As we did with our recent “last Beatles’ record post today we thought we’d take the occasion to ruminate about another “might have been”: the Beatle movies that might have been made, maybe even ought to have been made, but never were.
If you’re like me, you’re crazy about The Beatles’ first two movies, A Hard Day’s Night (1964) and Help! (1965), both directed by Richard Lester. Their list of virtues is long, among them a certain freshness and a feeling of promise. The four young men are so winning in these movies, and they are so entertaining and original, that I imagine that everyone at the time assumed that they were at the beginning of a long and healthy film career, just as they were at the beginning of a long and healthy musical career. How could that not be the assumption?
Both of these films seemed expressions of the zeitgeist. Their public personae were already gelling from constant TV appearances (more varied in England than in the U.S. In their home country they would often take part in comedy skits on variety shows as opposed to just playing their latest hits). The Beatles were talented musicians and songwriters and very funny guys, but the genius of crafting their IMAGE belonged to their manager Brian Epstein. The public saw them as boyish and playful, with a slightly gritty and wicked working class edge. In England, they seemed to represent their economic class; in the rest of the world, including the U.S. they were icons representing England. Hence, their MBEs and later Paul’s knighthood. They were national products.
To me, A Hard Day’s Night, though ostensibly light and bubbly, carries echoes of the “Angry Young Man” school of the late ’50s and early ’60s, as well as the French and British New Waves. Undercurrents of rebellion: “Sorry we hurt your field, Mister!”, and the constant motiff of escape from authority figures and responsibility. Plus the gritty look of London in black and white. The four of them are not only acerbic but even epigrammatic in their deadpan Liverpool wit…and occasionally downright zany, especially John Lennon, who occasionally did crazy faces and voices reminiscent of the cast of the Goon Show, especially Peter Sellers.
Some people are less crazy about Help! but I truly love it. It’s a gorgeous film to look at and it’s kind of genius to riff on James Bond films, and there are times when I actually feel like the soundtrack to this film is my favorite Beatles album. (An explication as to why will have to await a future occasion.)
We’ll get to the remaining Beatles films shortly and why they are not real Beatles movies in the same sense as the first two. But first, let’s talk about original plans for a couple of “third” films that were designed to be the 1966 follow up to the first couple:
A Talent for Loving: Or The Great Cowboy Race
This was a talked-about comedy western script concerning a Mexican nymphomaniac and the cowboys who pursue her, based on the novel by Richard Condon, best known for The Manchurian Candidate. After some back and forth the Beatles vetoed it. Ironically it was Lennon in particular (followed by Harrison) who seemed to dislike and resent their movies to that point. They both scorned the “cheeky” dialogue, which they felt was false. And Lennon disliked the idea of doing things outside reality, as in Help! or the proposed western. He said it was like they were forced to be “clams in a movie about frogs.” (What that LEAVES precisely in the business of making movies, he didn’t say, although the fact that he stopped making movies entirely I guess provides the answer.)
Again, ironically, Lennon was a fan of The Monkees and the “Pre-Fab Four” did this sort of thing routinely. In fact they even did the western parody thing on more than one occasion:
Condon’s script was eventually made into a film in 1969, starring Richard Widmark, Cesar Romero and Chaim Topoi. Hoo boy, is THAT a different film! Anyway, here’s what the Beatles’ version might have looked like.
The Three Musketeers
Richard Lester originally conceived this project (which he eventually made with another great cast in 1973) to be his third film with the Beatles. The idea makes me salivate. They would have been great. It’s perfect for them. Sex, cheeky humor and not too much acting required….with Ringo as the natural D’artagnan. They really should have done it. That is, it would have been perfect for the 1964 era Beatles, when they were still running and jumping around. By the time this film came out almost a decade later of course they had not only broken up, but fancied themselves sages, poets, revolutionaries and farmers…anything but a cheerful quartet of mop-tops. Here’s how they might have looked (from a tv comedy sketch they did lampooning Shakespeare in 1964):
What DID happen in 1966, was the Beatles stopped touring, and having some time on their hands, two of the Beatles began to get their feet wet in movie projects on their own. (One of the many incremental steps to their break-up). Lennon appeared in Richard Lester’s 1966 film How I Won the War, and was really self-conscious and terrible. This is surely what must have convinced him not to pursue movie roles in the future, although he’d been great in the first two Beatle movies. And McCartney scored the soundtrack for a topical Hayley Mills comedy called The Family Way (or, rather, he hummed a couple of themes and George Martin scored the film). So they kept a hand in for a time.
