‘The band that changed everything’ is a tag often applied to The Beatles.  Musically, the story has been told and retold, re-mastered and re-released.  But the world of music was not the only area that the band ventured into – far from it.  The ill fated Apple Boutique and Apple Records are two rather less flattering recollections.  One venture that yielded more success, however, was into the world of film.  This summer marks the 50th anniversary of the cinematic release of A Hard Day’s Night , the group’s motion picture debut.  Revisiting, reminiscing, re-evaluating – whatever you choose to call it, it is impossible to ignore just how far the reach of The Beatles extended beyond their music and into the world of film.

The circumstances behind The Beatles first foray into cinema are not as glamorous as one might expect.  Before the release of A Hard Day’s Night in July 1964, films starring musicians were invariably a cheap vehicle in which to cash in some easy money on the back of their popularity.  Think Jailhouse Rock and Summer Holiday.   While these movies have their fans, their impact outside of those circles is minimal, at best.  Under these same circumstances, however, The Beatles were thrust into the cinematic world.  Their success in Britain was assured at the time, but the long term future wasn’t considered to be anything of great certainty, so the money men decided to cash in on a movie in case their prized asset suddenly stopped laying golden eggs.  Even the man at the helm, Richard Lester, was a relatively untried director.

In fairness, though, the reality was a case of the truth being stranger than fiction.  After the film was given the go ahead, but before filming itself commenced, the band made their first appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show, and promptly ushered in their world domination.  This little movie, then, suddenly took on a significance that still resonates today; an inside look, an artefact into what it was like to be a part of the biggest musical group the world has ever seen just as the wheels leave the ground.

It all starts with that chord.  Perhaps the most recognisable opening chord in the annals of rock ‘n’ roll, it not only signifies the commencement of one of the most enduring pop songs ever written but, more importantly, signifies the onset of The Beatles’ most potently creative period.  A Hard Day’s Night was the first Beatles LP consisting solely of original material, making a huge leap forward, and a progression that would ultimately lead them to the limits of their own creativity, a journey that ultimately strained relations enough to bring about the break-up of the band.  The title track, then, plays over the opening scene which shows John, Paul, George and Ringo running towards and through a train station in a bid to evade a bloodthirsty mob of baying fans in hot pursuit.  The song, and the footage, marry up perfectly to infuse the energy and freshness that blast the movie out of the blocks, an energy that at no point wanes or is extinguished before the film’s conclusion.

With such a cynical genesis, it is somewhat surprising that the film itself is, even to this day, incredibly fresh.  The musical interludes in which the band performs songs from the new LP are credited as the first step into the world of music videos. The ‘Can’t Buy Me Love’ sequence, in particular, is the perfect example.  Take that scene out of the movie and play it without context, and it’s a standalone music video.  Furthermore, a sense of spontaneity and genuine collaboration between all involved is palpable.  Like a host of modern comedy movies, there seems to be a sense of trying anything that comes to mind and then seeing what will work best in a linear narrative.  This is perhaps best evidenced in a scene where George is asked by a marketing executive “can you handle lines?”  He replies, “well, I’ll have a bash.”  The Beatles are musicians, not actors, and this is abundantly clear.  It’s all youthful enthusiasm carried along on charisma, and the fast pace, hand held cameras and short cuts are a result of this, necessitated by the fact that he didn’t want the musicians-now-actors to be talking for too long.  This not only gave it a new wave feel, but also allowed the band to fulfil their Fab Four characters.  The wise-cracking, cocky and humorous young men taking on the establishment in the time honoured us-against-the-world manner was almost a guarantee for the movie to become a huge critical and box office success.  The phenomenal soundtrack offered up for the movie did no harm, either.

Owing to the huge success of A Hard Day’s Night, a follow up movie was inevitable.  And so, in 1965, Help! was released. Beatlemania was still raging, but The Beatles themselves were exhausted and exploring other areas of interest, primarily marijuana.  John Lennon is quoted as saying the band were “smoking marijuana for breakfast” during filming, and in the Anthology interviews the shooting process was referred to as “a haze of marijuana.”  This might explain why proceedings were not quite as sharp second time around.  Things feel a little distant, and Lennon himself claims that the band felt like extras in their own movie.

With the bigger budget, colour recording, a pursuit-adventure-lark storyline and grand locations including the Austrian Alps and the Bahamas, there is a manic sense of trying to out-do A Hard Day’s Night.  A lot of things feel the same, only with more Gonzo and in Technicolor.  Even Ringo is in the mire again, having found himself in prison in A Hard Day’s Night, this time he is the target of an Eastern cult intent on sacrificing him because of the irremovable sacrificial ring on his finger.

