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Movie Marathon: The Beatles on Screen

Updated on December 27, 2012

So you want to hold a Beatles movie marathon. Only one problem. The Beatles only actually made two movies. And you are not really interested in seeing any of their solo films. ( You are trying to avoid Caveman ( 1981 ) in particular. ) Fortunately the Beatles were ( and still are ) so popular that there were plenty of other films that exploited them. Even the Beatles themselves commissioned a few projects to capitalize on their own fame. So, if you can't have enough movies starring the Beatles for a marathon, at the lest there are enough Beatles themed films to keep you watching for a few days. The films are presented in the order of release, with exception to some films that were reedited into new documentaries. You may prefer your own viewing order.

I have made some omissions. While this list does include television broadcasts, it does not include the Beatles animated series, which is too long to watch in it's entirety, and had absolutely no participation from the Beatles. There were a couple of John Lennon biographies which included the Beatles years, but since they concentrated on John and left the rest of the group as background characters, I considered them the equivalent of a solo project. There were plenty of great solo projects by ex-Beatles members which did not qualify, such as Paul McCartney's Rockshow ( 1980 ) and one of my favorite comedies The Magic Christian ( 1969 ) with Ringo Starr. There were a few other Beatles related films I left off, mainly because they are so hard to find that it is not worth the effort just for a few Beatles references. And I kept the bootlegs to a minimum, just the ones that Media Home Entertainment released on their label.

The Four Complete Ed Sullivan Shows Featuring The Beatles ( DVD release 2003 )

Airing on television long before anyone had a VCR, Beatles fans had always hoped for a legal release of all the performances the Fab Four had made for the Ed Sullivan Show. What they got was much better. Not just the isolated performances, but the shows in their entirety, even including the original commercials. You can advance the DVD to the Beatles performances, or you can watch each show uncut and experience them the same way Beatles fans did when they were first broadcast. Watch as some of the acts pander to the Beatles fans in the audience, just to get them to scream.

A Hard Day's Night ( 1964 )

The first of the two films starring the Beatles. Eager to capitalize on Beatlemania, United Artists signed the Beatles to a three picture deal, despite none of them having any experience as actors. The Beatles were a fan of experimental director Richard Lester, and chose him to direct their first film. What he came up with was a simple black and white film that depicts a slightly fictional day in the life of the Fab Four. Not much of a story here, just The Beatles on their way to a television studio where they are schedule for a live performance later that night. Despite being thin on plot, A Hard Day's Night was well received by film critics, and is today considered by many the best Rock & Roll movie.

Around the Beatles ( 1964 )

A television special featuring The Beatles that aired internationally, it featured the group at the Globe Theater along with some other music guests. Although mostly musical performances, it opened with comedy by the Fab Four, a skit where they perform Shakespeare while being heckled. The special remained in the memories of the fans that saw it's initial broadcast until the late 70s when Media Home Entertainment released it on VHS and Beta-max. Home Video was new, and the laws were still foggy as to who had the rights to release what. Many companies assumed that if they had access to rare film prints then they had the right to release copies on video tape. Copyright laws only covered theatrical runs and television broadcasts. And Media had been given access to several rare Beatles films, including Magical Mystery Tour. After releasing many Beatles videos they were eventually sued, and it was determined that copyrights did in fact extend to home video. Media removed their Beatles videos from distribution, but not before enough were released to make their way to the bootleg market. It has also turned up, inexplicably, on the tape Ready Steady Go! The Beatles Live. The original tape was released in Norway and Japan as a compilation of performances the Beatles made on the television show Ready Steady Go! The same tape was released in the U.K. with the same box, only the program inside was substituted for Around the Beatles.

Help! ( 1965 )

A Hard Day's Night was a big enough success that United Artists decided to give the follow up film a bigger budget. Lester was brought back as director, and this time he came up with a more ambitious film, this time shot in color and with locations as diverse as the Alps and the Bahamas. And it had a plot. Somehow Ringo has come in possession of a ring that belongs to a cult. The cult wants it back, and Perseus the Beatles to get it back, as does a mad scientist who also wants the ring for it's apparent mystical powers. Lester went over the top with the zaniness, and the film suffers for it. It is not a bad film, just nowhere as great as the previous Beatles film. In fact, it would become the inspiration for the television series The Monkees, shot in the same style as Help! and becoming a hit program. The Beatles were so put off by the film that they decided not to make a third movie. They still owed United Artists a third film, but that obligation would have to wait. For now they decided to concentrate on recording music.