Then, the following year, at the height of their fame there was this:
Swinging London playwright Joe Orton wrote a TERRIFIC screenplay for the Beatles called Up Against It. I’ve read this and saw a production of a stage version at Emerson College, and frankly I think the Fab Four had their heads way up their arses (to use a favorite word of Orton’s) for not doing it. They never even got back to Orton. You can read more about it here.
Then, the worst thing possible happened, for those who cared about the continued existence of the Beatles, both in and out of movies. Their manager Brian Epstein died. Almost immediately their public identity as a single unit began to unravel. And quality control was out the window.
In fact their very first project after Epstein’s death was the fairly terrible Magical Mystery Tour debacle (1967), devised by Paul McCartney. A plotless, improvised experimental film, accompanied by an uneven soundtrack album (drug-addled, a definite step down from the high mark of Sgt. Pepper) it marked the beginning of the group’s decline. Really Magical Mystery Tour doesn’t count as a movie, at least in terms of what general audiences want to see. (Rabid Beatles fans like me of course will watch it repeatedly, but really….people don’t line up to buy tickets to this sort of thing.)
Then what? More dissolution. Harrison did the soundtrack to another experimental movie called Wonderwall (1968). The excellent animated film Yellow Submarine (1968) came out, but again that doesn’t really count, because apart from a couple of new songs and a brief greeting at the end of the film, the Beatles had nothing to do with it. They neither appear on screen themselves (for they are animated cartoons) nor do they even do their voice-overs; some other actors did that. This was true also of the animated Beatles TV series, which ran from 1965 through 1967. Great movie and charming show, but they’re not the “follow up” we have been discussing. For a follow up, you have to SHOW up.
Other cool projects were discussed however. Most notably this:
The Lord of The Rings
Wizards very much IN circa 1967 and 1968. After the formation of the Beatles’ production company Apple Corps. there was some serious hardcore discussion of an adaptation of the fantasy classic The Lord of the Rings, possibly directed by Stanley Kubrick, featuring Lennon as Gollum, Harrison as Gandolf, McCartney as Frodo and Ringo as Sam. The latter, by the way, I think is GENIUS casting. Ringo’s best screen roles were often versions of Sancho Panza. I have also heard versions of this fabled picture in which the four Beatles played the four Hobbits: Frodo, Sam, Merry and Pippin, and the director was John Boorman.
In any case, J.R.R. Tolkien hated the Beatles’ music and so he put the kibosh on any such project. What might the soundtrack have been like? I’ve often thought the Rolling Stones’ 1967 album Their Satanic Majesty’s Request was filled with sounds and imagery evocative of this book, especially the songs “Citadel”, “In Another Land” and “Gomper”.
A Clockwork Orange
And speaking of Stanley Kubrick…prior to his official sign-on as director of A Clockwork Orange, in 1968 producer Si Litvinoff had enlisted the involvement of the Beatles and Mick Jagger in the project. Jagger was to play Alex and the Beatles would do the soundtrack….although I can easily imagine the Beatles (especially younger Beatles) as the quartet in the story, although that would change their image quite a lot, wouldn’t it? When Kubrick came aboard he had other ideas and so the rock stars were shoved aside, much to the consternation of their fans.
In 1969, Ringo was the movie star of the group, thanks to his solo appearances in Candy (1968) and The Magic Christian (1969). In fact, you could say that in 1969 his movie star status elevated him almost to the level of the other three members of the band (that, and the fact that he’d been singled out by critics for his performance in A Hard Day’s Night). After the group’s break-up he squandered this status by making lots of disposable weird films with fellow rock stars Harry Nilsson, Frank Zappa, and Keith Moon. By the 90s, a regular spot on Thomas the Tank Engine was his best screen credit.
Lennon, perhaps the biggest potential movie star of the lot, contented himself with several experimental films he made with Yoko Ono.
Richard Lester thought George Harrison was the best and most natural Beatle actor, that he “nailed every line”. And of course he was to make the biggest mark in the film industry of the four, though it was to be as a producer.
And I hope we can all agree the Paul McCartney was hands down the worst of the four when it came to do with any aspect of cinema. As an actor, he was self conscious, almost embarrassed in front of a camera, despite all the girls going for his dreamy eyes. And the films which he actually made or produced, Magical Mystery Tour, Let It Be (1970) and Give My Regards to Broad Street (1984) are all amateurish, self-indulgent garbage.
Why do we (I) want more from them, when it comes to films? For one reason, because there is so much precedent in show business for singers conquering films: Al Jolson, Eddie Cantor, Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, and even Elvis Presley (and I haven’t even mentioned women — if I do that, I’ll be listing names all day). So we figure more Beatle movies ought to be a natural outcome. And those first two movies are so good, showed such promise….