With the iconic Beatles’ film A Hard Day’s Night screening at Loring Park tonight, now is a great time to take a look back at the Fab Four’s intermittently fab film work.
As the Beatles, they made two film romps with Richard Lester, A Hard Day’s Night (1964) and Help! (1965); one psychedelic TV movie, Magical Mystery Tour; and a documentary, Let it Be (1970). (The filming of that last one was so acrimonious that the Beatles broke up and it’s never been released on DVD.)
They also pursued other film projects independently, working to create film scores, taking on the job of producer, and even making a few star turns acting.
Let’s take this opportunity to explore each Beatle’s non-Beatles film work.
In 1966, following the release of Revolver, the Beatles did something they rarely did during their time together: They took a break to pursue individual interests. John Lennon didn’t have much happening at this time (other than drugs), so when Richard Lester offered him a role in his WWII satire How I Won the War, Lennon signed on and went off to Spain for five weeks of filming.
The film generated immediate buzz when it was revealed that Lennon had cut his beautiful Beatle hair to approximate a halfway convincing British soldier's look. He appeared on the cover of Life magazine, sheared and dressed in military garb, and everyone was really excited about this moviebecause it was marketed as “starring John Lennon,” and it would be the first non-Beatles movie performance for any of the mop-topped Liverpudlians.
And then it came out.
The disappointment was crushing. First, although he shares an opening title credit with Michael Crawford, it’s clearly Crawford’s film; Lennon is just one of a group of British Tommies in Crawford’s unit as they fight their way through North Africa and France. As if this weren’t enough, the movie was weird. It’s an extremely dark comedy about the horrors of war (back when it was not yet acceptable to suggest that WWII -- our side of it, anyway -- was anything but a noble endeavor fought by proud patriots who came home heroes).
It is also, to put it politely, “zany.” It has all the incoherence of Help! minus the Beatles (who are always fun to look at) and their music. Basically, it’s an art film that was marketed to teenyboppers under the false pretense that it would be a starring vehicle for their idol. Now, these marketing mistakes aren’t a reflection on the movie itself (which is actually quite watchable and at times funny and moving), but the disappointment led to its being reviled, and Lennon seemed to recognize that acting wasn’t for him and he never tried it again.
So did anything good come out of How I Won the War? Absolutely! During downtime in between his scenes (and he really doesn’t have that many), Lennon wrote “Strawberry Fields Forever.” Which by itself would have justified any number of box office flops.
George Harrison wasn’t just quiet, he was modest. He understood that appearing in Beatles movies did not mean that he was an actor or that he had any business trying to be the next Burt Lancaster. Harrison has the distinction of being the only Beatle to never play more than cameo roles in non-Beatles movies (and we’ll get to those cameos in a moment).
But that doesn’t mean he didn’t participate in the industry.
In 1967, when the Bee Gees dropped out of scoring a “swinging London” movie called Wonderwall (and movies of this type constituted their own genre during this period), the project was accepted by Harrison, who wrote a delightful instrumental score consisting of roughly half Western and half Indian instrumentation. The resulting soundtrack album, Wonderwall Music (1968), was the first solo album by any Beatle, and was well-received at the time.
Now, the movie may have largely fallen into obscurity (if it’s mentioned at all, it’s as “that movie with the George Harrison score”), but Harrison’s soundtrack surfaces from time to time, and it was probably his involvement with the project that led Beatles-obsessed Oasis to
steal borrow the word “Wonderwall” and use it bafflingly in their song of the same name.
Fast forward 12 years, and Harrison’s friends in Monty Python (George always had more celebrity friends than John and Paul) had run out of money to make their irreverent Life of Brian (1979). As a friend and as a fan, Harrison wanted to see the movie made, so he mortgaged his house to found HandMade Films, which produced the film, and made its money back.
And suddenly, for about 10 years, he was a movie producer. (His friendship with the Pythons also led to some of his only acting, appearing as an interviewer in Eric Idle’s The Ruttles, and as the blink-and-you-missed-it Mr. Papadopoulos in Life of Brian). These days, HandMade films still exists, but Harrison’s involvement seems to have peaked with the catastrophic Shanghai Surprise (1986), a Madonna and Sean Penn vehicle made when they hated each other. Harrison tried to salvage the production, and even appears as a nightclub singer (largely in the background), but not even the resulting George Harrison promotional single could rescue it. By the end of the '80s, he wasn’t actively involved in producing anymore.
