The Completist’s Guide to Movies Made With or About the Beatles
Inspired by the 'Get Back' documentary, we pull the ultimate Fab Four filmography
The Beatles were only together for eight years. And yet here we are a half century after they split up and they are still with us, as powerful a presence as they ever were. Thanks to the new three-part Disney+ docuseries The Beatles: Get Back, we are in the midst of a new round of Beatlemania. And it’s thrilling.
If you haven’t had a chance to watch all eight hours of Get Back yet, we urge you to immediately. It’s a fantastic reminder of how the greatest of all rock ’n’ roll bands worked together in the studio and of the bonds that tied them together — and occasionally drove them apart. And to complete your own Beatlemania, check out 11 more films with or about the Fab Four.
A Hard Day’s Night (1964)
From the very first scene, when the title song’s famous opening claaang guitar chord strikes and the baby-faced foursome are being chased by a mob of rabid teenage girls, Richard Lester’s exuberant black-and-white slapstick comedy gives us our first intimate look at how these young Liverpudlians captured the world’s imagination. You already know the songs (they’re still amazing), but what the movie reveals today, more than any other document of its era, is how the Fab Four gave birth to a sort of youthquake the world had never witnessed before — and how mad it felt to be trapped in the eye of its frenzied hurricane. An absolute classic.
Watch it: A Hard Day's Night, on HBO Max
The Beatles’ second feature film introduces color … and drugs. Help! is a much trippier, looser and more experimental chronicle of a band that had achieved overnight fame and were now here to stay. Unshackled by the straightjackets of their record label and image Svengalis, the Beatles were allowed to be themselves and let down their hair (although not as thoroughly as they would in the freak-flag-flying late ’60s). Filmed during a string of busman’s holidays in the Bahamas and the Austrian Alps, Lester’s sophomore Beatles outing is ostensibly about the boys trying to save Ringo from a pair of sinister cult members. But never mind the plot: Help! is a wacky, joyous, sun-dappled mess with a killer soundtrack.
Watch it: Help!, on iTunes
Yellow Submarine (1968)
If you were born in the ’60s — or were a parent during that time — this groovy, candy-colored spectacle became the gateway drug to the band's music for an entire generation of young kids. John, Paul, George and Ringo are cast (in cartoon form) as the saviors of the music-loving Pepperland from the dreaded music-hating Blue Meanies. Those Meanies never stood a chance. Never mind that the actual Beatles’ voices were dubbed by actors using pudding-thick Liverpool accents, Yellow Submarine is an absolute trip full of wild imagination, silly wordplay and some of the most far-out animation ever drawn.
Watch it: Yellow Submarine, on iTunes
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The Rutles: All You Need Is Cash (1978)
Long before This Is Spinal Tap, Monty Python’s Eric Idle invented the rock mockumentary with All You Need Is Cash. Spoofing the Beatles’ arc from teen-pop idols to hippie seekers, this pseudo-expose follows the “Pre-fab Four” — Dirk, Nasty, Stig and Barry — with a buckshot approach to satire. At best, maybe only 1 out of 4 jokes lands with a laugh, but Idle keeps squeezing the trigger and reloading, firing off inside jokes about the band’s greed, ambition and fame with plenty of cameos from celebrities of the era like Bianca Jagger. Best of all are the songs, which try to mimic the Beatles’ hits and make fun of them, but just end up showing us (and, no doubt, Idle) how hard it is to write a seemingly easy Beatles song.
The Beatles Anthology (1995)
Aired on ABC in 1995 as a tie-in with The Beatles Anthology CD compilation, this documentary is actually a lot more revealing than anyone had any right to expect from a marketing tool, thanks to fresh interviews with Paul, George and Ringo. If you’re a Beatles obsessive, most of these behind-the-scenes stories will be familiar (Paul, in particular, seems incapable of telling an uncanned anecdote), but they feel new coming from the horses’ mouths. The surviving members of the band relive their wild early days in Hamburg, the joylessness of performing to shrieking crowds and the creative renaissance they had in the studio, where they could expand their sound and their ambitions. Well worth checking out.