The Beatles Concert at Budokan 1966 ( 1966 )

The Nippon Budokan arena was built for the 1964 Tokyo Olympics for the Judo competition. It remained a venue for professional martial arts bouts until 1966 when the Beatles once again needed an arena big enough for their fans. Even in Japan the Beatles had become a very popular recording act. While this concert was lackluster due to the group suffering from jet lag, it remains their best recorded concert. Unlike the States or England, the Japanese audiences kept much of their composure, and were nowhere as loud. The Beatles performance can actually be heard, and unlike the Shea concert where studio recordings of the group needed to be mixed into the audio in post, the Budokan concert did not need any remixing. It had been filmed for broadcast on Japanese television, but later turned up as part of Media's Beatles videos. This time though, Apple records has given this film an official release. In Japan only, but it was an authorized release. Much like the other Media videos, it is easily found as a bootleg.

The Beatles at Shea Stadium ( 1966 )

Shea Stadium had a bit of unpleasant history for New Yorkers. New York City was a Baseball town, with three very loved professional teams. Powerful politician Robert Moses wanted a stadium to be built in Flushing Queens, but the city would not fund the project unless one of the teams agreed to move there. Both the owners of the Dodgers and Giants were looking to build a bigger stadium to handle their sell-out crowds. Neither owner wanted to move their team to Queens, especially near the polluted banks of Flushing Bay. Determined to get at least one of the teams to move into the new stadium, Moses took steps to prevent both owners from building their stadiums anywhere else in the city. That strategy ended up pushing both teams out of New York City and off to California. With both the Dodgers and Giants gone, there was a push to fill the void by creating a new professional baseball team. That replacement team was The Mets, and their owner immediately agreed to move his team to Flushing, allowing Shea Stadium to be built. To fans of the Dodgers and Giants, Shea Stadium was a sad reminder that our own politicians drove their beloved teams to another coast. And the consistently in last place Mets were scarcely a replacement. New Yorkers finally found some measure of acceptance for the new stadium when it became the site of one of the first major arena concerts. The Beatles had become so popular that no ordinary sized theater could hold the crowds expected to turn up at their concerts. And at the time, Shea Stadium was the largest outdoor venue in the city. The concert was put together by Ed Sullivan who planned to film it and sell the edited footage to network television. The completed film, which runs about 50 minutes, begins with a short back stage documentary, then shows most of the concert. ( Two songs from the concert were omitted. ) After initial broadcasts on BBC in the U.K. and later ABC in the U.S., the film disappeared, only to resurface in the U.S. on home video through Media Home Entertainment, and from there to bootlegs and unauthorized home video releases.

Magical Mystery Tour ( 1967 )

While The Beatles may have given up on making feature films, they were still fascinated with the possibilities of making short promotional films for their music. Something that would later be called music videos. By the late 1960s The Beatles came up with an idea for their most ambitious promotional film, an hour long made for television movie about a magic bus trip. Or to be more specific, during the height of their drug experimentation years The Beatles decided to hire a camera crew and a group of actors to get into a bus with them as they drove across England, improvising the film as they went along. It was a disaster. If The Beatles expected something magical to happen on an improvised bus tour then they were all sadly mistaken. Even Beatles fans hated it. A few days after it aired Paul McCartney made a public apology. He would later note in interviews that the film did have some benefits, which were the music inserts. Aside from the bus trip, The Beatles also filmed what amounted to concept videos for the songs. Removed from the film, this created music videos for such songs as Your Mother Should Know and I Am The Walrus which would have otherwise never existed. Compared to their theatrical films, the mess that became The Magical Mystery Tour is a letdown. But taken into context as a long form music video it is every bit as good as the others that followed, such as Blondie's Eat to the Beat. And, it did result in another great Beatles soundtrack album. The film would get a theatrical release in the United States by New Line Cinema, in a very brief run in 1974. To this day most America Beatles fans mistake Magical Mystery Tour as one of their actual films, as they would for the next film on this list.

