Follow the franchise: What I learned about The Beatles from watching their films

The five films The Beatles made while together as a band give us as much of an indication of the progression of the Fab Four’s career as the music does. The progression of A Hard Day’s Night, Help, Magical Mystery Tour, Yellow Submarine and Let It Be begins black and white and whimsical and become increasingly colourful and psychedelic – but also increasingly self-indulgent. They then implode in a hard-to-watch power struggle.

The universally recognised high point of the Beatles Cinematic Universe is their first film, released in 1964. And what a perfect introduction it is to the band, with the boys running away from a legion of screaming fans.

After all, if any band can be said to have ran through the ‘60s it was The Beatles: From 1962 to 1970, they ran through 13 studio albums; through two dozen of the most famous singles of all time; through countless revolutions in sound; and finally, they ran away from each other as quickly as they could.

All this was still to come, however, when A Hard Day’s Night came to cinemas. Then, the running represented life as a Beatle, running from concerts to photo shoots to promotional appearances, all the while being followed around by fans screaming so loud it must have been impossible to think. It certainly became impossible for the band to hear itself play, which was why they quit touring just a little over two years after the release of the movie.

One of the things that still makes The Beatles’ break up so fascinating is the massive contrast between the acrimony they ended their partnership in and the closeness of their bond in A Hard Day’s Night. Though the film gives each their own personality, the film is at its most exciting when they speak as one unit, with jokes and references thrown between them with an ease and speed that most comedy teams can only dream of. In some scenes, they speak as if they share one single brain – an impression helped by the fact that they are all dressed in the same Beatles uniform.

Most of this is played for fun, but behind A Hard Day’s Night was a subtle story about life in a famous band, in which fame is a disconcerting conveyor belt of patronising interviews, endless promotional stops and identical waiting rooms. Sure, the film has little in the way of plot beyond that, but is carried along by pure Beatle charisma and Richard Lester’s energetic directing.

Looking back over 50 years after the film was released, there is still something about A Hard Days Night that feels timeless, though it’s hard to say whether that’s because its visuals became standard grammar for music videos, or because black and white gives everything a timeless feeling.

Help! does not share that feeling. A general problem with sequels is that their creators often incorrectly guess at what people liked about the first film. So it is with with this follow up, which has far less of the life of the Beatles stuff and far more of the madcap surreal pissing about stuff.

One thing is for certain. While A Hard Day’s Night is still watchable, its follow up Help! is much less so. It’s unwatchable in two senses. Firstly, unwatchable because it feels dated exactly to the time of its release. The film couldn’t scream 1965 any louder if it was holding a loudhailer.

Secondly, there’s the fact that the movie is literally hard to watch. While A Hard Day’s Night has been given the luxury Criterion treatment and is streaming on Amazon Prime, Help! is available only as a £30 BluRay, or to rent and buy on Apple. That’s it. 

For some reason all but the first of the Beatles films are fairly difficult to watch despite starring the world’s most famous band. I always thought that was strange. The Beatles have always been a band willing to repackage even their most trivial arcana every few years in some super deluxe edition, and yet Help! is barely released or discussed. What must be wrong with the film that even the usually pretty mercenary Beatles are unwilling to draw attention to it?

Turns out it’s the same reason that a lot of the movies from that era are no longer widely seen—because it’s pretty racist.

The plot is simple. Ringo gets sent a large red ring from a fan. Trouble is, there is a religious cult that believes that anyone who is wearing that ring must be painted red and then sacrificed. Cue much slapstick as the cult (and then a pair of British scientists) try to get in back across multiple locations—first London, then the Alps, and finally the Bahamas (if you are the sort of person for whom the idea of 60s Paul McCartney in a tight t-shirt appeals, you will love this section.)

The problem is, however, is that cult is centred around the goddess Kali (or as she is christened in this movie, Kalili) and is clearly inspired by the Thugee Hindu cult. Which, this being a British film from the ‘60s, means lots of British actors done up in brownface and turbans.

You may be asking yourself how a band who in just a few years would write songs so respectful of Indian music like Tomorrow Never Knows could be disrespectful to Indian culture here. Amazingly, the two are connected: it was while working on this film that Harrison first heard sitars. 

