The Beatles dominated popular music in a way no other band ever has, and it didn’t take long for their cultural dominance to extend to the world of film as well, beginning with the 1964 black-and-white comedy A Hard Day’s Night. From there, The Beatles appeared in several other films before their split and continued to inspire creative works long afterwards, even if most cinematic tributes to their music can never match the heights of the music itself. In some cases, their high standard of creative quality was reflected in the films they made, but there are a few groan worthy exceptions to that rule. Let’s look at the best and worst movies The Beatles ever made, or even simply inspired, starting with the third worst and the third best.
3. Worst: Across the Universe
Across the Universe is a Beatles films for teenage girls who would rather watch Moulin Rouge than a real Beatles film. Hits and deeper cuts from The Beatles songbook — most of them oversung and lacking much in musical accompaniment — are shoehorned into a paper-thin plot more concerned with name-checking (and shamelessly idealizing) political events and movements of the ’60s than creating characters you care about. There’s plenty of vibrant visual flair here, but surprisingly little depth beneath it all, despite what the tearful cover of “Let It Be” sung by a weeping black child in the midst of a riot might have you believe.
3. Best: Let It Be
Let It Be is an excruciating viewing experience, but an enlightening one. It captures the band at their nadir, when a project intended to reunite them and return them to rock ‘n’ roll basics became a parade of quiet misery and weary debate.
Just as A Hard Day’s Night is about the joys of being a Beatle, Let It Be is about the frustrations of being trapped in the biggest band of the world. The film captures the band members’ blemishes so plainly that the film has been officially unavailable for decades. It’s slower and not quite so fun as the uneven Help!, but the uncomfortable intimacy of the studio scenes and the excitement of the famous rooftop concert make it superior viewing, at least for me.
2. Worst: Magical Mystery Tour
The Beatles can write a great song (hundreds of them, in fact), but that doesn’t mean they can make a great movie. The fab four wrote and directed this mostly unscripted made-for-TV curiosity themselves, and the resulting film feels like the product of a week spent goofing off rather than creating a cohesive film.
The story, always secondary in The Beatles’ films, is completely tossed aside and replaced by surreal sequences that don’t add up to much. The musical interludes and the dated, quintessentially ’60s aesthetics make it occasionally worthwhile. It was so poorly received, The Beatles all but issued a public apology for their work.
2. Best: Yellow Submarine
The Beatles didn’t have much involvement in the making of Yellow Submarine, nor did they voice the cartoon versions of themselves who star in this visually innovative fantasy, which is equally suited to entertaining children and stoners. The story is unfocused but made up of fantastically creative visual sequences and humorous wordplay delivered with deadpan aplomb by the voice actors.
The soundtrack is a solid mix of familiar hits and new discoveries, which range from the lousy (“All Together Now,” which sounds like it took no effort to write) to the truly great (“Hey Bulldog” and “Only a Northern Song”).
1. Worst: Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band
Perhaps a jukebox musical of Beatles songs was never a good idea. This 1978 curiosity finds a number of artists taking up the mantle of the titular band for a truly baffling 111 minutes, most of which consists of barely passable covers of “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” and “Abbey Road” songs.
Stars like Peter Frampton and the Bee Gees bring little to their songs and even less to their eye roll-inducing performances. This would be a horrible movie even without being tied to The Beatles’ near untouchable legacy.
1. Best: A Hard Day’s Night
A Hard Day’s Night is a snapshot of The Beatles in their early days, capturing the raucous youthfulness they and their songs represented to the world at large. The story is little more than a day in the life (no, not that “A Day in the Life”), giving each Beatle (except maybe Paul) the chance to shine in their own hilarious segments.
It usually involves them gleefully poking fun at managers, producers, journalists, and anyone else who takes themselves too seriously. John and Ringo are especially delightful as the Groucho Marx and sadsack of the group, respectively. On top of virtually inventing the cinematic language of the music video, A Hard Day’s Night is a joyous experience of laughs and great music, like fun converted into film.
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