From hyper-real curio to wisecracking classic, The Beatles’ cinematic forays are a mixed bunch – but which one’s the best? Here’s our ranking…
5. Magical Mystery Tour
Part saucy postcard come to life, part home cinema acid trip, McCartney’s pet TV project from late 1967 was a sprawling, improvisational psychedelic mess based loosely around a coach trip to nowhere, run by Jolly Jimmy Johnson but controlled by a coven of camp Ali Baba magicians. Surrealist antics come thick and fast – the passengers are trained to attack a stuffed cow by a nonsense-babbling sergeant major; John shovels mountains of pasta onto Ringo’s auntie’s lunch plate; they visit a cinema inside a two-man tent – and are so cringeworthy you’re constantly praying for another song, even if that does mean Macca prancing around a mountain to ‘The Fool On The Hill’. The walruses, eggmen and row of pretty little policemen of ‘I Am The Walrus’ have become iconic, but the Magical Mystery Tour movie has rightly been dismissed as a plotless sub-Python vanity project. Ah, for some of those ’60s drugs…
4. Yellow Submarine
Even more Python than Magical Mystery Tour was the Fabs’ Yellow Submarine, which paved the way for Terry Gilliam’s Flying Circus cartoon interludes. Though the story of the Blue Meanies’ attack on Pepperland is more fun than MMT’s indulgent nonsense and Yellow Submarine showcases some of The Beatles’ best songs – ‘Eleanor Rigby’, ‘All You Need Is Love’, the orchestral crescendo of ‘A Day In The Life’ – it’s only marginally to be classed as a Beatles film as they don’t even voice themselves and only appeared in a closing live-action segment. A bit like Tom Cruise refusing to do his own stunts. Still, the bit where a massive Frankenstein drinks a potion and turns into John is pretty cool.
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Basically an excuse for The Beatles to go on a couple of holidays, Help! is perhaps the most watchable Beatles film simply because it makes like a globe-trotting technicolour Carry On. Eternal fall guy Ringo – always the real star of The Beatles’ cinematic exploits – has come by a desirable ring which means that an eastern cult is out to sacrifice him, chasing the band through an Austrian Alp mini-break and a Bahamas surf trip in a series of slapstick pull-my-finger comedy mishaps. There are some endearing witticisms (producer: “Boys, are you buzzing?” John: “No thanks, I’ve got the car”) and memorable touches – who’s never wanted to live in a house share with four front doors, sunken beds and a trapdoor Wurlitzer? – plus an incredible batch of tunes from ‘You’ve Got To Hide Your Love Away’ to a mountaintop ‘Ticket To Ride’ and ‘I Need You’ performed on Salisbury Plain surrounded by tanks. But Help! is dated by the fact that, at any moment, you expect Sid James to show up leering at a buxom nurse or Peter Sellers karate-chopping himself in the balls.
2. Let It Be
Endlessly fascinating, The Beatles’ fly-on-the-wall documentary following the recording of ‘Let It Be’ is a priceless record of the world’s greatest ever band in full flow, cracks starting to show. For the dedicated, it’s riveting stuff; Yoko sat in the middle of the band staring into John’s eyes as he records ‘Don’t Let Me Down’, a jocular John and Paul sharing a mike for a rocked-up ‘Two Of Us’, inter-band niggles emerging as Paul worries he’s “annoying” George by suggesting guitar parts – “whatever it is that’ll please you,” George argues, “I’ll do it”. Slowly the album takes form, culminating in the legendary Apple rooftop show, stopping the traffic in Savile Row and hoping they passed the audition. Maybe not the first Beatles film to share with your grandkids, but as John and Yoko waltz across the studio to ‘I Me Mine’, it’s a window onto an unreal era.
1. A Hard Day’s Night
CLAYYNGGGYNGG! Scripted, slapstick and in thrall to Ealing comedies, A Hard Day’s Night is nonetheless the closest we have to a true-to-life document of Beatlemania. As Paul escorts his ne’er-do-well but “very clean” grandfather to a London Beatles gig, whip-smart witticisms abound, stone cold Merseybeat classics arrive every 10 minutes or so and the random plotlines, unlike Help!, only lean towards the ludicrous rather than diving in mop-top first. It invented The Monkees, defined the age and captured The Beatles at their most magnetic and a rock’n’roll revolution in progress.