The racism is Help!’s most egregious element, but it is far from the only problem with the film. What made A Hard Day’s Night so enjoyable is that it had at its heart a well-observed portrait of the Beatles and how they spoke and acted. The Beatles charisma is the engine that operates that film, and it couldn’t move without it.

In contrast, you could totally remove The Beatles from Help! and it wouldn’t really matter. In interviews, Lennon described A Hard Day’s Night as a collaboration with director Richard Lester, whereas for the follow-up Lester was in control, and the group has described feeling like extras in their own film.

What they do contribute feels more for their own benefit rather than the audience’s. In the Anthology documentary, for example, McCartney reveals that the film ends in the Bahamas because the band suggested they go there — for no plot reason, but rather because they’d never been before.

Lester’s aim seems to have been to make a British Marx Brothers movie, a pop art parody of James Bond films with a Carry On sensibility. Not a bad idea in itself, but he could have put any group of comedians in the centre of it. You could replace The Beatles with, say, the four actors Lester used in The Four Musketeers and it would not make that much difference to about 80 percent of the finished film.

Then again, it is in that remaining 20 percent where any magic this movie has is found. The addition of colour in this film means that the performances of the songs in Help! are even more enjoyable than in A Hard Day’s Night. The “Ticket to Ride” sequence, for example, where The Beatles are frolicking in the snow, establishes a look and feel that many music videos would have way into the 1990s. Do these sequences fit into the film at all? Not really, but they didn’t in A Hard Day’s Night either, and here they are a welcome breather from white characters in turbans and tedious farce.

To be fair to Lester, while generally the film drags, a lot of the jokes land, and the sequence where The Beatles seem to head into four separate homes before it is revealed that they are all one large house behind the facade is an all-time great visual gag.

And also to be fair to the director, while his creative vision was a failure in this film, Magical Mystery Tour showed that if The Beatles were given more creative control, the result would have been equally disastrous.

Thought Help! was too thin on plot and scenes of The Beatles bantering? Then Magical Mystery Tour is not for you. Then again, it is hard to know exactly who the film is for. Let it stand as a warning to any creative person that total creative control is a poisoned chalice.

The story, or what comes closest to a story: The band go on a coach trip through England, with some wizards up high pushing them towards a series of psychedelic set pieces.

What is curious about the project is that it has at its heart the exact same combination of modern psychedelia with an English music hall tradition that Sgt Pepper did: But while one is a masterpiece, the other is perhaps the oddest misfire the group were ever a part of.

The drugs are often blamed for the imagery of this period in the band’s career, but this film was shaped by them in another less-discussed way. Certain drugs have a way of making you think that every idea you have is a great one. Combine that with the egos of a band whose impulses have made them the biggest band in the world and it is a surprise that they didn’t make more mortifying mistakes on the scale of Magical Mystery Tour.

Beatles films only work through the combined comic energy of the whole band, but they feel estranged from each other here. They mostly sit apart in the coach (George and John sit together), and two of the musical sequences feature mostly solo Beatles — Paul does The Fool on the Hill in France, while George appears alone on Blue Jay Way (a criminally underrated track).

Even if the band had been united when filming this, it may have not made much of a difference. Whereas A Hard Day’s Night only works because of the charisma of The Beatles (and the best parts of Help! are the most Beatlesy bits), the failure of Magical Mystery Tour is because of The Beatles. They directed it, and they wrote it…well, writing is not the right word, but they came up with the scenarios.

So when you didn’t laugh during the race scene. It’s The Beatles’ fault. Disgusted by the scene in which John maniacally pours endless slop onto a woman’s plate? Blame The Beatles. Annoyed that the only dialogue scene with all the band sees them playing wizards with silly voices? That’s The Beatles fault again.

The movie is not totally irredeemable. The musical sequences are again enjoyable as proto-music videos, with I Am the Walrus and the abstract section set to Flying (stealing footage from Dr Strangelove) among the best musical sequences in any of these films. Unfortunately, they are all strung together with sub-Goons surrealism.

Usually with bad comedies, the least you can say is that the cast seem to be having fun. But with relations between the members clearly fractured at this point, I’m not sure we can even say that.

The whole Magical Mystery Tour project was a debacle. It was a critical failure, and was met with bemusement by much of the public — not helped by the fact that the BBC made the absurd decision to premiere  it in black and white, despite the colorful visuals in the musical sequences being the film’s only saving gace.

Even those brief bursts of color, however, are blown out of the water by Yellow Submarine.  By all accounts, the film was considered nothing more than a contractual obligation by the band, a way of fulfilling their three-picture deal with minimal effort on their part. 

The soundtrack is a mix of already released singles, solo George Martin compositions and songs they had deemed not good enough to go on their studio albums. They do not even voice themselves in the film – and, in fact, only appear in a live action cameo appearance at the end because they were forced to do so by the movie studio.

And yet, despite all this, the film might be the best of The Beatles movies – and at least one of the band agreed, with Lennon citing it as his favorite. 

Counterintuitively, what makes Yellow Submarine work is the fact that The Beatles were not involved. Magical Mystery Tour showed the band starting to become estranged, putting an unconvincing manic happy face on while struggling internally with drugs and their grief over the death of manager Brian Epstein. Yellow Submarine, meanwhile, has the Fab Four’s cartoon alter egos communicating in the kind of happy-go-lucky rapid-fire wit that had made A Hard Day’s Night so watchable.

What makes the film truly engrossing, however, is its animation. It delivers fully on something Magical Mystery Tour only gave viewers occasionally: An appropriately trippy visual companion to The Beatles’ most exciting sounds. As The Beatles set to work on the stark and strange White Album (what a disturbing animated film you could make out of that), Yellow Submarine looked at their last three albums through kaleidoscope eyes. Sure, new songs like “All Together Now” cannot match the majesty of something like “Eleanor Rigby” or “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds,” but in 1968 even a bad Beatles song was worth listening to (I will also admit a large soft spot for  “Hey Bulldog” and “It’s All Too Much.”)

Of the five Beatles films made during their time together, this is perhaps the only one which  has something to offer non fans. The film is a living museum of the art world of the 1960s. In the film, pop art a la Peter Blake combines with Bridget Riley-style op art. Experimental animation of the 1960s bursts through to the mainstream in a way that makes Disney look dour.

Admittedly, the plot is gossamer thin, making even the early Beatles films  look intricately plotted in comparison. Essentially, the band is brought to a town that has been turned to stone by the evil Blue Meanies, and the band has to save it with the power of music. Or something. But when every frame is as full of wonder as in this film, who needs  story? Turn off your mind, relax and float downstream…

Relaxing is something you never get to do in the final movie made during the band’s time together, the documentary Let It Be. Roughly speaking, it is The White Album to Yellow Submarine’s Sgt Pepper. While the latter is a psychedelic triumph that could only be achieved by people at the peak of their powers working together, the former is a different beast. Starker. Disjointed. Full of moments of brilliance, but each of those moments is at odds with the others.

While Yellow Submarine manages to fool us into thinking that The Beatles were still a united band in 1968 through having actors play them, Let It Be shows us that the band has all but fallen apart by 1969.

The details behind the documentary are well known, especially as Peter Jackson used footage shot for the film to make his seven hour Get Back series. Finding The White Album a frustrating album to make, the band decide on a back to basics approach, with the band trying to replicate live performance in the studio to try and get back to the feeling of their early years, where endless live concerts in Hamburg and beyond had turned them into one of Europe’s tightest bands.

The project, of course, was doomed from the start. For one, they  just were not the same band any more. The band we see in Let It Be is pulling in four directions. Ringo is just biding time before he can go shoot a movie, with the doc shoot being slotted in before he went away to film The Magic Christian. John also seems checked out of the experience, as represented by the constant silent presence of Yoko Ono. In one scene, for example, the pair waltz together whilst the other members work on George’s I Me Mine.

