Some might say that compared to the songs, the movies are a pretty inconsequential part of the Beatles‘ legacy. Richard Lester’s A Hard Day’s Night? That’s just zany, Goon Show-aping nonsense that laid the template for the Spice Girls’ Spice World in the 1990s (erm, thanks). Help!? Lester’s Monkees-style shenanigans involving a sinister Eastern cult and a sacrificial ring are an excuse for the Beatles to swan around in the Bahamas. The Beatles-directed Magical Mystery Tour? Self-indulgent, sub-Monty Python surrealism by bus that remains unwatchable to this day, in color, on deluxe Blu-ray, or whichever way you like.
George Dunning’s Yellow Submarine is an animated yawnfest of Blue Meanies that barely features the real Beatles. Michael Lindsay-Hogg’s Let It Be is a joyless, fly-on-the-wall affair save for the climactic rooftop concert that comes complete with entertainingly clueless police officers and bowler-hatted whingebags.
If you are as underwhelmed by the Beatles films, you might benefit from reading Steve Matteo’s Act Naturally: The Beatles on Film. Matteo hits the point home that without the five pictures the Beatles made together between 1964 and 1970, much of the band’s celebrated musical output wouldn’t exist. No “A Hard Day’s Night” or “Help!”, no “If I Fell” or “Ticket to Ride”, no “You’ve Got to Hide Your Love Away” or “I Am the Walrus”, No “Get Back” and, if you can imagine, no “Let It Be”.
Furthermore, Matteo takes readers on one hell of a journey into how the films are mold-breaking artistic achievements beyond merely exploitative movies of the Beatles’ success. A Hard Day’s Night evolved from British New Wave, Help! from the British spy films, and Let It Be reinvented the rock documentary, Matteo argues. He lays out all this while providing the lowdown on how each film was conceived, written, financed, filmed, cast, produced, promoted, and received.
Given Act Naturally‘s extraordinary detail, it’s a must for those who’ve seen the movies many times and revel in seeing John Lennon as a waiter, shoveling spaghetti onto a plate, or Paul McCartney, as a taskmaster, infuriating George Harrison about his guitar playing in a cavernous film studio. They’ll find in Matteo a guide that delves into every nook and cranny of these films, having already written successfully on Let It Be (the album) for the 33 1/3 series and Let It Be (the film) for Cambridge University Press’ The Beatles in Context.
Readers who think little of the Beatles movies will gain an appreciation for these flicks from the fresh insights, new perspectives, and often surprising connections Matteo has to offer. Act Naturally is the result of extensive audio-visual research into the copious film and soundtrack reissues of recent years on DVD and Blu-ray, the bonus material therein, the original theatrical film releases, and, perhaps most importantly, Peter Jackson’s Get Back documentary series of 2021. We benefit from new interviews Matteo conducted with surviving Beatles insiders, filmmakers, and photographers alike, from Billy J. Kramer and Klaus Voormann to Hunter Davies, Robert Freeman, Cameron Crowe, Michael Lindsay-Hogg, and an unreconstructed Tony Bramwell (“dolly bird” references and all).
Whether an aficionado of the movies or not, it’s obvious that Matteo has an awful lot to cover in this book. So it’s lucky that his great strength is to weave a mass of historical and contextual material on the five movies into an engrossing grand narrative. He sources the Beatles’ own words in their book The Beatles Anthology, Mark Lewisohn and co.’s authoritative topographical pinpointing in The Beatles’ London, and the deep well of dates and criticism that is Halliwell’s Film Guide (of which there are many subsequent editions). Matteo also engages with Paul McCartney’s mammoth The Lyrics, and other writers, including Mersey Beat creator Bill Harry and the late, great Roy Carr, whose colorful and beautifully illustrated Beatles at the Movies of 1996 reigned supreme for a good while with its exclusive McCartney interview and its amusing photo captions. He further utilizes Bob Neaverson’s The Beatles Movies of 1997 and Roland Reiter’s The Beatles on Film of 2008, though he eschews academic forays into Roland Barthes and the meaning of the Beatles as a ‘cultural brand’ or ‘heritage object’ in favor of providing a dramatic overview of the band’s adventures on celluloid.
Matteo’s skill lies in vividly recreating the key episodes of the Beatles in the act of making cinematic history. He takes the reader to the premiere of A Hard Day’s Night at the London Pavilion in Piccadilly Circus on the night of 6 July 1964, for instance, where “the nearly 12,000 fans who jammed the street and didn’t have one of the tickets that cost nearly £16 had to be content to catch a glimpse of a Beatle or two as they arrived.” He tells us that such a glimpse would have entailed John, Paul, George Harrison, and Ringo Starr wearing “matching tuxedos with velvet collars, crisp white shirts with cufflinks, bow ties, black satin stripes down the leg, and their trademark Cuban-heeled Beatle boots.” Fans would have heard “choruses of ‘Happy Birthday’ waft[ing] through the frenzied crowd aimed at Ringo Starr, whose birthday was the following day.”