Now, as we’ve noted, neither Lennon nor Harrison came away from their experiences in Richard Lester’s movies with the impression that they were good actors (and don’t get us wrong, A Hard Day’s Night and Help! are a lot of fun, but one generally doesn’t watch them for their towering, Brando-esque performances).
McCartney had a different take, however. He had caught the acting bug. Playing the long game, he spent much of the '60s and '70s secretly dreaming of film stardom. And, because he was Paul McCartney and there was no one around him telling him this was a bad idea, in 1984 he realized his dream with Give My Regards to Broad Street, with a screenplay he had written by himself.
The plot is irrelevant, but here it is: McCartney plays a former Beatle named Paul McCartney. He receives a phone call one morning telling him that Harry, an associate with a criminal history, has gone missing, along with the master tapes for McCartney’s next album, presumably one of the universally beloved classics he released in the '80s: You know, albums like Pipes of Peace, Press to Play, and who could forget Flowers in the Dirt? So one of these masterpieces has gone missing, on top of which, some evil corporate interest is threatening to take over the studio where McCartney records, because the owner owes the guy money, or something.
Look, it doesn’t matter. Most of the film is Paul and Linda McCartney, Ringo Starr, and Barbara Bach (Ringo’s wife) hanging out, as themselves, and playing music together (Harrison was invited to participate but, for some reason -- maybe he read the screenplay -- he opted out).
This movie has a hideous poster, with the tagline: “Six million dollars says they won’t find Harry by midnight.” It would have been remarkable if any of the three people who saw this clusterfuck even remembered Harry by the end of the film. Not that it matters.
So that was the beginning and end of McCartney’s career as an actor. He’s since appeared in documentaries, but there’s been no talk of Give My Regards to Broadstreet II. His co-star, by contrast, has had a much more illustrious film career, which brings us to…
Poor Ringo Starr, always listed last whenever people enumerate the Beatles. Voted least likely to succeed by friends and colleagues, Starr had by far the most successful career as a film actor of any Beatle.
How could such a thing have happened?
Perhaps because he lowered his standards. Lennon and McCartney would never have considered appearing in weird Terry Southern adaptations like Candy (1968), where Ringo shockingly shared billing with Marlon Brando, or The Magic Christian (1969), with Peter Sellers and Raquel Welch. These movies, largely forgotten, very much “of their time,” and in extremely dubious taste, nonetheless established Starr as an actor who was up for anything.
The Ringo Starr of the '70s, who had several surprise hit singles (mostly written for him by friends), may not have been the best singer or the best actor, but he was a personality (and it’s hard not to be a personality when you were in the Beatles). Throughout the '70s and into the '80s, he acted in a number of films, from Ken Russell’s insane Liszt biopic Lisztomania (1975) to Caveman (1981), a “comedy” without dialogue (well, there’s a great deal of grunting) where Starr and Barbara Bach (a Bond girl, and Starr’s future wife) fight dinosaurs and become culture heroes by inventing the building blocks of civilization.
And then there’s 1974’s Son of Dracula, a “comedy” starring Starr and Harry Nilsson, and a number of other reputable musicians all keen on embarrassing themselves. Nilsson plays the title role of Dracula’s son, Count Downe, and Starr is the family advisor, Merlin, set to aide Count Downe in succeeding his father as King of the Netherworld. But the young count, alas, is far more interested in romance and rock 'n' roll. Much like Let it Be, albeit for very different reasons, this movie has never been released on DVD; Starr once claimed to have it on VHS, but he “couldn’t bear to look at it.”
So the film career of Ringo Starr may be a mixed bag, but if you’re a fan of British children’s television, you may very well remember his deep, soothing voice on such shows as Thomas the Tank Engine & Friends and Shining Time Station, an American spinoff which paired Thomas and friends with (vaguely unsettling) real life human actors. For his latest voice work, Starr enthusiasts would be well advised to check out 2014’s Powerpuff Girls: Dance Pantsed, in which Ringo provides the voice of Fibonacci Sequins.