It is George and Paul, however, who are the biggest problems with this documentary. The film had long been thought to be a fairly accurate representation of what happened at the recording sessions for what was meant to be an album called Get Back, but was abandoned, only later to be cobbled together into Let It Be by Phil Spector.

However, the series Get Back revealed that crucial moments are missing from the documentary. The Jackson mini-series, for example, revealed that director Michael Lindsay-Hogg had footage of George Harrison leaving the band, but he did not use it. Once you know that, it is hard to think of the film as anything less than compromised as a documentary.

Once you know that footage is missing, many scenes in the film take on a different context. Take the scene where Ringo and Paul play a spontaneous piano duet. In the film, this reads as a sign that the old Beatles friendships are not fully dead. In reality, this is a moment of the band flailing, not knowing what to do with themselves after one of them leaves. As Get Back reveals, the band spent the rest of the day locked in a blistering primal scream jam session led by Yoko, and seriously considered replacing George with Eric Clapton.

Who was behind the decision to not show George exiting the group? We do not know, but the number one suspect is Paul McCartney. Get Back showed us Paul controlling many of the sessions, with George growing frustrated at being told what to do by someone who is supposed to be his friend and collaborator, not his boss.

Paul’s portrayal in Let it Be is fascinating. The film contains performances of both Let it Be and The Long and Winding Road, both filmed after the rooftop concert but put before it in this movie. Both musical sequences are basically Paul hagiography, shot for a large part in close-up of his face. It was this that most pissed off the other Beatles at the time, with Lennon saying in an interview, “​​the people that cut it, cut it as ‘Paul is God’ and we’re just lyin’ around.” In fact, John cited Let It Be as an example of exactly why the band broke up, with the others feeling that they were being forced into becoming Paul’s back-up band.

And yet, Paul still manages to come out of the film quite badly. The one scene of George and Paul fighting is captivating, and you can tell that John spends much of the session just blanking out much of what his bandmate is saying.

Though it ends on a triumphant note with the rooftop concert, which hints at an alternate future where the band was able to get it together, the overall feeling of watching Let It Be after the four other Beatles movies is one of sadness.

The music in its way remains as great as ever. The final concert is thrilling, and it is fascinating to see these songs in their rough forms. The Academy Awards agreed with this, giving the band their sole Oscar for best score for this movie.

However, The Beatles just are not The Beatles here – even more so than in Yellow Submarine, when it literally was not the band on screen. The band that in A Hard Day’s Night felt like one brain in four bodies have becoming simply squabbling co-workers by Let It Be – it is no coincidence that one scene shows them all heading into the office separately.

When the final title card reads “the end,” it represnts more than just the film coming to a close. Let It Be is clearly the end of the road for the band. They started A Hard Day’s Night running, but here they come to a dead stop.

What do we learn from watching The Beatles’ movies that we do not get from the songs? For one, we get a clear idea of why the band has remained so beloved throughout all these years. The films move from black and white screwball to campy caper to strange psychedelic experiment to animated adventure to fly on the wall documentary, showing us just how adaptable the band’s music is to every type of genre. The variety of the films reminds us that we always look at The Beatles through a glass onion, which reflects back exactly what we want from them.

Watching the films, we get an appreciation for new elements of the band. We encounter the surprise movie star charisma of Ringo, who becomes the de facto star of many of the movies – in fact, one of the biggest problems with Let It Be might be that it is light on his contributions. We see how funny the band could be, and how exciting they could be when they were at their most united.

This comes across most in A Hard Day’s Night, but it might be Yellow Submarine that is the most illuminating film in the collection. In being the film that the band was the most hands-off with, it allows other people to show us just how much inspiration they have found in the Fab Four’s work. Nothing better expresses the universe that the band’s music contains within it, and that expression will live on far longer than even the sharpest bit of rat-a-tat dialogue in the other films.

Movie rankings

1. Yellow Submarine
2. A Hard Day’s Night
3. Let It Be
4. Help
5. Magical Mystery Tour

Published by Samuel Spencer

Journalist at BBC Three. Deputy Culture Editor at Newsweek. Formerly at, Press Association, ARTINFO. Lover of film, TV and the actresses it they give work to. Contact me

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: