George Harrison once reflected on 1968’s psychedelic animated classic Yellow Submarine with his trademark sardonic precision: ‘The thing I liked most about the movie was we didn’t really have to do anything’.
The catalyst for The Beatle’s fourth feature had been to fulfil a contractual obligation to United Artists with minimal input other than the music. But the band were impressed when they saw evidence of what a group of pop-art illustrators were working on and they agreed to appear in person at the end of the film.
Harrison’s comment also belies the fact that The Beatles were always drawn to cinema, with wildly divergent results. From Alejandro Jodorowsky’s The Holy Mountain (1973) to Bruce Robinson’s Withnail And I (1987), they had a hand in a number of cult classics and a few bizarre obscurities.
The band’s surrealist leanings were present from the moment they themselves stumbled on to the big screen. Richard Lester, director of A Hard Day’s Night (1964) and Help! (1965), was chosen by the band purely on the strength of a short film he had made starring Spike Milligan – more than enough reason for four devotees of The Goon Show to offer him the director’s chair.
A couple of years later, Lester would get Lennon on board for his barbed satire How I Won The War (1967). Lennon, at a loose end during The Beatles 1966 hiatus, later admitted to signing up for the role of Gripweed purely because he didn’t know what else to do with himself at the time. Hanging around the Spanish set, he wrote Strawberry Fields Forever.
Lennon wouldn’t act in a feature again, although he did co-direct experimental video art with Yoko Ono, including the provocative Rape (1969), in which a woman is followed by a camera crew without her permission. But Lennon’s lasting legacy to cult cinema was yet to come. After catching a late night screening of Alejandro Jodorowsky’s metaphysical western El Topo in 1970, Lennon became instrumental in ensuring distribution of the film in North America. Furthermore, Lennon convinced Allen Klein (then president of Apple Corps) to give Jodorowsky $1 million towards his dazzlingly ambitious next project; The Holy Mountain (1973). How much of that money was spent dressing up hundreds of toads in miniature conquistador armoury remains unknown.
Meanwhile, Ringo Starr’s acting career was on a leftfield trajectory. By the dawn of the 1970s, he’d already chalked up a starring role in The Magic Christian (1969), acting alongside Peter Sellers, Roman Polanski, Christopher Lee and Raquel Welch. He followed this up by playing Larry the Dwarf/Frank Zappa in 200 Motels (1971) before assuming a bad Mexican accent and firing off multiple rounds whilst screaming ‘I KILL YOU!’ in a messy 1971 spaghetti Western called Blindman.
A short tenure in the director’s chair followed (T-Rex’s 1972 concert film Born To Boogie) before Starr returned to his oddball-acting career playing Merlin the Magician in Son Of Dracula (1974). Co-starring the irascible Harry Nilsson, this odd venture was directed by Freddie Francis, a man who really should have known better having served as cinematographer on Jack Clayton’s classic 1961 chiller The Innocents (he also went on to shoot David Lynch’s The Elephant Man).
With Starr clowning around in a wizard costume, McCartney was sticking to the music and doubling down on his mullet in the mid-70s. McCartney could, however, take credit for first taking The Beatles’ cinematic dabbling into stranger realms. He’s generally acknowledged as the driving force behind the chaotic, quintessentially English bus trip TV movie; Magical Mystery Tour (1967). Shot in eye-popping psychedelic colour, the film garnered a critical mauling when the BBC screened it on Boxing Day in not so psychedelic black and white. Martin Scorsese raised eyebrows – including his own – when he cited it as an influence.
Another McCartney idea followed. Let It Be (1970) was supposed to be a fly on the wall documentary following The Beatles as they wrote, rehearsed and performed an entirely new album. The resultant film has remained largely unavailable since its VHS release in the 1980s. You can understand why. Unbearably awkward – albeit morbidly fascinating – the film captures one of the world’s biggest rock bands slowly imploding before our eyes. Yet there’s redemption in the last act, when The Beatles set up shop on the roof of the Apple Studios and get through a blistering 42-minute impromptu set before the police politely pull the plug. Not a bad way to play your last ever concert together.
George Harrison in particular looks to be suffering on the set of Let It Be, his tensions with McCartney clearly reaching breaking point as he quips ‘I won’t play at all if you don’t want me to’. It would be another eight years before Harrison made a messianic mark on the film world, coming to the rescue of his Python pals.
In 1978, the production of Monty Python’s Life Of Brian (1979) was firmly on the skids after a jumpy EMI finally got around to reading the script and, freaked out by the inflammatory religious content, pulled away. Harrison enthusiastically stepped in, mortgaging his house and setting up HandMade Films in the process.
Perhaps it was all just a subtle ploy to nab himself a nice cameo as ‘the owner of the mount’, but HandMade Films went on to make some iconic British pictures of the 1980s, including The Long Good Friday (1980), The Missionary (1982) and Withnail And I (1987) as well as lesser known curios like Nicolas Roeg’s psychodrama Track 29 (1988), written by Dennis Potter and starring a young Gary Oldman.
Sadly, Harrison’s venture into film production ended in acrimony and a $25 million lawsuit against his dodgy business partner Denis O’Brien in 1988. By this stage, Lennon had met his tragic end, Starr had found a lucrative pension fund narrating Thomas the Tank Engine and McCartney was settling into an entertaining role as a parody of himself. The curtain was pretty much down on the ex-Beatles’ most involved years in cinema.
Is it surprising that the biggest band of the 1960s had a hand in the movies? Not really, they were well-connected cultural icons with money to burn. But scratch the surface and you’ll find something beyond their own anarchically funny films, as well as some strange, now hard to find, obscurities. And fifty years on, Yellow Submarine stands up as the psychedelic buckle on The Beatles cinematic belt.
The Beatles Yellow Submarine returns to cinemas on Sunday 8 July.
Everyone attending screenings will also receive an exclusive 50th anniversary commemorative pack, including four stunning limited edition collector’s cards and a Peppertastic sticker set!Find your local cinema and book tickets