This week, Across the Universe hits theaters. Julie Taymor‘s film, starring Evan Rachel Wood and Jim Sturgess as a young couple in the midst of the heady, chaotic 1960s, utilizes the Beatles‘ music to evoke the time period. With that in mind, it’s a good time to take a closer look at the Beatles’ cinematic legacy.
A number of films have attempted to distill the influence and essence of the Fab Four, some from the perspective of their fans (I Wanna Hold Your Hand, 82 percent on the Tomatometer), others from the enduring appeal of the group’s music (the notorious Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, 17 percent); still others poke mild fun at Beatle history (The Rutles: All You Need is Cash, 88 percent). Even the group’s first bassist, Stu Sutcliffe, was the subject of a biopic (Backbeat, 74 percent). Ultimately, though, it’s the films in which the Beatles themselves star that remain the best testament to the group’s legend; like their records, the Beatles’ best movies are replete with bold innovation, a mischievous sense of humor, and a sheer joie de vivre.
The first Beatles film, A Hard Day’s Night
(100 percent), is also the greatest. The famous opening scene of the group running down the street, chased by crazed fans, sets that tone; it’s a headlong rush that instantly changed the synthesis of music and film forever. Utilizing quick-cut editing techniques, director Richard Lester
created musical interludes that act as proto-music videos (the sequence in which the boys horse around in a field, to the tune of “Can’t Buy Me Love,” is probably the best, but “I Should Have Known Better,” “She Loves You,” and “All My Loving” also get memorable treatment as well) and remain influential to this day. A Hard Day’s Night
went a long way toward establishing a public perception of the individual Beatles that, however unfairly, carried over into the general consensus of their musical contributions: John
, sarcastic and witty; Paul
, the showman; George
, quiet but inquisitive; Ringo
, always up for a laugh.
It’s the personalities of the Beatles that keep the rest of A Hard Day’s Night from aging. The movie follows a day in the life of the young Beatles on their way to a television performance; it sounds simple enough, but the group must outwit its rabid fans, management, and the police, as well as overcoming the dissent sewn by Wilfrid Brambell as Paul’s crotchety grandfather. A Hard Day’s Night has a sophistication and formal daring that remains unmatched in the world of rock film; it’s “a comedy classic that cross-pollinated Jean-Luc Godard with the four Marx brothers,” wrote John Anderson of Newsday.
After the mold-breaking brilliance of A Hard Day’s Night
, the Beatles’ second film, Help!
(89 percent), is far less consequential. Once again, Lester is at the helm, and once again, the film is a virtually plotless assortment of gags and musical performances. The narrative centers around a religious cult that needs a ring to perform a human sacrifice. Unfortunately for Ringo, he’s just added some new bling to his collection; the band goes on the run, raising some (gentle) Cain in the Alps and the Caribbean.
But something’s missing this time out. Despite the Beatles’ good humor, reasonably funny jokes, and several remarkable songs (including “Ticket to Ride,” “You’ve Got to Hide Your Love Away,” and the title tune), Help! lacks the easy charm and stylistic daring of Night. (And in this age of political correctness, some may find the exotic religious cult plotline a bit questionable). Still, Help! makes for moderately pleasant viewing; the Austin Powers films would later draw from this swingin’ spy movie parody. “While it’s true that it’s more Richard Lester’s vision than the group’s, it must be noted that Lester’s anarchic absurdity and quick cut camera gags make for a pretty good whole,” wrote Brad Laidman of Film Threat.
Magical Mystery Tour
(60 percent), on the other hand, doesn’t really work as a whole; this hour-long, made-for-TV flick is generally considered to be the weakest Beatles film. Inspired by the antics of Timothy Leary
and the Merry Pranksters, Magical Mystery Tour
finds the Beatles driving across the English countryside in a bus full of magicians, family members, and oddballs. The jokes are dated, the antics shapeless, and the plot nonexistent. Still, any film in which the Beatles simply play music is of interest, and the proto-videos for “I Am the Walrus,” “Your Mother Should Know,” and “Blue Jay Way” are stunning, showing a formal discipline lacking in the rest of the movie. “I would recommend a new generation of Beatle fans to put [Magical Mystery Tour
] near the bottom of their to-do list, but never to scratch it off entirely,” wrote Colin Souter of eFilmcritic.com. “It remains a necessary curiosity item and slightly ahead of its time.” Mystery
gets bonus points for Lennon’s storybook-esque narration; even at their trippiest, the Beatles maintain a sense of innocent wonder.
