Beatles Biopics: 'Birth Of The Beatles'

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This 1979 film, the first Beatles biopic, covers the years between 1959-1964 with particular focus on the Beatles’ 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 advisor 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, Paul and Ringo look unnervingly like the real Beatles themselves. This has a rather bizarre effect of making the actors seem more un-Beatle like in their portrayal than if they had little resemblence 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 in particular jars with audiences today, as he has since become known for playing evil Cockney character 'Nasty' Nick Cotton in BBC soap EastEnders. Admittedly the actor playing John Lennon 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 does give the best biopic performance of Ringo Starr – capturing Ringo's look, if not his drumming style.

The relationship between Paul and John is glanced over too. 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 see him 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 side and his angry side, 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 attacked.1


Stephen MacKennaJohn Lennon
Rod CulbertsonPaul McCartney
John AltmanGeorge Harrison
Ray AshcroftRingo Starr
Ryan MichaelPete Best
David WilkinsonStuart Sutcliffe
Alyson SpiroAstrid Kirchherr
Gary OlsenRory Storm
Nigel HaversGeorge Martin
Brian JamesonBrian Epstein
Wendy MorganCynthia Lennon
Eileen KennallyAunt Mimi


Curiously, several Beatles songs are heard during the film, although performed not by the Beatles 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 like more realistic. This is something which, due to the restricted nature of getting rights to use Beatles songs now, no other Beatles biopic has done as well3 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'

Beatles Myths

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 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 set 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 it4.

There is, however, a delightful sequence with the Beatles running down a back alley between typical Northern terraces, which is later reflected in the 'Free As A Bird' music video5.

Another 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 is being a result of an attack to his head suffered between his trips to Hamburg6 although pills are also mentioned in passing also. Stuart is also inaccurately portrayed 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 the details 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 portray 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 Voorman7, 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 Liverpool was at least equal if not more important an area for the development of the Beatles’ music than Hamburg.

The film is also 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 Best 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 Best 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 Best 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.

Beatles Biopics
The BeatlesPaul McCartneyJohn LennonGeorge HarrisonRingo StarrYoko OnoPlease Please Me - the AlbumBeatles for SaleA Hard Day's NightHelp!Rubber SoulRevolverSergeant Peppers' Lonely Hearts Club BandYellow SubmarineMagical Mystery TourMagical Mystery TourGet Back - The Lost Beatles AlbumAbbey RoadLet It Be... Naked - The Album1 - The Beatles Compilation Album
  • The American Beatles Albums
  • Index of Beatles Songs A-M
  • Index of Beatles Songs N-Z
  • How The Beatles Did Not Get Their NameThe Paul McCartney Death CluesThe Beatles And The Birth Of The Music VideoFree As A BirdLennon-McCartney PartnershipPlastic Ono BandBand On The RunThe Travelling WilburysLiverpool1960s Number 1sGuardian Beatles On TV Review
    1Sadly Stephen MacKenna’s performance is rather let down by the script. John’s reaction to Brian’s attack is to say 'Anything that’s loving that’s between people is alright'. This sentiment is one which the real John Lennon agreed with, most clearly when he sang 'Whatever Gets You Through The Night is all right'. However, the fictional situation in the film is one in which Brian Epstein has been mugged by a stranger, which hardly counts as "loving between people".2Eddie Lineberry performs as John Lennon, Paul McCartney's equivalent was Chuck Coffey, George Harrison was played by Bill Connearney and Steve Wight was Ringo Starr.3Indeed, the recent film No-where 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.4In the version of Birth Of The Beatles shown in America, this scene is one of the ones edited out.5In the 'Free As A Bird' Music Video it is children wearing pig masks skipping down the alley, not the Beatles themselves.6This is the result of a story written by Allan Williams for his 1975 book The Man Who Gave The Beatles Away. Allan Williams was the Beatles' booking agent at the beginning of the 1960s. In this book he claims that Stuart was attacked outside Litherland Town Hall in December 1960, yet Stuart was in Hamburg at this time. Pete Best, too, has confirmed that this event never took place. Allan Williams also stated that Stuart was completely unable to play. Although Stuart never excelled on the instrument, he became a capable player in Hamburg. Allan Williams had little reason to like Stuart Sutcliffe as Stu had been the one who informed him that the Beatles did not intend to pay him an agency fee for the Beatles' second trip to Hamburg, and his revenge appears to be attempts to besmirch his musical reputation after death. Paul McCartney's reaction to the book was to write 'some parts of this book are partially true.'7Klaus Voormann would later design the Grammy award winning Revolver album cover as well as the covers for the Beatles Anthology albums. He also had a successful musical career, and was bass player for Manfred Mann between 1966 and 1969. After the Beatles split he was a regular member of John’s Plastic Ono Band, playing on the albums Live Peace In Toronto, Plastic Ono Band, Imagine, Sometime in New York City, Rock 'n' Roll and Walls and Bridges, as well as several singles. He also played for George Harrison’s All Things Must Pass, The Concert For Bangla Desh, Living In The Material World, Extra Texture and on The Concert For George. He also performed on Ringo Starr’s albums including Sentimental Journey, Ringo, Goodnight Vienna and Rotogravure. For the 1973 Ringo album he also designed the artwork.

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