Despite its flaws, however, Help! is still an entertaining watch; a celebration of youth, vitality and music.  Richard Lester, returning as director, himself said that he was “enormously grateful for the opportunity to have been indulgent”, and that is an apt way to look at the film.  For many, this was the first and only time to see their idols in colour, so the larks and the adventures were seemingly upped in number as the Goon Show influence took Help! into a more surreal environment than the semi-real world portrayed in A Hard Day’s Night.  While the debut movie catches the band on the cusp of global superstardom, Help! is the moment before the mania turns sour.  In the year that followed, John Lennon made a comment about Jesus, the band played their final ever commercial concert and both Rubber Soul and Revolver were released.  The shift was coming, and Help! feels like one final hurrah in the world of the Fab Four before they all took on their more hirsute, adult guises.

Three years later came Yellow Submarine.  While the tangible links to this movie are tenuous, it must still qualify as a Beatles film as, well, it has their music and images littered all over it.  The Beatles themselves were not keen to venture back into the world of cinema following the savaging handed out to their TV special (not cinematic) Magical Mystery Tour.  Tensions were already becoming strained in the studio by this point, and that was when creating what they did best, so making movies was an unnecessary burden to bear.  Conveniently, though, it was deemed the perfect way to tie up the three movie deal with United Artists.  As such, the band members only make a fleeting cameo in the final scene, with the animated Beatles voiced by actors.  While the images of the characters are unmistakeably John, Paul, George and Ringo, the voices are patently not.  While this does create some distance from authenticity, it does nothing to dispel the quality of the film itself.  If anything, it adds to the unreality of the Pepperland world which, in the spirit of the film, makes it all the more real.

While the plot is rather thin, the animation is sumptuous, and has a Fantasia like quality in that the images have clearly been manipulated to fit the music, rather than the other way around.  It is a beautiful finished article and a shameless product of the Love Generation, of the hippy period and it revels in all things psychedelic.  These ingredients could well have taken Yellow Submarine out of the mainstream embrace, yet it only seemed to strengthen the affection felt for it. But it is no soft touch, either, as the darker elements elevate the movie to its higher standing, particularly the villainous characters.  The Blue Meanie, the Apple Stompers and the Dreadful Flying Glove are all creations of real childhood nightmares and add a genuine element of fear to proceedings.  Once again, the musical offering is of the highest calibre, but partly due to the fact that it’s more of a compilation album with only four original songs appearing in the film.

Due to the fact that The Beatles appearance in Yellow Submarine was so marginal, United Artists insisted that it didn’t count as the final film in the band’s three movie deal.  As such, Let It Be was spawned, and the world got to see what it would be like to witness the breakdown before a divorce of a cherished community couple.  It is a truly heartbreaking, if at times fascinating, watch.  Recorded primarily in January 1969, the documentary is an exercise in showing how passionate (and demanding) Paul McCartney was about keeping The Beatles alive, and how disinterested John and George were by it all now.  Ringo, as always, played the middle man who just wanted everyone to be happy.  Originally, McCartney wanted to film the process of writing and rehearsing an album of new material and to then play it live before an audience where it would be recorded.

In reality, with conflicts now raging, it was a miracle everyone got out alive.  John is on record as describing the recording as “the most miserable session on earth” and said it was “hell making the film.”  George, who was driven to quitting the band for a period, and Paul were infamously caught up in a squabble in which McCartney picks at George’s guitar playing, causing the former to state “I’ll play, you know, whatever you want me to play, or I won’t play at all if you don’t want to me to play. Whatever it is that will please you, I’ll do it.”  This is Let It Be in a nutshell.  In the barn-like Twickenham studios, beset by the cold winter weather, the differences between all four Beatles rose to the fore.  Not only were the majority of the band turning up for what they now considered to be a job, they were trying to create music in a soulless environment while being filmed every minute of the day.  To paraphrase McCartney himself, instead of getting the recording process of the greatest band ever, we instead got the story of their break up.  It’s no surprise that Let It Be is the only Beatles movie currently not available for public consumption.  Cynics say it’s because those involved don’t want to tarnish the image and legacy of The Beatles with this final dark chapter.  Yet, there are still beautiful moments of creation in here, a throwback to brighter days in happier studios when history was being made.  The final live performance atop the Apple Building in Saville Row is an undoubted high point.  It’s just the four men alone once more, sharing a stage and putting on a show.  It hadn’t been seen in years, and it never would be again.  Like us, they were happy when the music was playing.  That is reason enough to be grateful for Let It Be’s existence, a final chapter in a four volume trip through the history of the band that changed everything.