Nowhere Boy (2009)
This feature film about John Lennon’s troubled early life stars Aaron Johnson as the rebellious teenage Liverpudlian. Growing up under the care of his working-class Aunt Mimi (Kristin Scott Thomas), Lennon attempts to forge a connection with his estranged mother, desperate to have a real mother-son relationship with her. While she does introduce him to music, she is unable to become the mother that he wants and needs. It’s hard to say how close to the truth Nowhere Boy falls, but Johnson gives a terrific performance and the film remains a heartbreaking and enlightening glimpse into Lennon’s personality and the demons that would haunt him throughout his all-too-brief life.
Watch it: Nowhere Boy, on Amazon Prime, Google Play, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube
George Harrison: Living in the Material World (2011)
Martin Scorsese has made several fantastic music documentaries (The Last Waltz, Bob Dylan: No Direction Home), but this deep-dive biography of the Beatles’ quiet, seeking guitarist certainly belongs near the top. Harrison always seemed like a wallflower next to Lennon and McCartney (and who wouldn’t?), but Scorsese’s up-close-and-personal scrapbook on the man reveals a complicated soul and a musician who was as insatiable for personal enlightenment as he was for the perfect riff. Thanks to Scorsese’s empathetic camera, Harrison (who died in 2001) finally gets his due here.
Watch it: George Harrison: Living in the Material World, on Amazon Prime, HBO Max, iTunes
Good Ol’ Freda (2013)
This is a wonderful film about one of the most unexplored footnotes in the Beatles saga. Directed by Ryan White, this quirky documentary tells the stranger-than-fiction story of Freda Kelly, once a shy 17-year-old girl from Liverpool who was hired by Beatles' manager Brian Epstein to answer the Fab Four’s fan mail as their secretary. In other words, Kelly was basically living out every teenage girl’s dream in the early ’60s. This is an affectionate profile of a woman who’s now a grandmother looking back at her strange brush with history as it was being made, told by someone who got to know the lads up close. Kelly was (and still is) a fan, and her tales of snipping off locks of her bosses’ hair to mail to their fans couldn’t be more charming.
Watch it: Good Ol’ Freda, on Amazon Prime, Google Play, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube
The Beatles: Eight Days a Week — The Touring Years (2016)
Directed by Ron Howard, this documentary focuses on the Beatles’ early, breakneck-paced touring years. The insane, shrieking mobs that met them at airports around the world, the baseball stadiums roaring so loud they couldn’t hear what their bandmates were playing and the royalty they offended by refusing to dine with them on their days off. Since this is about their live years, it obviously concentrates on the exhausting early years (the Beatles gave up playing live when it became personally unrewarding and focused on broadening their sound in the lab of the studio). But the archival footage provides a fascinating time capsule about an era when they were the biggest sensation on the planet.
Watch it: The Beatles: Eight Days a Week — The Touring Years, on Amazon Prime, Hulu, iTunes
This is one of those wonderful “what if” films. Directed by Danny Boyle, this musical fantasy stars Himesh Patel as Jack, a struggling singer-songwriter in an English seaside town who gets into a freak bus accident and wakes up to discover that the Beatles never existed. So he decides to start performing their songs (including the classic title track), claim them as his own and rocket to fame. Granted, if you buy that premise, you’ll buy anything. But feel-good movies rarely come with better soundtracks.
Watch it: Yesterday, on Amazon Prime, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube
McCartney 3, 2, 1 (2021)
Released on Hulu earlier this year, this quickly became one of those perfect pandemic watches. It was an intimate, nostalgically cozy and enlightening miniseries of interviews between Paul McCartney and shaggy record producer Rick Rubin about how some of the Beatles’ most famous (and some more obscure) songs were created. Rubin is clearly a smitten fan and his questions are softballs, but he understands music and that allows McCartney to go deeper into talking about the nuts and bolts of the craft than he usually does. McCartney 3, 2, 1 consists of six brief episodes, and when they were over, I wished they had made 600 of them. As addictive as it is revelatory.
Watch it: McCartney 3, 2, 1, on Hulu
Chris Nashawaty, former film critic for Entertainment Weekly, is the author of Caddyshack: The Making of a Hollywood Cinderella Story and a contributor to Esquire, Vanity Fair, The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal.