A History of the Beatles on Film

John, Paul, George and Ringo from the documentary "Eight Days a Week - The Touring Years." ( Photo: Courtesy of © Apple Corps Ltd).
John, Paul, George and Ringo from the documentary "Eight Days a Week - The Touring Years." ( Photo: Courtesy of © Apple Corps Ltd).

This week, the movie Yesterday, a new musical fantasy from Slumdog Millionaire director Danny Boyle and Love Actually writer Richard Curtis hit theaters.  The story is set in an alternative timeline in which no one remembers the Beatles with the exception of one struggling musician named Jack Malik (Himesh Patel). Our hero reluctantly presents the songs of the Fab Four as his own, becoming a world-wide sensation while simultaneously risking the loss his best friend Ellie (Lily James) in the process.

 

The release of Yesterday got me to thinking about the Beatles’ enduring tendency to pop up in movies over the past few decades. Therefore, I figured why not categorize a number of examples in order to revisit the cinematic legacy of the Fab Four. It's normal to do that, right? Absoutely. 

Movies starring the Beatles as themselves

Between 1964 and 1970, John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Ringo Starr were headliners in two feature entertainment films, a TV movie and an award-winning documentary.

It all began with A Hard Day’s Night, a scripted, heightened look at Beatlemania. Basically, the quartet (plus Paul’s grandad) stir up trouble as they prepare for an important live televised performance. Credited as inspiration for the Monkees' TV show and music videos, A Hard Day’s Night was also ranked the 88th greatest British film of the 20th century by the British Film Institute.

 

Personally, I prefer the Beatles’ second film, Help! In it, an endangered fan sends Ringo a mysterious ring which marks him as the next human sacrifice of an inept yet persistent Eastern cult. This results in a globe-trotting, band-on-the-run adventure aimed at keeping their drummer safe. Help! offers more plot and more focus on Ringo who, in my opinion, was the best actor of the quartet.

 

Magical Mystery Tour debuted on British television on Boxing Day 1967 and was widely panned as a psychedelic, plotless mess that loosely approximated a surreal bus journey to nowhere. (Yikes!)

(

 

And finally, the 1970 film Let It Be documented the recording of the Beatles’ final studio album, culminating in that iconic concert on a rooftop in the center of London. The band won the Oscar for Best Original Score for this film.  

 

Forty-five years later, Ron Howard would go on to produce and direct another Beatles documentary called The Beatles: Eight Days a Week that chronicled the bands touring years with found footage containing performances and interviews. (You may have even seen it on your local PBS station, where it broadcast in 2017. You can now stream the film on Hulu.)

(In case you're wondering why I didn't include Yellow Submarine in the list above... While their music was the driving force of that 1968 animated fantasy , none of the Beatles actually voiced their cartoon counterparts. The band only made a brief live-action cameo at the end.)

But even when the Beatles disbanded in 1970, that didn’t end the public’s fascination with the four lads from Liverpool. 

Mockumentary 

That old saying “imitation is the highest form of flattery” certainly qualifies when it comes to the so-called Pre-fab Four.

Created by Eric Idle for his sketch comedy TV series Rutland Weekend Television, the Rutles were a hybrid pastiche/parody of the Beatles. The sketch spawned a 1978 mockumentary TV movie entitled The Rutles: All You Need Is Cash. Former Beatle (and huge Monty Python fan) George Harrison gave the project his endorsement by making a guest appearance in the film.

 

Biopics

Rather more serious are the movies which represent various chapters in the careers and personal lives of the individual Beatles themselves. The best clips I could locate happen to be more Lennon-centric stories.

Nowhere Boy is a 2009 biopic about the teenage John Lennon (Aaron Taylor-Johnson). It highlights John’s relationships with both his aunt Mimi (Kristin Scott Thomas), who raised him, and his high-spirited mother Julia (Anne-Marie Duff). It also touches on the creation of the Quarrymen, his first meeting with Paul McCartney (Thomas Brodie-Sangster) and their eventual evolution into the Beatles.

 

1994’s Backbeat dramatized the Beatles’ tenure in Hamburg, Germany. The film focused mainly on the relationship between best friends Lennon (Ian Hart) and early Beatles’ bassist Stuart Sutcliffe (Stephen Dorff).

 

Lennon Naked is a 2010 TV movie that homes in on the years of 1967-1971. Former Doctor Who star Christopher Eccleston portrays a disillusioned John Lennon, from the height of his Beatle fame to his romance with Yoko Ono and the breakup of the band.

 

Movies based on Beatles' songs

Next comes the category of films that employ Beatles songs to tell a story that has nothing to do with the legendary Liverpudlians themselves.

How can I describe 1978’s Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band? It's like a rock opera with a Christmas panto sensibility. The story follows a naïve band (composed of Peter Frampton and the Bee Gees) as they experience the exploitative and seductive side of fame. The fun and games come to an end when the fellas must battle evil forces bent on corrupting their wholesome hometown. Yeah, wow.

Where do the Beatles come into this you may ask? The film tells its story (sort of like the recently popular Mamma Mia! franchise) using tracks from two of the band's albums, Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band and Abbey Road.

 

A better cinematic fit for the Beatles’ catalog is the film Across the Universe. This 2007 rock musical uses 30+ Beatles tunes as the soundtrack to a love story set in the turbulent late-1960s.  With mounting casualties in Vietnam and civil unrest at home, star-crossed lovers Jude (Jim Sturgess) and Lucy (Evan Rachel Wood) find themselves drifting apart in a world gone mad. (It probably also helped that this film featured actors who sing rather than singers with very little acting experience.)

 

Other fictional Beatle-related escapades

My two final selections are movies set around the premise of a historically possible encounter with one or all of the Beatles, but don’t actually feature any of the band members in the film.

I Wanna Hold Your Hand (1978) is a zany comedy about a group of fictional New Jersey high schoolers intent on getting into The Ed Sullivan Show on February 9, 1964. You know, the day  America met the Beatles! I remember watching this amusing fan-girl romp on HBO when I was a teenager and could honestly imagine myself in their shoes.

 

Living Is Easy with Eyes Closed (2013) is proof that the Beatles’ legacy is truly an international phenomenon. In this Spanish film set in 1966, an English teacher and ardent Beatles fan decides to go on a road trip to Almería where John Lennon is shooting the movie How I Won the War. En route, he picks up a pair of runaways and the trio bond while on their quest to find a Beatle.

 

While this list was rather lengthy, it’s not nearly complete. Please share your favorite film with a Beatle connection in the comments. And chime in on whether you have plans to see Yesterday as well!