During their career as a band, The Beatles made five films together — in fact, if I’m not mistaken, they were under a contract to make at least five films. For a while, after filming their first two or three films, they were throwing some crazy ideas around which never came to fruition, including a “Lord of the Rings” adaptation (I kid you not), but what they ultimately wound up with were two full-length comedies, one short “experimental” film, an animated feature, and a documentary. Each film has its own particular style and plot (when there is a plot, that is. Not all their films had one) that sets it apart from the other four, and each film shows a different side of the Fab Four, due in part to their ever-changing interests, musical style, appearance, and tolerance toward each other.
“A Hard Day’s Night” (1964)
The Beatles made their first film, “A Hard Day’s Night”, right when Beatlemania was on the verge of becoming an international craze. What better way, then, to represent The Beatles in film, than to show them running from flocks of screaming fangirls? With the exception of “Let it Be”, “A Hard Day’s Night” is the most realistic portrayal of The Beatles as a rock band. Not that “A Hard Day’s Night” is an extremely realistic movie, but it does feature the band having to deal with the usual strains that come with superstardom: bossy managers, humorless newspaper reporters who don’t “get it”, humorless teen magazine publishers who think they “get it” but don’t, fussy TV producers with no fashion sense, and of course, the stampedes of hormone-charged teenagers. And when they’re not dealing with those things, the boys have to struggle to keep Paul’s sinister grandfather from causing mayhem. Songs featured: “A Hard Day’s Night”; “I Should Have Known Better”; “Can’t Buy Me Love”; “And I Love Her”; “Tell Me Why”. Recommended if: You’re a fan of The Beatles. Avoid if: You simply cannot endure to watch anything in black-and-white (what’s wrong with you?! Don’t you know how many great films you’re missing out on?! Jeeeeeez).
After making a relatively realistic (if a little far-fetched) black-and-white film about a day in the life of a typical world-famous rock group, The Beatles took a totally different approach with “Help!” While the majority of “A Hard Day’s Night” took place all in the same city, “Help!” has The Beatles traveling all over the world with the life of their very own Ringo at stake. It all starts when a religious cult all the way out in the “East” (i.e. Asia) are about to make their daily sacrifice to their goddess, Kaili (at least I think that’s how it’s spelled), when they find that their sacrificial ring, without which they cannot continue the sacrifice, has gone missing. But how did it wind up on the finger of The Beatles’ drummer? And what will happen to Ringo now that the ring won’t come off? And why are a couple of third-rate mad scientists suddenly after the ring as well? Whatever the case, pretty soon the boys will either have to find a way to get that ring off their drummer’s finger, or find themselves a new drummer. “Help!”, unlike “A Hard Day’s Night”, is in color, which really enhances the aesthetic effect of certain scenes, like the ones inside the band’s groovy color-coded apartment. Songs Featured: “Help!”; “You’re Going to Lose That Girl”; “You’ve Got to Hide Your Love Away”; “Ticket to Ride”; “She’s a Woman”. Recommended if: You like action/adventure films; Ringo Starr is your favorite Beatle; you enjoy Monty Python-type humor. Avoid if: You are extremely sensitive to outdated ethnic stereotypes, particularly those pertaining to Asians. This movie isn’t racist or anything, and the stereotypes are pretty mild for a movie made at that time, but I know those things bother some people, so I’m just putting it out there.
“Magical Mystery Tour” (1967)
“Magical Mystery Tour”, having virtually no plot and playing out like an hour-long acid trip, is panned more harshly than any other Beatles movie. However, there are many who still enjoy it nonetheless (Me, for one. Steven Spielberg is apparently also a big fan, and it just so happens to be my roommate’s favorite Beatles movie). It also features some memorable musical sequences, which are basically music videos inserted between scenes. And keep in mind that this is almost two decades before MTV. Also notable is a guest appearance by The Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band (I’m not quite sure who they are, either. But my Uncle Mark loves them), who sing “Death Cab for Cutie” (way before the title became the name of a band) during a striptease (nothing explicit — a huge censor bar covers up all toplessness). There’s not much more I can really say about “Magical Mystery Tour”, since the movie is just too weird for words. But if your movie tastes are anything like mine, that’s not necessarily a bad thing, now is it? Songs Featured: “Magical Mystery Tour”; “Fool on the Hill”; “I am the Walrus”; “Blue Jay Way”; “Your Mother Should Know” Recommended if: You like weird movies; you’ve even heard of the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band; you’ve always wanted to see John Lennon in a walrus suit. Avoid if: You prefer movies that have plots. There’ll be none of that in this movie!
“Yellow Submarine” (1968)
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen this one. I’ve been watching “Yellow Submarine” since I was a little kid, even though the first time I saw it, it scared the crap out of me. In this film, animated versions of the Fab Four travel the seven seas in the titular submarine in order to aid their new friend, Old Fred, in rescuing the undersea utopia of Pepperland from the tyrannical Blue Meanies. How do The Beatles defeat the Meanies? With music, of course! Sadly, The Beatles do not provide their own voices for the cartoon versions of themselves, and in fact had very little to do with the film at all. It wasn’t until after they saw the film that they decided that they liked it, and a brief live action scene of the four of them was filmed and tacked onto the end of the film. Songs featured: “Yellow Submarine”; “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds”; “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band”; “All Together Now”; “When I’m Sixty-Four”. Recommended if: You’re looking for an animated movie that looks nothing like Disney; you like fantasy films. Avoid if: You hate the sight of 1960s psychedelic posters; you’re looking for a good animated movie to show your very young scaredy-cat child (just wait a few years, and then they’ll love it).
“Let it Be” (1970)
“Let it Be” was a documentary filmed in 1969. It was meant to document the recording of an album, but it wound up being most of all the portrait of a band falling apart. The Beatles were practically at each other’s throats at this point, with Paul bossing everyone around and John’s girlfriend Yoko Ono encroaching on the band’s recording space. At one point, Paul and George get into a huge argument over a guitar solo in a song. Nevertheless, this film also shows that, when The Beatles put aside their differences long enough to make music together, the result still sounds incredible. And in spite of all their quarrelling, they really all seem to have a lot of fun during the rooftop concert at the film’s end. The movie also features lots of great keyboard work by Billy Preston, one of the people most frequently regarded as the “fifth Beatle”, due to his work on the “Let it Be” album. Unfortunately, due to the fragile egos of the two remaining Beatles, “Let it Be” will not be released on DVD any time soon. But if for some reason you ever get the opportunity to see “Let it Be”, I would not recommend that you pass it up. Songs featured: “Let it Be”; “The Long and Winding Road”; “Don’t Let Me Down”; “For You Blue”; “I’ve Got a Feeling”. Recommended if: You ever wondered what a band breakup looks like; you want to see an honest portrayal of The Beatles, warts and all. Avoid if: You want to continue thinking of The Beatles as a happy band that never had a quarrel in all the years they were together.