That childlike essence was brilliantly distilled in the Beatles’ next film, the dazzling, richly inventive Yellow Submarine
(94 percent). Unenthusiastic about making another live-action film, the Fab Four utilized the cartoon medium in order to fulfill their three-picture deal with United Artists (none of the Beatles performed their voice roles for the movie). However, the result was a swirling phantasmagoria of colors and inspired animation techniques; Director George Dunning
and a crack team of artists utilized psychedelic visuals and some heavily-stylized live action footage to bring such Beatles classics as “Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds,” “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band,” “Nowhere Man,” and “All You Need Is Love” to vivid life. The plot is simple: The music-hating Blue Meanies attack the colorful Pepperland, rendering it a cold, joyless place. One resident, Old Fred, escapes in the titular craft and collects the Beatles, who travel through a series of dreamworlds to save the town with their songs. (The group liked the final result so much they agreed to appear in the flesh for the movie’s coda).
Though some of the animation may seem somewhat dated by today’s standards, the sense of daring contained within Yellow Submarine still seems fresh; the film exerted an influence on the films of Wes Anderson, particularly The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou. (Those who see it as a stoner film miss the point; as the Beatles themselves knew, children are often unconscious surrealists). The film embodies “exactly what the Beatles represented emotionally and philosophically in the mid-’60s: artistic daring, cheeky non-sentimentality, a new generation taking over, naively confident the world was ‘getting better all the time,'” wrote William Arnold of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer.
Evidence of the Beatles’ exuberance would be in short supply in their next film, Let It Be
(73 percent). A documentary about the making of the album of the same name, Let It Be
finds the group (with Billy Preston
sitting in on organ) going through the motions. The exuberance and communal spirit of A Hard Day’s Night
appears to be long gone (even Ringo seems dour throughout the proceedings). It comes as something of a shock when one remembers the fact that none of the Beatles had yet turned 30; they seem ravaged, exhausted, and not particularly happy to be in each other’s company. Hints of domestic concerns seep in; Yoko Ono
is often seen at John’s side, and Paul’s stepdaughter Heather provides some fleeting moments of levity, dancing with happy abandon to the Beatles’ jam sessions.
In fact, it’s only when the band is playing that the old spirit of excitement and teamwork is revived; the group runs through its new material, which includes “Get Back,” “Two of Us,” and the title track, as well as some loose, ragged covers of R&B classics like “Kansas City” and “Lawdy Miss Clawdy.” And the famous rooftop concert that concludes Let It Be has a giddy, raucous air; you can feel the excitement of the crowd that gathers on the street below, and the brief respite for the Beatles from the bad feelings in the studio. (The rooftop concert was memorably recreated for U2’s “Where the Streets Have No Name” video.) Even though it ends on a note of triumph, Let It Be is a document of the dissolution of the Beatles, and as a result, it’s a bittersweet experience. “This was the only time the Beatles were not working for the camera in the characters associated with their respective personalities,” wrote Phil Hall in Film Threat.”The raw emotion on screen makes for unsettling yet hypnotic viewing.”
Apart from the group, the Beatles’ film work was almost as disparate as the members’ solo albums. Lennon starred in Lester’s anti-war satire How I Won the War
(55 percent); though he disliked the experience of making the film, Lester thought Lennon could have made it as an actor nonetheless. As a solo artist, McCartney was twice nominated for an Oscar (for “Live and Let Die” and “Vanilla Sky”). His best-known movie as an actor is Give My Regards to Broad Street
(23 percent), in which he plays a version of himself. Ringo lent his amiable personality to oddities like The Magic Christian
(46 percent), Frank Zappa
‘s 200 Motels
(67 percent), and Caveman
(15 percent). Ironically, it was George, the “quiet Beatle,” whose work in film was most memorable. As co-founder of Handmade Films, Harrison helped produce such edgy, important work as Monty Python’s Life of Brian
(98 percent), Time Bandits
(94 percent), and Withnail & I
Time will tell if Across the Universe sets off another wave of Beatlemania. But one thing’s fore sure: when it comes to rock movies, nobody can top the Fab Four.