The Beatles in the Movies

By D.G. McCabe

The rock and roll movie’s origin story can be summarized as thus: a bunch of record executives figured out that they could make a lot of money putting Elvis in B-Movies.  When the Beatles became ultra-mega-huge in the early sixties, the got roped into the same thing, but instead of a series of largely forgettable beach movies, the Beatles produced one classic (A Hard Day’s Night (1964)), two incredibly bizarre works (Help! (1965)) and Magical Mystery Tour (1967)), numerous music videos, and one fantastic documentary (The Beatles Anthology (1995)).

The Classic (A Hard Day’s Night)

A Hard Day’s Night is not merely a vehicle for the ridiculous obsession that was Beatlemania, it was a view from inside the bubble of it.  There is no goofy plot, no tacked-on love story, just the band getting ready for a show and the hoops they have to jump through just to get from the train station to showtime.  Somewhere, the film becomes less about the Beatles and more about obsessive youth culture.  For a good essay, check on the write up on the Criterion Collection’s website.  And yes, the fact that this movie and not, say, Elvis’ Blue Hawaii (1961) is the subject of a Criterion essay speaks to its status as a cinematic classic rather than a cheesy byproduct of the early days of Rock and Roll.

The Weird Stuff (Help! and Magical Mystery Tour)

In the Beatles Anthology, Paul McCartney, George Harrison, and Ringo Starr reminisce about how high they were when they filmed Help!.  Let’s just say that the Beatles are fighting a satan-worshipping cult, there is random skiing, and beach scenes straight our of Thunderball (1965).  It’s like witnessing a bizarre netherworld where James Bond has been replaced by four stoned musicians.

Magical Mystery Tour was shot without a script and makes absolutely no sense.  It was probably the Beatles’ only real disaster critically, although it did spawn a fantastic album. The entire movie takes place on a bus and the Beatles are singing magicians – sound fun?

Music Videos

Interestingly enough, the Beatles can be credited with helping invent the music video, which would of course gain cultural prominence in the 1980’s before becoming a cultural afterthought in the 2000’s.  According to the Anthology documentary, the Beatles basically got sick of making public appearances, so instead they made crazy music videos for songs like “I am the Walrus” and “Something” and shipped them around the world to various music shows.  Everyone else, even the Rolling Stones, still had to show up.

The Beatles Anthology

In the early 1990’s, the surviving members of the band put together the Beatles Anthology project, which included an fantastic eight episode BBC documentary of the same name, narrated by all four members of the band and various important partners (Brian Epstein and John Lennon’s portions were done with archived interview clips).  While the Beatles aren’t too critical about themselves and there is no mention of anything that happened after the band broke up, it is an interesting, and important, piece of history.

So Where Are the Concert Videos?

We know that the Beatles were masters in the studio, as we have twelve of the most popular and influential albums in the history of popular music to demonstrate.  The question remains, however – were the Beatles any good as a live band?

We know that The Who, The Grateful Dead, Bruce Springsteen and the E-Street Band, Phish, and others were or are great live performers, as we have decades of tours, live albums, and concert videos to support.  Whether the Beatles were a great live band is shrouded in myth, legend, and insufficiently advanced technology.

The Beatles started out as a garage band called “The Quarrymen” in 1957.  Between 1957-1962 they played mainly small venues, seedy bars, and strip clubs around Liverpool and Hamburg, Germany.  By 1961, they had basically become the house band of The Cavern Club.  Between 1962 and 1966 they played hundreds of concerts worldwide before they decided to stop playing live and focus exclusively on their studio output.

Despite this output, there is relatively little evidence of the Beatles playing in concert compared to most popular rock bands. There is plenty of evidence of them playing “live” on television shows, which, as the Beatles Anthology attests to, they were very good at.  The Anthology also contains a long segment on the Beatles legendary Shea Stadium Concert and various other concert clips, but the acoustics at Shea and the screaming teenage girls at the other concerts make it impossible to determine if they are actually playing a good concert.  Ringo Starr sums this up best in the Anthology when he says that one of the reasons the Beatles stopped touring was because people came to “see them” and not to “hear them.”  Or more accurately, teenage girls came to shriek at them until they passed out.

Of course people who were around when the Beatles were a touring band tell stories about what a great show they put on, and the clips in the Anthology series seem to back that up. If only we had modern concert recording equipment in the early 1960’s to document the rise of a certain garage band from Liverpool.  We don’t, so they mythology of the band’s live show will continue to live on as open to interpretation.  Isn’t that more interesting than knowing for sure anyway?

(c) 2013 D.G. McCabe