Is there anything left to say about the Beatles? You know the story. You’ve heard the songs. Maybe you’ve even decoded the hidden messages on Revolution 9. But there are still secrets to be uncovered within the Beatles’ mythology. Their first foray into film, A HARD DAY’S NIGHT (1964) was just the beginning of a strange and unpredictable relationship between the Fab Four and the world of cinema. From Jodorowsky’s THE HOLY MOUNTAIN (1973) to Bruce Robinson’s WITHNAIL AND I (1987), the Beatles played crucial roles in a number of cult classics and bizarre obscurities.
The band’s surrealist leanings were present from the moment they first stumbled onto the big screen. They chose Richard Lester to direct A HARD DAY’S NIGHT purely on the strength of a short film he’d made starring Spike Milligan. It was more than enough reason for four massive fans of The Goon Show to offer him the director’s chair.
A couple of years later, Lester would get John Lennon on board for his barbed satire HOW I WON THE WAR (1967). Lennon, at a loose end during the Beatles’ 1966 hiatus, later admitted to signing up for the role of Gripweed purely because he didn’t know what else to do with himself at the time. Hanging around the Spanish set, he wrote Strawberry Fields Forever. Lennon wouldn’t act in a feature again, although he did co-direct some bold experiments in video art with Yoko Ono, the most notable being 1969’s RAPE and 1971’s ERECTION. But his lasting legacy for cult cinema was yet to come.
After catching a late-night screening of Alejandro Jodorowsky’s metaphysical western EL TOPO in 1970, Lennon became instrumental in ensuring distribution of the film in North America. Furthermore, he also convinced Allen Klein (then president of Apple Corps) to give Jodorowsky $1 million towards his next project, the dazzlingly ambitious THE HOLY MOUNTAIN (1973).
Meanwhile, Ringo Starr’s acting career was on a decidedly leftfield trajectory. By the dawn of the 1970s, he’d already chalked up a starring role in THE MAGIC CHRISTIAN (1969) alongside Peter Sellers, Roman Polanski, Christopher Lee and Raquel Welch. He followed this up by playing Larry the Dwarf/Frank Zappa in 200 MOTELS (1971) before assuming a bad Mexican accent and firing off multiple rounds while screaming “I kill you!” in a 1971 spaghetti western called BLINDMAN.
A short tenure in the director’s chair followed (for T. Rex’s 1972 concert film BORN TO BOOGIE) before Starr returned to his oddball acting career with SON OF DRACULA (1974). Co-starring Harry Nilsson, this insane mess of a film is nowhere near as good as it sounds – in spite of the best efforts of director Freddie Francis, better known as the cinematographer on Jack Clayton’s THE INNOCENTS (1961) and David Lynch’s THE ELEPHANT MAN (1980).
While Ringo was clowning around in a wizard costume, Paul McCartney was sticking to the music in the mid-’70s. McCartney could, however, take credit for first taking the Beatles’ cinematic dabbling into stranger realms. He’s generally acknowledged (and occasionally castigated) as the driving force behind the chaotic, quintessentially English bus trip TV special MAGICAL MYSTERY TOUR (1967). Shot in eye-popping psychedelic colour, the film received a critical mauling when the BBC screened it on Boxing Day in not-so-psychedelic black and white.
Another McCartney idea followed. LET IT BE (1970) was supposed to be a fly-on-the-wall documentary following the Beatles as they wrote, rehearsed and performed an entirely new album. The resultant film has remained largely unavailable since its VHS release in the 1980s. You can understand why: it’s a car crash, albeit a morbidly fascinating one as the world’s biggest rock band implodes before our eyes. It sort of comes together in the last act, of course, when the Beatles set up shop on the roof of Apple Studios and get through a blistering 42-minute impromptu set before the police shut them down. Not a bad way to play your last ever concert together.
George Harrison in particular looks to be suffering on the set of LET IT BE, his tensions with McCartney clearly reaching breaking point as he quips “I won’t play at all if you don’t want me to.” It would be another eight years before Harrison made a messianic mark on the film world, coming to the rescue of his Python friends.
In 1978, the production of MONTY PYTHON’S LIFE OF BRIAN (1979) was firmly on the skids after a jumpy EMI finally got around to reading the script and, freaked out by the inflammatory religious content, pulled out. Harrison stepped in to fund the film to the tune of £3 million, setting up HandMade Films in the process (and nabbing himself a nice cameo as ‘the owner of the mount’).
HandMade Films went on to make some iconic British pictures of the 1980s, including THE LONG GOOD FRIDAY (1980), THE MISSIONARY (1982) and WITHNAIL AND I (1987), as well as lesser-known curios such as Nicolas Roeg’s psychodrama TRACK 29 (1988), written by Dennis Potter and starring the young Gary Oldman.
Sadly, Harrison’s venture into film production ended in acrimony and a $25 million lawsuit against his dodgy business partner Denis O’Brien in 1988. By this stage, McCartney was settling into his role as elder statesman of British rock, Starr was speaking to a new generation as the narrator of Thomas the Tank Engine, and Lennon had long since departed this earth. The curtain was pretty much down on the former Beatles’ most involved years in cinema.
Perhaps it’s not surprising that the 1960s’ greatest band had a hand in the movies: they were well-connected cultural icons with money to burn. This enabled them to make their own anarchically funny films, generate some truly strange, now hard-to-find obscurities, and in Harrison’s case make an immense contribution to British cinema. They may not have had the same monumental impact on film culture as they did on popular music, but they enriched the film world, making it a better, weirder place.