According to Rolling Stone, yesterday marked the fiftieth anniversary of the original theatrical release of Yellow Submarine – the psychedelic romp that brought a very animated, very un-present Beatles 80,000 leagues beneath the sea to the magical, musical Pepperland.
Oh shit: Pepperland like Sgt. Pepper-land. I just got it. 😐
Anyway, in celebration of the semicentennial of the movie the brought us the Blue Meanies and a gender-fluid nowhere person called Jeremy Hilary Boob, Ph.D., I thought it prudent and timely to collect some of my thoughts on the storied filmographic history of the only band in history to make movies worth remembering.
These are my Top 5 thoughts on Beatles movies.
Rules & Exemptions
In order to maximize this list’s potential, I’m not limiting myself to the movies made during the band’s brief lifespan. Obviously there’s plenty to say on A Hard Day’s Night, Help!, Yellow Submarine, and even the turdly Magical Mystery Tour, but casual fans and diehards alike have had so many big- and small-screen encounters with the Fabs over the last fifty-plus that sticking to the originals ignores a huge part of the Beatle-movie experience. The width and depth of Beatledom is part of its fun, so how could we leave out all the documentaries, mockumentaries, jukebox dramas, and all manner of other waste water wrung from the Beatles’ cloth? Shit, there’s even an entire Portlandia sketch about the cliche that has become the Beatles-doc form. The soil is rich, so we gotta make like medieval serfs and till that shit.
There are, however, a few select items we will not be discussing here. The most glaring omission, probably, is the ill-fated Let It Be – you know, the one where they try not to kill each other while making their worst album. This hasn’t been commercially available since the ’80s, and while I’m sure it wouldn’t be hard to find a bootleg, I’m not sure there are many Beatles fans who even want to see it. The clip from the Anthology series of Paul and George bickering says pretty much all that needs to be said. Schadenfreude is fun, but the stories of this time period are so well known that actually watching the film would be redundant.
I’m also skipping Magical Mystery Tour, mainly because I just wrote about it a few weeks ago, and also because there just isn’t much to say: it’s fifty-two minutes of nothing with occasional music. Also not worth talking about is the 1978 film Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, which I’ve never seen and which history tells me I was right to never see.
Otherwise, though, anything starring the Beatles, about the Beatles, goofing on the Beatles, or co-opting the Beatles is fair game. Let’s to it.
1. A Hard Day’s Night vs. Help! – Who ya got?
I know I’m dancing with the wrong side of history here, but it would be too obvious to just declare, right out of the gate, that A Hard Day’s Night is the best Beatles movie. It helps to recall some of the unique charms of Help!, the much less subtle follow-up to that classic. The plot is certainly far more ridiculous (and pretty offensive, given its treatment of “eastern” characters) but that zaniness has its odd charms. How about the weird house where the Beatles live together in this movie? Or Victor Spinetti finally getting to be a real villain, after being merely petulant and pretentious in A Hard Day’s Night? Or the absurd string of scenes where Clang and his minions try to get the ring off of Ringo by any means necessary? The first time Ringo falls through the floor – drum set and all – is pretty hard to forget.
It’s also worth mentioning Help! is the Beatles movie David Mamet chose when discussing what makes a “plausible, solvable, simple, and clear” dilemma for a dramatic protagonist in his essential read for movie buffs, Bambi vs. Godzilla: “Hamlet wants to find out who killed the king. All right, we’ll play along. If Ringo can’t get the sacred ring of Kali off his finger, he will be sacrificed. Ditto.” (Yes, that’s “Ringo” and “Hamlet” sharing a paragraph.)
At the same time, however, the “eastern” characters in Help! are very poorly drawn, and I always get kind of lost sometime around the scenes in the Bahamas. (Weren’t we just skiing a minute ago?) To A Hard Day’s Night‘s credit, there’s no character quite like Paul’s grandfather in any other film, Beatles-related or not, and Ringo having an existential crisis is far more interesting than having a ring stuck on his finger. The use of color in Help! should make it feel less dated, but the black-and-white of A Hard Day’s Night keeps it timeless. Sorry, Help!, I did my best. A Hard Day’s Night wins, now and always.
2. Soundtrack Battles
Each of the original films was accompanied by a soundtrack, and most of them actually weaseled their way into the generally-accepted Beatles canon. So which soundtrack is the best?
Well first of all, to be fair to all parties, we should be keeping our sights on the best versions of each of these soundtracks, which means that the “film score” versions of A Hard Day’s Night, Help!, and Yellow Submarine are out. No non-Beatles music allowed here. We can count Let It Be as a soundtrack if you’re going deep on technicalities, but it’s easily disqualified anyway on the basis of being, you know, not very good. And the canonical version of Magical Mystery Tour is of course the American LP version – which is where things get interesting.
See, beginning with A Hard Day’s Night we run into the problem of a near-perfect A-side coupled with a B-side of mostly filler. There are highlights on that album’s B-side – “Things We Said Today,” “You Can’t Do That” – but it’s mostly forgettable, and ending the album with the plodding “I’ll Be Back” is one of the oddest sequencing choices in Beatledom. Even worse is the B-side to Help!, which, despite featuring fan favorite “I’ve Just Seen a Face” and everyone favorite “Yesterday”, is hardly worth listening to. (Has the band had a lamer four-song run than “Act Naturally” thru “Tell Me What You See”?) But Magical Mystery Tour skirts this issue by cheating: the B-side is rigged with hit singles from the band’s legendary Pepper period: “Hello Goodbye,” “Strawberry Fields,” “Penny Lane,” “All You Need is Love.” You could do a lot worse for best album side in history, even with “Baby, You’re a Rich Man” shoehorned in.
Song for song, the winner might actually be the diabolical Yellow Submarine Songtrack, a Frankensteinian mishmash assembled for the film’s 1999 re-release. The ambition of this set was to assemble every song featured or even excerpted in the film, down to the ten brief seconds of “Think for Yourself” that are sampled a capella. This gives us all the original Yellow Submarine tracks plus classics like “Nowhere Man,” several Sgt. Pepper retreads, and the unjustly-omitted “Hey Bulldog.” It’s so stacked it might actually be the best single-disc set issued by Apple this side of the 1 compilation.
But alas – I never listen to it. The songs may be some of their finest (“Only a Northern Song” notwithstanding) but they just don’t belong together. “Love You To” into “All Together Now” into “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds”? Nobody was begging for this sequencing. A Hard Day’s Night is bouncier, Help! is a push toward their peak, but Magical Mystery Tour is the best and most durable collection of songs among the Beatle soundtracks.
3. Who wins the documentary award?
Given Apple’s protective hold over the music of the Beatles, worthwhile documentaries on the band are actually pretty few and far between. The prize pony is obviously the eight-part Anthology series from 1995, an authorized and exhaustive account featuring contemporary interviews with the then-living Beatles, plenty of old Lennon interviews, and – notably – no talking heads from outside the Beatles’ immediate circle. George Martin, Neil Aspinall, and Derek Taylor are the only non-band personnel interviewed, which does wonders for authority if not for perspective. Additionally, it’s a completist’s set; even the much shorter TV version is likely to be taxing for non-diehards. More valuable as scholarship than as an introduction.
The great sin of the Anthology is that it required Macca, in his infinite self-importance, to suppress redistribution of 1982’s The Compleat Beatles, which had been THE Beatles documentary until that point. And it’s a shame: a forerunner of the Ken Burns style, The Compleat Beatles relies heavily on still images set to narration (by Malcolm McDowell!) and a wealth of non-Beatle interviews. It’s subdued and austere, but that’s part of its appeal, given how much pomp and circumstance tends to surround anything Beatles-related, even now.
Just look at Ron Howard’s Eight Days a Week – The Touring Years, a movie with no reason to exist other than to reiterate the phenomenal success of the band’s output between ’62 and ’67. The film’s ending – they stop touring and move into Abbey Road, where they live happily forever after – relies on the audience’s acceptance of Sgt. Pepper (the emphatic coda to the touring years) as the Greatest Album of All Time, even if that judgment comes from a single Rolling Stone list from 2003. The contemporary interviews in The Touring Years – from talking heads as diverse as Whoopi Goldberg, Malcolm Gladwell, and Howard Goodall – add some helpful context, but given how much the Beatles are already shoved down audience’s throats by history (don’t you get how IMPORTANT they are???) the restraint of The Compleat Beatles would be welcome, if only it was in print.
Of course, none of these serious histories can compare with Eric Idle’s 1978 All You Need is Cash, better known as the film that gave us The Rutles. To be sure, some of the jokes in this mockumentary are a bit too easy – Tragical History Tour doesn’t take much brainpower – but when attacking the subtleties and subtext of the Beatles’ well-worn three-act narrative, the film approaches transcendence. The George figure is pushed so far into the background that he stops speaking entirely in 1966. The movements and attitudes, particularly those adopted by Neil Innes in the John role, are deeply studied. And the songs! Innes’s style-aping is eerily accurate, and just cheeky enough to avoid outright plagiarism, with “Cheese and Onions” escaping onto some Beatle bootlegs by mistake. The complete version of the soundtrack is better than some actual Beatles albums; “Between Us” is the best Beatles song not by the Beatles. I’ll take this over a serious movie any day.