Yellow Submarine ( 1968 )

United Artists wanted to produce an animated film featuring The Beatles, and The Beatles reluctantly agreed to the project believing it would fulfil their third film commitment to the studio. While it was promoted that The Beatles would provide the voices for the film, their characters were actually voiced by other actors. The only participation by the Beatles, other than allowing their names, likenesses and songs to be used, was a brief live insert at the end of the film. The Beatles made the cameo under a lawyers advice so that being the only live actors they could claim to be the stars of the film, and therefore fulfil the commitment for a third United Artist movie. Everything else, including the story, were the ideas of the animation studio without any input from the band. While once again not a true Beatles film, it is still very entertaining. The plot in brief, a bunch of blue creatures overthrow a magical undersea kingdom called Pepperland, immobilizing it's citizens by pelting them with large green apples. One lone survivor of the attack is able to get to a Yellow Submarine and escape, making his way to Liverpool where he seeks help from The Beatles. And they eventually do liberate the people of Pepperland with their fantastic music, but first must travel through several other seas to reach them, each it's own magical kingdom. The real Beatles show up at the end of the film to warn the audience that the same blue creatures that captured Pepperland have been spotted in the vicinity of the theater. The Beatles may have hoped this final segment ended any legal commitment to make any further films for United Artists, but the studio's lawyers thought differently.

Let It Be ( 1970 )

In 1968 The Beatles were on the verge of breaking up. Paul identified the problem being that their previous albums were so ambitious that they were recording songs that could not be reproduced as live performances. In essence, each member was writing Beatles songs that no longer required the other three members to participate in. Paul wanted a stripped down album with the Beatles recording as a group, the music being provided by the band live rather than some pieced together studio Frankenstein edited in post with the band members submitting their parts at different times. He felt that by going back to the band's Rock & Roll roots they could reignite the passion that had bonded them in the past. Sessions for the new album, to be called Get Back, began in early 1969. A documentary crew was hired to record the event, and the initial plans called for the completed album to be performed live on television with the documentary footage opening the show. Paul's plan that a stripped down album would heal the band did not work. The infighting was worse than the album before. At one point George even quit the band and was gone for a few days before being talked back into returning. Famously John brought his wife Yoko into the studio as his muse, something which did not go over well with the other band members. The whole disaster was caught on film by the documentary crew. Eventually the Beatles decided to abandon the album, take a breath, and regroup to record a different album. That album was Abbey Road, and would be the final album the Beatles recorded. The Get Back album, along with the planned television concert, was abandoned. When the Beatles decided to break up after the completion of Abbey Road, it was decided to take the music recorded for Get Back and it's documentary and release them as a final Beatles project, now to be called Let It Be. Phil Spector was brought in to remix and finish the album, adding orchestral music to Paul's stripped down album. Meanwhile the Beatles still owed United Artist a movie. An agreement was made to allow the studio to release the documentary as a completion of that contract. The Beatles did have final cut, and the version of Let It Be that was released did not include any of the studio fights, nor George quiting. Even watered down, it is still evident in the final cut that the Beatles were not getting along at that point. Aside from a brief release on Laserdisc, the film Let It Be has never legally been released on home video, although the bootlegs are still easy to find. Paul and Ringo are reluctant to release it, noting that it showed a side of The Beatles they did not want their fans to remember, and realizing if it were to be released today then they would have to include the edited footage. But rumors still abound that an official release is eminent.

I Wanna Hold Your Hand ( 1978 )

This was Robert Zemeckis' directorial, thanks to a little help from his friends, Steven Spielberg in particular. In order to convince Universal to green light the film, Spielberg agreed to be it's executive producer, and agree to take over as director should Universal decide newcomer Zemeckis was doing a poor job. A low budget comedy, it told the story of four teenage girls who go to New York City the week the Beatles come to town to do Ed Sullivan's Show, and the humorous situations they get into attempting to meet the group. A nice comedy about the hysteria surrounding The Beatles first U.S. visit. A year later Spielberg would repeat the same theme with another comedy about mass public hysteria, this time based on an event in wartime Hollywood when Californians panicked over rumors a Japanese fighter was flying up the coast.That film was 1941, and used many of the same cast members as I Wanna Hold Your Hand.

Sgt Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band ( 1978 )