After all that excitement, Matteo chaperones his readers to the after-show party at the Dorchester Hotel and onto the Ad Lib Club in Soho, where the boys ended up drinking with some of the Rolling Stones. Which Rolling Stones, you ask? Why, Brian Jones, Keith Richards, and Bill Wyman.
Matteo digs deep into each significant movie event and the background of each. He carefully captures everything, almost to the point of overwhelming the reader with dense factual detail. This is especially so in the epic opening chapter, where he paints a picture of the period leading up to Britain being “the world center of popular culture for a brief time in the 1960s”, a time of unprecedented artistic and commercial innovation.
He delves into the logistics of ground-breaking UK pictures of the ’50s and early ’60s with much in the way of “the next major British film was”, “another film was”, “other notable films were”, and “the year would also see”, as well as writers “who would go on to write…” or directors “who would go on to direct…” If you’re happy for your Beatles history guide to leave no stone unturned, and are OK with suddenly finding yourself reading about the inspiration behind Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove, you’ll love Act Naturally. In that case, it’s thoroughly rewarding to discover how A Hard Day’s Night arrived. It sprung not only from British Beatlemania but also the huge melting pot of filmmaking talent that delivered epoch-making “kitchen sink” dramas, Hammer horrors, James Bond films, and Ealing comedies like the Coen Brothers’ The Ladykillers.
This immersion in UK cinema is combined with Matteo’s infectious love of actors like Peter Sellers, Terence Stamp, and Albert Finney, as well as the colorful working-class characters that distinguished Tony Richardson’s A Taste of Honey and John Schlesinger’s Billy Liar, which would inspire Morrissey as the lyricist/singer of the Smiths. Matteo cares nothing for the 31 Carry On comedy films series that starred Kenneth Williams and Charles Hawtrey, though. Still, a reference to the biggest British movie franchise outside of Bond might have been useful, if only to understand Lennon’s shouty reference to “Charles Hawtrey and the Deaf-Aids” at the beginning of “Two of Us” (the Phil Spector version).
Above all, Act Naturally is an important shoutout to the mavericks who made the Beatles films happen. Matteo is brilliant on the pivotal Richard Lester, the American director in Britain who didn’t want A Hard Day’s Night to be a traditional rock ‘n’ roll film made up of musical performances but rather something action-oriented to reflect the Beatles’ incomparably hectic lives in 1964. He states that his “use of multiple cameras, including extensive use of handheld cameras, allowed for quick cut, varied points of view, and freed the movie from the static hackles of commercial filmmaking”.
Matteo demonstrates how Lester ensured that the songs accompanied the action in A Hard Day’s Night, which was revolutionary at the time. This is while making great use of a contemporary interview from the set that found McCartney stating drolly, “the acting may not be very good, but if [Lester] can cut it up, and slice it around, and slop bits in here and slop bits in there, he may make it into a good film.” The author further suggests that Lester took inspiration from Buster Keaton’s Cops film of 1922 when he filmed the scenes of the Beatles and the bobbies running in and out of the police station. He makes it clear, in any case, that the principal goal for all concerned was not to make anything like Cliff Richard’s Summer Holiday.
Matteo doesn’t confine himself to maverick directors, of course, but writes diligently on the assistant directors, the camera operators, the costume designers, and the art directors involved in making the five Beatles films, along with the stuntmen and the doubles. Not to forget the famous Denis O’Dell (referenced in Beatles B-side “You Know My Name (Look Up the Number))”, who served as Associate Producer.
There are many star turns along the way, including the young Phil Collins as an extra in the audience in A Hard Day’s Night and the Rickenbacker 12-string guitar. Yep, the author even goes into the history of that iconic instrument that the band introduced on the soundtrack to their first film and proved instrumental in popularizing. Remarkably, Matteo also touches on the stars who didn’t make the cut, such as comedian Frankie Howerd, who’d shot scenes for Help! with future soap opera star Wendy Richard.
Clearly, then, Matteo embeds the Beatles’ films deep within the unique cultural milieu of the 1960s, with the happy effect of illuminating a web of TV appearances, radio sessions, druggy Bob Dylan hook-ups and, of course, the recording of genius songs at Abbey Road. It’s a standout achievement of Act Naturally to see how the making of the movie tracks intertwined with the crazy reality of being a Beatle. That’s to see how the group finished recording “Can’t Buy Me Love” just days before they conquered America, appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show and all of that. That’s also to see how “Your Mother Should Know” was in the running for the international Our World broadcast that eventually featured “All You Need Is Love”. Plus how Lennon debuted “Don’t Let Me Down” on the same January 1969 day that the band jammed covers of “Quinn the Eskimo” and “Johnny B. Goode”.
In short, Matteo does everything possible to send you racing back to all five of the Beatles’ films to reconsider them afresh. He’ll make you see why A Hard Day’s Night is now “a favorite of art and revival houses”, how the multi-front-door bachelor pad in the cartoonesque Help! practically invented the Monkees, and how Yellow Submarine was a big influence on Monty Python animator and film director Terry Gilliam. He’ll even send you racing off to watch or rewatch Jack Clayton’s Room At The top, Tony Richardson’s Tom Jones and Cy Endfield’s Zulu. Though probably not Cliff’s Summer Holiday.