The Best Beatles Films (Not Starring The Beatles)
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The Beatles need no introduction. As one of the greatest bands in history, they left a pretty big imprint on the music world. They also made a few films along the way. This list is not about those Beatles movies. No, this list is composed of films that are either movies about the Beatles, or movies that feature the Beatles music on their soundtracks in a way that is above and beyond the norm.
These are films that sometimes go beyond the lives and times of John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison, and Ringo Starr. Instead, they may choose to explore the 'Beatlemania!' phenomena that surrounded the Beatles or just use the band's music to weave a new tale. The common thread that they all share is a connection to the Beatles, the greatest band the world has ever known.
Sergeant Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band - 1978
I’m going to start out with the movie on this list that will probably draw the most ire from my fellow Fab Four devotees. It is a film from that magical time known as the late seventies that built a story around selections from the vast Beatles songbook, with plenty of cheese to spare. I’m referring, of course, to Sergeant Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band featuring Peter Frampton and the kings of disco, The Bee Gees, in the title roles.
The film gets a lot of criticism from most people because of its sheer strangeness and the fact that some feel the leads are not worthy to sing songs that are held in such high regard by (practically) everyone. I, however, have always loved this movie. Where else can you see Steve Martin warble out his version of “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer” , or see Frampton and Steven Tyler duel with microphone stands?
The answer - nowhere but here.
I have always thought it interesting that the film chooses to take place in the USA in a stereotypical American town known simply as Heartland instead of in the UK. Sgt Pepper, the film tells us, was from Heartland and led his eponymous band through several wars before returning home, where he donated the band’s instruments to the town so that they could ensure happiness always reigned in the idyllic hamlet.
How do the instruments have this mysterious power? Who knows?
The story starts with Sgt. Pepper’s grandson, Billy Shears, reforming the band with his lifelong friends the Henderson brothers. The band is a success and gets called out to California to cut an album with Big Deal Records, home of other smash acts such as "Lucy and the Diamonds". During their absence, Mr. Mustard (who we all know is a mean old man) steals the instruments from the town and sad days begin for Heartland. It’s up to Billy and his friends to find the instruments and restore happiness.
I’ll admit that the plot is silly. I’ll even admit that some of the songs fall flat. George Burns (as Mr. Kite) couldn’t carry a tune to save his life, and Donald Pleasance just comes off as a creeper. Where the movie shines, though, is in the versions laid out by some of the other guest stars. Aerosmith does a fine job with “Come Together” and Earth, Wind, & Fire knocks “Got To Get You Into My Life” out of the park. My favorite bit, though, is when Billy Preston shows up to sing “Get Back“.
All in all, it is a silly film. However, there are enough great moments to make it a must see for Beatles fans.
The Rutles: All You Need is Cash - 1978
Also from 1978 comes this hilarious gem from the mind of Eric Idle. It started as a short bit on SNL and was eventually bankrolled by Lorne Michaels into a full length TV film.
The Rutles: All You Need is Cash is an in depth look at The Rutles, a group of mop-tops from Rutland who became the biggest band in the world. Shot in a mockumentary style, the film follows Dirk, Nasty, Stig, and Barry from the early days through the entirety of their amazing career.
Eric Idle serves as the host and also plays Dirk McQuickly, a thinly veiled parody of Paul McCartney. Neil Innes plays Ron Nasty (John Lennon) to great effect and provides a treasure trove of sound alike songs that are amazing in their own right. Also starring in this madcap film are several SNL alums such as Bill Murray, Dan Aykroyd , John Belushi and Gilda Ratner. Idle's fellow Python, Michael Palin, also makes an appearance along with musicians Paul Simon, Mick Jagger, and Ron Wood. Most surprising is a turn by George Harrison himself poking fun at his former life as a Beatle.
The jokes come fast throughout the film, and any Beatles fan will thrill at how well they parody famous moments in Beatles history, such as The Rutles playing "Che Stadium" or Ron Nasty and his girlfriend Chastity holding a "Bath In" for peace. I don't want to get to much into the jokes for fear of ruining them, so suffice it to say that if you like Monty Python style humor, you will love this.
One thing this film does right where so many lesser films would have failed is in the songs. They sound so close to real Beatles songs that some of them have mistakenly made it onto bootlegs of the fab four over the years. "Cheese and Onions" (from The Rutles film "Yellow Submarine Sandwich") has been mislabeled as a Lennon outtake more than once.
The film isn't long, but it's great. There is a sequel floating around, but I have been warned by many Rutles fans that it is not really worth the time. The original, however, is definitely a must see.
I Wanna Hold Your Hand - 1978
Before he directed Back to the Future, Who Framed Roger Rabbit, or Forrest Gump, Robert Zemeckis helmed this gem about that special time in February 1964 when the Beatles first landed in the USA. Instead of focusing on the Fab four themselves, the film follows a group of teenagers who are determined to get to New York City to see the lads play on the "Ed Sullivan Show".
