'Birth of the Beatles' | 'John & Yoko: A Love Story' | 'The Hours and Times'
'Backbeat' | 'Two of Us' | 'The Linda McCartney Story' | 'In His Life: The John Lennon Story'
'Nowhere Boy' | 'Lennon Naked'
This 1979 film, the first Beatles biopic, covers the years between 1959 - 64 with particular focus on their time in Hamburg. It tries very hard to be accurate, and indeed its opening statement declares that the film was written with the assistance of former Beatle Pete Best, who is also given a technical adviser credit.
The following is a dramatization [sic], using actors, of the early career of the Beatles. It is based on factual accounts, including the recollections of former Beatle, Pete Best, as well as other sources.
The cast playing John Lennon, Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr look unnervingly like the real lads themselves. This has a rather bizarre effect of making the actors seem more un-Beatle-like in their portrayal than if they had little resemblance at all, as the differences that are apparent are greatly magnified. Rod Culbertson in particular seems to be attempting too hard to capture the real Paul McCartney's mannerisms, which results in him coming across as someone doing a Paul McCartney impression rather than acting as Paul McCartney. The casting of John Altman as George Harrison jars with audiences today, as he has since become well known for playing evil Cockney character 'Nasty' Nick Cotton in the BBC soap EastEnders. Admittedly the actor playing John is obviously older than John was at the time, but that is a minor issue which does not detract from the film. However, Ray Ashcroft gives the best biopic performance of Ringo Starr – capturing Ringo's look, if not his drumming style.
The relationship between Paul and John is hardly touched on, and when it is portrayed, it isn't in a good light. What history has shown to be one of the greatest co-operative song-writing partnerships of all time comes across purely as constant squabbling. The friendship between John and Stuart Sutcliffe is also undeveloped. We first see Stuart when John smudges his artwork, and next when John persuades him to purchase a bass guitar with the money earned from selling his artwork. John comes across as someone bullying Stu, rather than being Stu's closest friend – and throughout the film we see John's sarcastic and angry character, but very rarely his more vulnerable or caring sides. One of the few instances in which we are let in to see more than just an angry façade of John's is when he discovers that his manager Brian Epstein has been attacked1.
|Stephen MacKenna||John Lennon|
|Rod Culbertson||Paul McCartney|
|John Altman||George Harrison|
|Ray Ashcroft||Ringo Starr|
|Ryan Michael||Pete Best|
|David Wilkinson||Stuart Sutcliffe|
|Alyson Spiro||Astrid Kirchherr|
|Gary Olsen||Rory Storm|
|Nigel Havers||George Martin|
|Brian Jameson||Brian Epstein|
|Wendy Morgan||Cynthia Lennon|
|Eileen Kennally||Aunt Mimi|
Curiously, several Beatles songs are heard during the film, although performed not by the group themselves, but by the Beatles tribute band group Rain – Eddie Lineberry, Chuck Coffey, Bill Connearney, and Steve Wight2. This greatly increases the atmosphere, making it seem more realistic. Other biopics, due to the restricted nature of getting rights to use Beatles songs, have avoided using John, Paul and George's compositions. The recent film Nowhere Boy only uses one chord from a Beatles song during its entire film – the opening chord of A Hard Day's Night – although the rights to use the John Lennon song 'Mother' were personally granted by Yoko Ono. Birth of the Beatles is the film which has used the most Beatles' music most widely and realistically in its portrayal of the group. The unauthorised use of Beatles songs, none of which are acknowledged in the film's closing credits, is one of the reasons that has prevented the film's release on DVD or Blu-Ray.
- 'She Loves You'
- 'My Bonnie'
- 'Dizzy Miss Lizzy'
- 'I Saw Her Standing There'
- 'Don't Bother Me'
- 'Johnny B. Goode'
- 'Roll Over Beethoven'
- 'Kansas City / Hey Hey Hey Hey'
- 'Shake Rattle And Roll'
- 'Ask Me Why'
- 'Love Me Tender'
- 'Twist and Shout'
- 'P.S. I Love You'
- 'Cry For A Shadow'
- 'Please Mister Postman'
- 'Long Tall Sally'
- 'Love Me Do'
- 'Rock and Roll Music'
- 'Please Please Me'
- 'Thank You Girl'
- 'I Want To Hold Your Hand'
The beginning section set in Liverpool before the Beatles become famous is crammed with Beatles references, perhaps to the detriment of the story. Stuart Sutcliffe is asked to join the Beatles in a graveyard, where Paul and George are sitting besides, and John sitting on, a sarcophagus labelled 'Rigby'. Paul, John and George meet Ringo for the first time next to a street sign labelled 'Penny Lane'. John and his girlfriend Cynthia agonise over parting before John leaves to go to Hamburg besides the gates to 'Strawberry Fields'. These cameoing landmarks add nothing to the plot yet visibly wink at the audience knowingly, informing the audience that the film makers are trying to be clever and reminding viewers that they are watching a story.
The film takes its time in getting going. The opening credits with Beatlemania and screaming girls sets the scene, which then jumps to the Beatles on their way to an airport, and then jumps unexpectedly again, suddenly zooming in on a naked model, with John, Cynthia and Stuart Sutcliffe being revealed as being in the art class. The film does not explain exactly why they are there or where they are, when a simple caption stating 'Liverpool College Of Art, 1959' would have explained it3.
An inaccuracy is when John describes the Indra Club as 'grotty'. The word 'grotty', short for grotesque, is believed to have only entered the English language after its inclusion in the film A Hard Day's Night. It was in the script written by Alun Owen, but none of the Beatles had ever heard the word before. Paul McCartney has stated:
Grotty was a word none of us used, but that became very big. Grotesque – grotty. I think he [Alun Owen] made it up for the film [A Hard Day's Night].
George and John agreed. George: Where I say [in A Hard Day's Night] 'Oh, I'm not wearing that – that's grotty!' Alun Owen made that up, I didn't. People have used that word for years now. It was a new expression: grotty – grotesque.
John: We thought the word was really weird, and George curled up with embarrassment every time he had to say it.
Stuart Sutcliffe's death is portrayed as being caused by an attack to his head suffered between his trips to Hamburg5 although pills are mentioned in passing also. Stuart is also inaccurately acted as constantly refusing to see a doctor, which he did do when in Hamburg. His death is also wrongly portrayed as taking place when the Beatles are still in Hamburg, and not when they had returned to the UK. This, though, was done for artistic purposes and leads to one of the most memorable scenes; John, having just heard the devastating news, nevertheless goes on stage in an emotionally-drained condition and still manages to give a spectacular show. This emphasises the raw talent that the Beatles themselves possessed.
Overall the attention to detail of what the Beatles did in the early stages of their career is tremendous. It is true that an old lady who was perfectly happy with the Indra Club being a strip club later complained about the noise from the Beatles' performances, which resulted in the Indra Club closing and the Beatles moving to the posher KaiserKeller club. It is also true that the Beatles competed with Rory Storm and the Hurricanes to see who could break the stage at the KaiserKeller. However, in real life it collapsed when Rory Storm was performing on it, and not, as is portrayed in the film, when the Beatles were, although the scene captures the spirit of the moment.
Visually the film is quite accurate, especially the Cavern set. Although the film in attempting to cover five years misses a great deal out, this is unsurprising considering the film's scope. Only John's home life is portrayed, with his girlfriend Cynthia and Aunt Mimi. Paul and George's family lives are ignored, as is Ringo Starr before meeting and joining the Beatles. Although Astrid Kirchherr's role in both photographing the Beatles' early Hamburg performances, creating the Beatles haircut and falling in love with Stuart Sutcliffe is explored, Klaus Voorman6, her boyfriend at the time of her meeting the Beatles, is ignored.
Similarly, the period between the Beatles being signed by George Martin and their US tour is rushed through. The Beatles in America section is clearly influenced by A Hard Day's Night. The line How do you find America? – Turn left at Greenland is a blatant steal.
The film emphasises the Liverpool roots of the Beatles and their music more than any other film. The film shows that there was a 'Mersey Beat' sound and suggests that the Beatles were one of many strong acts from the region. Rory Storm and the Hurricanes accompany the Beatles as friendly rivals through much of the early stages of the film, with Gerry And The Pacemakers, and their hit with the song 'How Do You Do It' that the Beatles rejected, also mentioned. There are also several scenes in the Cavern and Casbah clubs, and Brian Epstein's NEMS Music Shop is also shown. All this emphasises Liverpool's role in creating the Beatles, suggesting that the city was at least equal if not more important an area for the development of the Beatles' music than Hamburg.
The film is shown very strongly with a strong pro-Pete Best bias. This comes to the fore with the legions of Beatles fans waving 'Pete Is Best' banners in the scene introducing Ringo as part of the Beatles. The film also states that [EMI] the Record Company heard [Pete Best's] drumming – they liked it. George Martin, after the Beatles' initial recording session with Pete Best, had booked a different drummer, Andy White, to replace him for their next session – the one on which they recorded 'Love Me Do'.
Curiously for a film with a Pete Best bias, the important role played by his mother, Mona Best, in the early days of the Beatles is ignored. Mona owned the Casbah Coffee Club, one of the Beatles' earliest regular venues. When Allan Williams acted as the Beatles' booking agent in their early Liverpool days, it was Mona who kept the bookings. Indeed, some believe that one of the reasons Pete Best was forced out of the Beatles was to stop his mother from interfering and trying to run the group. That the Beatles' road manager Neil Aspinall made Mona pregnant in 1961 – their son, Roag, was born shortly before Pete Best left the group – certainly did not help matters either.
To conclude, the Birth of the Beatles is a biopic which is surprisingly accurate, full of energy and the feel-good factor, especially during the song sequences. It has the strongest portrayal of the Beatles as a whole with Ringo taking an active part, as well as key Beatles figures such as George Martin and Brian Epstein. It does, though, frequently feel rushed, and an audience unaware of the Beatles story may well feel out of place in certain sequences.
Despite, or perhaps because of, the pains taken to make this film as accurate as possible without infringing its narrative structure, on its initial 1979 release, John Lennon, Paul McCartney, Ringo Starr and George Harrison all felt the film should not be released. At time of writing, January 2010, it remains unreleased on video, DVD or Blu-Ray.