If there ever was to be a third real Beatles film, it would have been Sgt. Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band. For a brief period The Beatles considered turning a literal translation of their album into a movie, but then abandoned the idea when they were informed of how expensive doing that would be, and how no studio would ever agree to that budget for a Rock & Roll film. A decade later Robert Stigwood had purchased the rights to 29 Beatles songs for a Broadway musical called Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band on the Road. Deciding he wanted to turn the musical into a movie he hired Henry Edwards, who had never written a script before, to take the songs and fashion them into a coherent plot. Edwards idea was to have a new Sgt. Peppers band attempting to recover magical instruments stolen from their town's museum. Since there was no way to convince The Beatles to regroup and star in the film, Stigwood would need to find that decades equivalent of the Fab Four to take their place. As it turned out, the biggest recording act of the '70s was The Bee Gees, all thanks to Stigwood who happened to be their manager. Their success was due to Stigwood putting them in charge of the soundtrack to his movie Saturday Night Fever, the album which produced several major hits for the trio. Stigwood realized he would need a fourth, but for some reason did not bother to talk brother Andy Gibb into starring in the movie. Instead, the fourth member of Sgt. Pepper would be that decades second biggest recording act, Peter Frampton. An all star supporting cast was brought in, including George Burns, Steve Martin, Alice Cooper and Billy Preston who was then called the fifth Beatle for his work on the album Let It Be. For the finale song a who's who of pop stars showed up for an all star cameo. There were high hopes for the movie, but instead it turned out to be a turkey, panned by critics and bombing at the box office. It single handedly brought down the careers of both Peter Frampton and The Bee Gees, as well as bringing down the management at MGM.

Birth of the Beatles ( 1979 )

Two movies were made about the early days of the Beatles before they became famous. The reason for this? Mainly to save money. Filming the later years requires paying the royalties on the Beatles biggest hits. The early years, paying the royalties on the songs the Beatles covered when they were still a bar band. Much less expensive. There is also the matter of acquiring the screen rights to their early years, which is much easier than the rights to events during the height of their popularity. Birth of the Beatles was produced by Dick Clark. It is also very hard to find considering it was never released on home video. Never the less, it can be found online.

Beatelmania: The Movie ( 1981 )

Throughout the 70s there had been several attempts to convince the Beatles to reunite, the most celebrated being an offer by Saturday Night Live producer Lorne Michaels making an on air offer to pay the Beatles $3,000 if they agreed to reunite on his show. A reunion never happened, so the next best thing was to put together a cover band that could recreate all the Beatles songs. The most successful of these projects was a Broadway show called Beatlemania. The show had it's fans who claimed it was just like seeing the Beatles live, an odd claim as all the concerts the Beatles did involved girls screaming so loud you could not hear the music. Beatlemania was the concert the Beatles wish they had done. In 1980 a decision was made to film the first of a series of movies capturing the stage show. Poor timing as shortly after filming was completed, John Lennon was assassinated. Out of respect the movie was withheld from release for a full year, then finally given a low key release a year later. It had a brief home video release, but used copies of the VHS tapes can still be found on eBay and Amazon.

The Complete Beatles ( 1982 )

There had never been a full Beatles documentary. Unbelievable. The greatest pop band of all time, the greatest cultural phenomenon of the 20th century, and from a few short bio films, there had been no full length biography of the Beatles. The closest that existed was Eric Idle's 1978 parody, The Rutles: All You Need Is Cash. Otherwise, the Beatles were ignored, and would be until 1982. The Complete Beatles was the first, and for the longest time, only Beatles documentary. And it was outstanding. Okay, we all know that this marathon will also include The Beatles Anthology which is longer, has every clip, and full participation from all the surviving Beatles. But The Complete Beatles is worth watching as well.

Can't Buy Me Love ( 1987 )

The rights to Beatles songs are always being optioned for movies. Here is a case where a movie based on a Beatles song was actually made. Some genius studio executive snatched up the rights to the Beatles hit Can't Buy Me Love, then realized there was nothing in the lyrics that would make a good movie. It is a simple song where a guy offers the girl he loves anything to keep her happy, and then hopes that she does not love him for his money. The song was given to screen writer Michael Swerdick who used the title as a starting point for a script. His idea, a high school nerd ( Patrick Dempsey in the movie ) pays the most popular girl in school ( Amanda Peterson ) to pretend to be his girlfriend for a month. His theory is that by being seen with her, he too will become popular. Predictably, she secretly falls in love with him. When the month is up and the nerd has a fake public breakup with the girl, becomes the most popular boy at his school, despite still being a bit awkward. The girl growing increasingly jealous as he begins dating all the other hot girls in school. While drunk at a party, she finally blurts out to everyone that the nerd had paid her to date him, and he becomes a pariah, no longer accepted as popular, and no longer accepted by the other nerds. He also realizes that he was in love with the girl, and the film ends with them getting back together. See, nothing to do with the Beatles song, even though it does play during the end credits. Money well spent, right? Here was a film that was clearly aimed at an audience too young to have remembered the Beatles song. Can't Buy Me Love did go on to become one of the iconic 80s teen films, which is something it could have done without the Beatles title. Cut to 16 years later and some genius executive buys the film rights to the Jennifer Lopez hit Love Don't Cost a Thing. The solution, use it for a remake of Can't Buy Me Love.

