The Fab Four are the most famous band in pop history, yet they also have a large presence in the history of film. From their classic 1964 flick A Hard Day’s Night through the zany pop art of 1965’s Help! and onto the whimsical psychedelia of both Magical Mystery Tour (1967) and the animated Yellow Submarine (1968), The Beatles were no cinematic slouches.
Far less well-known though, are the individual Beatles forays into film without their band mates. In the cinematic world, Ringo was by far the most prolific, John the least enthusiastic, Paul (bar his musical contributions) the least successful and George the most influential.
So, following the confirmation that Paul McCartney will appear in the next Pirates of The Caribbean film, let’s take a look at 10 non-Beatles’ movies that do feature a Beatle.
1. How I Won The War (1967) – John Lennon
John Lennon was the first Beatle to star in a film without the others. Richard Lester (who had directed Lennon in both A Hard Day’s Night and Help!) persuaded him to star as Private Gripweed in the sharp anti-war farce, How I Won The War.
Lester’s psychedelic satire has its sights locked firmly on the absurdity of war as it follows a group of British soldiers attempting to set up a cricket pitch behind enemy lines.
Lennon supplies a charming cameo as Gripweed, offering some nicely delivered witty dialogue and a genuine screen presence. He is far more than bit-player here, Gripweed’s innocence gives his final scene real emotional weight. In fact, Lester informed Lennon that he was a natural actor, to which John replied, ‘Yeah, but it (acting) is silly though, isn’t it?’ to which Lester could only reply, ‘Yes, well I suppose it is!’
How I Won The War has a strong place in Beatles history too. John was so taken by the granny specs that he wore in the film, that he would rarely be seen without them for the rest of the 60’s. He also found time during filming to pen Strawberry Fields Forever and even referenced the film itself in A Day In The Life. Time well spent for all concerned.
2. Wonderwall (1968) – George Harrison
Although he didn’t actually appear in this one, George Harrison’s omnipresent soundtrack fulfills the role of an additional, unseen character in this very far out slice of British psychedelia.
Perfectly illustrating the generational gap of the period, a middle-aged scientist (Jack MacGowan) fantasises and obsesses over his young and beautiful hippy neighbour (Jane Birkin), spying on her and her hippy lovers through various holes in his ‘Wonderwall’.
Jane Birkin does not speak a word through the entire film (Harrison’s music being her dialogue) and legendary cinematographer Harry Waxman provides the perfectly realised dream sequences. The surreal slapstick scenes were all written by Roman Polanski collaborator Jack Macgowran.
Wonderwall remained largely unseen until the 70’s when it became a Midnight-Movie hippy favourite. However, continuing interest in Harrison’s wonderfully esoteric score (also featuring Monkey, Peter Tork and guitar legend, Eric Clapton, along with various top Indian session musicians) remains the real reason that it continues to be re-mastered and re-issued on DVD today. Professional Beatle copyists Oasis later famously stole the film’s title for their biggest hit.
3. The Magic Christian (1969) – Ringo Starr
Ringo stars as an orphan who is adopted by Sir Guy Grand (Peter Sellers) and taken around the world spending bucket loads of cash. During their very 60’s madcap, money fuelled adventures, they bump into a plethora of stars of the day, including various Pythons, Keith Moon, Spike Milligan, Yul Brynner and Raquel Welch.
Further Beatle involvement is provided on the soundtrack by Badfinger’s no1 single ‘Come And Get It’. Badfinger had recently been signed to The Beatles’ Apple record label and the song was written and produced by one Paul McCartney.
The Magic Christian was based on Terry Southern’s book of the same name, with some of the script written by Monty Python’s John Cleese and Graham Chapman. It was directed by Joseph McGrath.
Ringo fits snuggly into this bizarre, surreal romp. It wasn’t a big hit on release but has become something of a cult favourite over the years and now earns favourable reviews.
4. That’ll Be The Day (1973) – Ringo Starr
Way back in 1964, in A Hard Day’s Night, Ringo was the first Beatle to garner praise for his acting. He also had by far the most prolific acting career of all The Beatles. Most of his films are rightly forgotten today but he did manage to make a few gems and That’ll Be The Day gave Starr his best reviews.
Ringo is superb in this quaint, very British, telling of a young man (David Essex) drifting through 1950’s Britain, looking for girls and kicks before meeting Ringo’s character at a Butlins Holiday Camp and discovering rock n’ roll.
Naturalistic, effortlessly laconic and earnest, Ringo basically plays a pre-fame version of himself (in real-life he worked at holiday camps in the 1950’s). He also has a great rapport with co-star David Essex (who he takes under his wing as mentor) and, for me, outshines him as the real highlight of this Brit classic.
David Essex went on to make the sequel (also featuring Keith Moon) named Stardust but Ringo did not appear.
5. The Rutles (1978) – George Harrison
Monty Python star Eric Idle’s hysterical Beatles parody lovingly follows The Rutles (the ‘Pre-Fab Four’) from their humble beginnings in Liverpool, all the way through to their bitter break up.
Evolving from a TV sketch on Idle’s Rutland Weekend Television and filmed in documentary style, it features an actual Beatle in George Harrison, who plays a TV interviewer having his microphone stolen outside Rutle Corp. Other 60’s icons such as Mick Jagger and Paul Simon appear as themselves to add their memories of the band.
Ex-Bonzo Dog Doo Dah member Neil Innes supplied the tunes, writing all the superb Beatle-esque songs that feature in the film (these are works of genius in their own right). Thus, forming another Beatle connection with The Rutles, as Paul McCartney had produced The Bonzo’s hit single I’m The Urban Spaceman ten years earlier.
The Beatles views on The Rutles were decidedly mixed. Apparently, John Lennon loved the finished film and refused to return his promo copy, Ringo found the portrayal of the Apple years depressing while Paul McCartney was not happy with how he was portrayed by Idle.
The Rutles was a huge success and is just as loved today as it was back in 1978. Following The Beatles Anthology release in 1995, Neil Innes even briefly reformed The Rutles to record Archeology. Eric Idle also made a sequel named Rutles 2:Can’t Buy Me Lunch which was poorly received and largely seen as merely a poorly planned modern update on the 1978 classic.