4. Docudramas and other dumpster fires
One place the Beatles’ story has not translated well is that of proper drama. As with the unauthorized documentaries, the difficulty of using actual Beatles songs means their story and legacy have largely avoided dramatization. Unfortunately, though, there are exceptions.
Probably the best known of these is 1994’s Backbeat, which follows the early Hamburg days of the Beatles, focusing mainly on deceased former bassist Stu Sutcliffe. There are no original Beatles songs, of course, and the bulk of the runtime is occupied by the gyrations of German strippers. The less said on this the better, though apparently the soundtrack features Thurston Moore, Dave Grohl, and Henry Rollins, which might make it a curiosity in a few years.
Then in 2000, VH1 produced a very tacky little number called Two of Us, which fictionalizes a (pretty uneventful) post-Beatles hangout between Lennon and McCartney. They smoke dope in the park and Lennon bitches about how everybody he meets says their favorite Beatles song is “Yesterday.” (Like, how dare they, right?) Chiefly interesting because (a) Lennon is played by the guy who played Lane Pryce on Mad Men and (b) it’s directed by Michael Lindsay-Hogg, which should give us some idea of how much we really don’t need to see Let It Be.
Then there are those movies that simply use the Beatles, plugging their music into stories that have nothing to do with them. I never saw 2001’s widely-panned I Am Sam, but the soundtrack provided some brief amusement that year; I liked Ben Folds doing “Golden Slumbers” and the “Two of Us” duet by Michael Penn and Aimee Mann and that’s about it.
But the more aggravating film is 2007’s Across the Universe, a jukebox Beatles musical that tells the most typical sixties story possible, layering the band’s music over it as if they were little more than products of their time rather than producers of it. By recasting songs like “I Want to Hold Your Hand” and “Oh Darling” and “Dear Prudence” (ugh how FUCKING OBVIOUS) as messages between characters, the film takes the most important element of the Beatles’ music – its universality – and makes it specific, and specific to a set of dreadfully dull characters. The makers of the film seem to think of Lennon/McCartney/Harrison as Cole Porter figures, whose songs can be reworked and reinterpreted at will. And certainly they can be, but it doesn’t work nearly as well because a huge part of why people like the Beatles’ songs is because of the Beatles’ recordings of those songs.
Even still, I’m a good sport. I sit through the movie up until the point where Eddie Izzard attempts “Being For the Benefit of Mr. Kite!” – in character as Mr. Kite – which, blech, it’s just a fucking horror show.
5. Is Yellow Submarine the best Beatles movie?
Short answer: No.
Long answer, though: As much as I love A Hard Day’s Night, and even Help!, these are films that clearly suit the early, besuited Beatles much better than the fully-realized Beatles of the late sixties and of posterity thereafter. Those movies are small, silly, earthbound, entirely focused on the Beatles as a collective public persona rather than as a cultural and artistic institution. They were worthy of far bigger statements than even a very clever filmmaker like Richard Lester could handle.
Yellow Submarine appreciates what even the best documentaries have had a hard time accurately expressing: that the Beatles were bigger than everything. They were certainly bigger than petty internal squabbles and James Bond parodies. They were bigger than drugs, even if they didn’t know that. Across the Universe makes the mistake of assuming that the Beatles were fixtures of history, when of course they were (and are) far bigger than history. They can’t be contained by traditional narratives.
Which is why Yellow Submarine might at the very least be the most appropriate Beatles movie. By removing them to a fantasy world, to the psychedelic and anti-realistic animations of George Dunning, Yellow Submarine places the Beatles in the only context that ever suited them perfectly: myth. The simplest and oldest of tales – pure good versus pure evil – recast as a battle for the preservation of music itself! Thank God they didn’t do their own voices; that would have made it too real, kept it tied to the Beatles-as-actors rather than giving their personalities over to the audience and to legend. The Beatles were an active band for less than ten years, but they’ve belonged to fans for far longer, and Yellow Submarine is the only movie that shows them as we’ve always seen them: as heroes, as saviors.
It doesn’t have the best music, or the best style, or even the best story, but Yellow Submarine might have the best Beatles of any Beatles movie.