The Beatles: The First U.S. Visit ( 1991 )

One of the most iconic footage of The Beatles was the television documentary Whats Happening! The Beatles in the U.S.A. Shot in 1964 by brothers Albert and David Maysles who were given unlimited access to the group, it followed them behind the scenes on their first visit to the United States. Much of it, the humorous answers they give at a press conference in particular, was the inspiration for the movie A Hard Day's Night. Only snippets of the documentary have been shown since it's initial broadcast, until 1991 when Apple Records gave it an official release on home video. Apple did re-edit the original film, removing 20 minutes of footage for various reasons, replacing it with 22 minutes of performance footage from the Ed Sullivan shows ( in the original documentary, Ed Sullivan denied the Maysles access backstage to his show ).

Backbeat ( 1994 )

The second of the movies depicting the early days of the Beatles.

The Beatles Anthology ( 1995 )

And the second of the Beatles documentaries. Much more superior to The Complete Beatles, The Anthology is five times longer ( 10 hours long. ) It was released in conjunction with a DVD box set of rare Beatles recordings and B sides, and a biographical book, all called Anthology. When John Lennon was killed in 1980 the door to any Beatles reunion was closed forever. There were some Beatles recordings that had not yet been released. But as shown with the Anthology CD set, those unreleased Beatles recordings were alternative versions of songs already released, some live recordings already available as bootlegs and a few weird experimental recordings. Apple Records was not holding onto any major unreleased Beatles songs. Considering the amount of albums they released between 1963 and 1970, averaging nearly two albums a year, one being the double white album, there was little opportunity for a Beatles song to be cut and shelved. There was some Beatles footage that had not yet been officially released on home video, or was long out of print, but all was available as bootlegs. In other words, there was no chance of finding any long lost Beatles material, and no chance for the Beatles to reunite and create anything new. Or so it was thought. When the surviving Beatles reunited for the documentary, they decided they wanted to record a new Beatles song. But they had a long standing agreement that there would be no new Beatles recording without all four band members present. Harrison came up with the idea of using one of John's unreleased demos and having the other three surviving members add their vocals and record new music. The problem was that John's widow Yoko had pretty much released all of John's unreleased studio tracks on some posthumous John Lennon albums. All that was left was some recordings John made on a cassette recorder in his living room for some songs he was writing. Two of them, Free as A Bird and Real Love, were cleaned up and remixed with the surviving band members to create two new Beatles singles. The first new Beatles music since the band broke up 25 years earlier.

Across the Universe ( 2007 )

Julie Taymor is probably best known for her Broadway musical Spider-man: Turn Off the Dark. The one where actors performing acrobatic stunts on wires are constantly getting stuck in the ceiling. Another over ambitious project of Taymor was her 2007 film Across the Universe, a musical about the 1960s. An American cheerleader and an immigrant from Liverpool fall in love against the backdrop of that turbulent decade. There is a lot more to the plot, but much like the Sgt. Pepper's movie before it, it meanders quite a bit to fit the music. Yes, another musical where all the songs are from The Beatles. It too got it's share of bad reviews, but unlike Sgt Peppers, it also got great reviews. A divisive movie that you will either think is crap, or will think is a masterpiece. That is usually the response these art films get.

All Together Now ( 2008 )

And yet another project that was set to the music of the Beatles was Cirque du Soleil's 2006 Las Vegas show called Love. This time it had both the approval and input of all the surviving Beatles, and is the last major project the Beatles as an organization was ever involved with. The project had been begun by George Harrison shortly before his death, then continued with the two surviving Beatles. While George had barely anything to do with the project, and John was long gone during it's development, it is still considered an official Beatles project. The documentary All Together Now follows the making of the show.

The Beatles: The Lost Concert ( 2012 )

To end the marathon, some vintage Beatles. The newest of the Beatles related releases is their long unavailable first American concert at the Washington Coliseum on February 11th, 1964. Performed two days after their historic first Ed Sullivan appearance, the entire concert was captured on film, and a few weeks later shown in theaters across the United States. The film was then locked away in a vault where it remained forgotten for decades. Recently uncovered, the film was restored and attached to a documentary on the historic concert. As I write this, the film is not yet available on home video, and the theatrical run has been delayed due to some sort of legal problems. However, since this hub will still be around for years to come, I am sure that by the time some of you read this it will be available on DVD and/or Blu-ray.


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