A few of the teens are fans of the lads, but others in the group are determined to undermine the British invasion that is taking place all around them. I like the fact that the youths all have their own reasons for wanting to get to NYC. They want to either touch The Beatles, sleep with The Beatles, protest The Beatles, or take the Beatles off the air. The variety of motivations makes for a more interesting romp than if they had all just been Beatlemaniacs.
The film is definitely a comedy and is pretty funny throughout. Each of the characters gets themselves into interesting and entertaining situations. I especially like Wendy Jo Sperber's run in with an obsessive fan in the Beatles' hotel.
Zemeckis does a very good job of capturing Beatlemania at it's peak, even if the folks he cast as the famous moptops (or at least their voices) do a pretty poor job impersonating their real life counterparts. If you ever wanted to pinch off a peace of that almost religious fervor that hit NYC when the Fab Four touched down, this is definitely the film for you.
Backbeat - 1994
Before they were the biggest band in the world, the Beatles were five lads playing clubs in Hamburg. This was a time when the band consisted not only of John, Paul, and George, but also of Pete Best and Stuart Sutcliffe. Ringo, the matching suits, and that trademark Beatles haircut are waiting in the near future, but this is a time of being straight up rockers - playing late into the night, getting drunker and louder with each song.
The centerpoint of this tale is really Stuart Sutcliffe, artistically inclined close friend of John Lennon. Their friendship, and what Hamburg does to it, is really where the meat of the story is. Stephen Dorff and Ian Hart play Sutcliffe and Lennon (respectively) very well, giving a lot of insight into the men as young adults.
When the band meets Astrid Kirchher, a photographer, Sutcliffe falls for her. His affection for the vibrant German makes him doubt his place in the band, causing friction with his chum, Lennon.
Overall, this film offers a good peak into the wild years right before the Beatles were to blast off to fame and fortune. Another plus is the soundtrack, featuring some pretty good renditions of rock standards.
Two of Us - 2000
Two of Us was a VH1 movie that imagined a day in the mid seventies when Paul McCartney and John Lennon "buried the hatchet" and just hung out. Supposedly, there was a day somewhat like this, but the film makes sure to tell us it is a fiction made of conjecture on the part of the filmmakers. Of interest, however, is that the director is Michael Lindsay Hogg, who had previously worked with Lennon and McCartney as director of the infamous Let It Be documentary. Surely this gives Hogg a little more insight into the pair than another director might have had.
Aidan Quinn plays the puppy eyed Paul, and the amazing Jared Harris ably plays Lennon. It's fun to watch these two legends come to life in a "what if" story like this. It is especially entertaining to see their interactions with fans when the pair step out on the town. A fan who approaches them in a restaurant only to be dressed down by a snarky Lennon is especially entertaining.
For a Beatles fan like myself, this movie was a nice sort of daydream of a film. I would love to think that before Lennon was murdered, he and Paul got together and let bygones be bygones - if only for one day in New York City.
Across The Universe - 2007
Across the Universe is the most recent attempt to make a full length musical film from the Beatles catalog. Overall, it succeeds in many of the places where "Sgt. Pepper" failed. The director, Julie Taymor, has a background in Broadway, notably bringing Disney's "The Lion King" to the stage. She also directed the films "Titus" and "Frida" . She was also originally attached to the troubled Spider-Man musical.
The first thing I noticed when promotional material for this film started showing up was how lush everything seemed to be visually. Modern computer effects are used with great success to create a psychedelic vibe throughout the film. I couldn't help but get acid flashbacks as I watched the scenes unfold. Set to the music of the Fab Four, it really is a treat to behold.
The film follows a young man from England named Jude (Jim Sturgess) as he travels to America and survives the turbulent sixties. Vietnam, drugs, the sexual revolution, and other aspects of the decade all come into play. Overall, it's a successful melding of the times and the music, with few outright failures. I was particularly happy to see Joe Cocker's version of "Come Together" and the almost uncomfortably trippy "For The Benefit of Mr. Kite" as performed by Eddie Izzard.
Nowhere Boy - 2009
Exploring the teenage years of John Lennon is a pretty monumental task. So much of what made him what he became happened in during that period of his life. Nowhere Boy manages to capture this tumultuous period pretty well... for the most part. Some may be disappointed by how little time is given to the rest of the lads, but I enjoyed the focus on John. Aaron Johnson surprised me greatly as Lennon. I couldn't believe it was the same guy from Kick-Ass. There are a few scenes between the young John and his mother that may make some viewers squirm in their seats, but they are necessary to show how odd their relationship was. Every Beatles fan knows John has mother issues, and this film gives a glimpse as to why.