nothing, the Foothills of the Headlands and the Sea of Holes before arriving to save the residents of Pepperland from the onslaught of the Blue Meanies. The Artwork is spectacular and visually stunning, the music is great, and it can be enjoyed again and again because the story, for all its craziness is totally succinct. ‘Yellow Submarine’ is an amazing movie; watch it again and again.
The last Beatles film to in some way feature them is ‘Let it be’, a documentary which was intended to document the development of an album from start to finish. The aim was also to highlight the possibility of the band’s possible return to live performances, but instead captured the band’s internal tensions. The film and album were released after the break-up was announced, and so watching the film, you have a particular insight into what the dynamics of the band really were. The music is great as per usual, but knowing that you are watching the band fall apart is an interesting aspect of watching the film. There is a poignant significance to this film and the title as well as the soundtrack, in which you can actively hear the separate Beatles asserting their creative personality and identity. This is a McCarney song, this is a Lennon song, this is a Harrison song, and this is a Starr song.
So now you know a little more about the Beatles and their work in film.
There are of course other films that feature Beatles soundtracks, but as these five are the only ones to feature the Fab Four, they stand out as being worthy credits on the Beatles anthology. The individual Beatles did continue to do sporadic work in film, but never again as the iconic four-piece band.