So Elvis had already been pumping out about six films a year for several years when this film was put together. Keef Richards had watched the 1960 Newport Jazz Festival (it breaks my heart in a way that I grew up to my thirties in RI and rarely went anywhere near Newport, and NEVER even considered, nor knew when a Jazz festival was taking place. Wrap your head around that!) film about fifty times just to watch Chuck Berry’s moves. Chuck himself starred in a few films (Go, Johnny, Go and Rock Rock Rock) in the late fifties about music, but none were an ostensible “documentary” of a day (or two) in the life of a pop culture phenomenon that involved helplessly devoted young fans, and such a seemingly perfect combination of talents and personalities we know well as The Beatles (of course, it’s not a documentary, but there’s really no plot).
Though, I can’t really say that they are so universally known anymore, as enough time has washed over the era of this movie and what soon entirely would make the styles, performances, and irreverent comedy seem to belong to an alien world. Quite seriously just a few years would elapse between the sequences in this movie (my Mom’s hair and dress fashions), all too familiar to the people who lived through it, and the sounds and attitudes and fashions of the late sixties, which would look and feel like a whole generation passed rather than four or five years. The Beatles themselves well represented that fast moving tide going from “mop tops” to shaggy hippies (well, three of them anyway), from dark suits and ties to Nehru jackets, LSD and peace symbols, from dulcet saccharine sweet nonsense like “I Wanna Hold Your Hand” to the inventive Hindu influenced-1920’s pop, fantasy landscape of Sargent Pepper’s Lonely Heart’s Club Band. It was a transformation as compelling as a caterpillar metamorphosing into a sawfly (sorry, I had to show off a bit of entomology there).
This film is a kind of time capsule of the music, faces, goofy jokes and light-heartedness that the young men who created it devoted themselves to (as a kid I totally bought into this hysterical and brilliantly chummy world they seemed to inhabit). However, it would be short-lived. As the Fab Four grew up in the next few years the world (for good and tragic) would impress itself upon them and they would leave the stages and screaming girls behind them and aim themselves toward a kind of pure creativity (no longer performed) of their later period. Albums like Revolver and Rubber Soul mark the transition period. And while it is true that The Beatles were by no means alone in their epoch of change and creativity (in fact, they existed in a sea of similar efforts from fantastic contemporaries, too numerous to name here, The Beatles were the touchstone of that change that many people clung to, probably not half because of how sweet and playful and downright fun they appeared in this movie.
Beatles’ fans are legion and will argue endlessly about everything I’ve said here, more than likely, and be inconsolable about me not talking about the music beyond that mention of it’s sweetness. I’m sure, for legions of fans who were the right age at the time (hell I was only born in 1964) The Beatles weren’t just a pop act, they basically invented the model of writing and performing music built of chorus / verse alternation with a bridge and a verse finish. That that needed to be “invented” by anyone seems mind boggling, but as most pop music had been twelve-bar blues shuffles previous to this (think of basically everything by Berry, Cochran, and dozens of others) or had been A,B,A jazz patterns and the like, these young working-class boys blew the lids off the industry. It still wows me whenever I listen to something like “This Boy”, or “Norwegian wood” what was inspiring it (of course, the latter is basically just a variant on a scale, but it’s still so outlandishly different from anything else going on)? How did they work out the bits? Their eventual progressive creativity (and basically I mean, once they stopped playing the 50s standards) was astonishing in that sink of twelve-bar sameness. They didn’t have Youtube to work from, and absolutely managed to tie in so many musical styles (minor keys, 7ths, all kinds of “jazz” chords they picked up somewhere!) that they make most of their contemporaries appear kind of staid and lazy. I remember Steve Jones from the Sex Pistols much later on talking about how he only played major chords, he did play lots of them, but he added, “I don’t play ‘Beatles chords'”. I hadn’t realized that that generation grew up equating the variant chords to some of the more eclectic music The Beatles experimented with. OK That’s enough of a backdrop, I’m not even a rabid fan, there just isn’t enough material!
In the movie The Beatles are hanging out with Paul’s grandfather, as they ride trains and proceed toward their next gig, a television recording session. The fellows are like a comedy team, and I’ve read that they were heavily influenced by some old British comedy the likes of which most Yanks would have no clue about. In fact, some of the remarks go by so fast that they’re difficult to decipher for me and I grew up with a Brit mum, and am a devotee of Brit Punk–in other words I’m not a newb to the accents! I can even do a fair to middlin’ Paul and John. The meager plot in this thing is that the old grandad fires Ringo up about living his life. He, being an old guy, doesn’t think the boys are really experiencing their lives (about this he could be argued to be right, celebrities kind of exchange a life for that of a surreal royal one). At one point he actually encourages Ringo to go “betray” an American woman (I forgot how he actually puts this, but he definitely uses the word betray).
Well, suffice it to say Ringo walks out on the proceedings with just a little time to spare, and it comes down to the boys to try to locate him for the live performance. Ringo ends up getting himself involved in a set of silly vignettes (one of which involves using his coat to allow a lovely lady to walk across some puddles only to end up vanishing with a squeal into a scary mud-hole. Ringo gets arrested and I do suppose that the idea here is that they were always harassed for just being who they are.
The one really somewhat unfortunate, because it’s so ham-fisted, sequence has George being talked to by some marketers about wearing their product and backing up one of their “trend-setters”, what we’d call “influencers” now (basically a cute young woman who they used to direct teenage “impulse”. George isn’t amused and comes off a bit stuck-up about his reluctance and then downright refusal to participate in their marketing scheme. I get it, and I get that this was probably the first time a star turned down a capitalist project in film, integrity!, but it still comes off a bit too serious and self-righteous. George may as well have worn a cardboard sign that said “Will Never Sell-Out”. Later on in reading I, Me, Mine, George’s old biography, he’d spend a lot of time griping about the ways they lost money!
This film, and Help!, probably are to blame for the start of the entire “music video” revolution, largely launching things like The Monkees, a couple of Herman’s Hermits movies and a decade or so on, MTV (attributed often to Mike Nesmith of said Monkees). Though these arguments are bit simplistic and I’m sure any number of Sinatra, or Elvis pics could be pointed at as well, none were quite as on-the-nose as these Beatles’ films were.
As a kid I bought the record, and was disappointed as it was basically just a handful of songs with the instrumental versions accompanying them. Boring!
Prime for 4 or so bucks! History!