The Beatles have become more than just one of the greatest rock ‘n’ roll bands in the history of music; their image and music have steeped into the milieu of popular culture throughout the entire world. Individually and together as a band, they are instantly recognisable, and as with every great iconic symbol of culture, The Beatles’ brand as an aesthetic implies a multitude of intellectual and artistic triggers: the 1960s, peace love and happiness, psychedelia, British charm, finely-tailored suits, transcendental meditation, and just a general sense of ‘cool’.
The Beatles, as an image, definitely have an essential element that the majority of bands don’t really have; John, Paul, George and Ringo are all charismatic people, and while their strength lies in them being together, they can all stand apart from one another and hold their own as unique individuals.
Once the Liverpool band dominated the music world, The Beatles brand began growing even more as they made forays into new mediums. Starting with their hilarious film A Hard Day’s Night in 1964, released at the apex of the Beatlemania craze, audience members were treated to a new yet familiar side to The Beatles. The Liverpool lads revealed their brilliant personalities and a day in the life of a Beatle. Partly based in reality, partly fictional, A Hard Day’s Night portrayed the lads as we had come to know them in interviews and press conferences, but also in a slightly more exaggerated, whimsical, and sometimes troublemaking version of the musicians. The film did a lot to show the world that The Beatles were perfect on the big screen.
Following the success of A Hard Day’s Night, their new feature Help!, came out the following year in 1965. Help! takes their crazy antics a step further; The Beatles are struggling to record their new album while they attempt to protect Ringo Starr from a cult and mad scientists who all want one of Ringo’s many rings. While A Hard Days Night is considered their best effort, Help! is accredited with influencing the progression of music videos. To give an idea of the kind of cultural clout the Liverpool lads had, for the premiere of their ’65 film, at the London Pavilion theatre, those in attendance included royalty; Princess Margaret, Countess of Snowdon, and the Earl of Snowdon.
The Magical Mystery Tour, their third film, and in a similar vein as their previous two films, follows the group in another slightly surreal and exaggerated premise. This one was a TV film and ran under an hour, rather than presented as a feature film, as was the case with A Hard Day’s Night and Help!
What might not be as widely known is that The Beatles all had individual acting careers too. As it has somewhat flown under the radar, we thought we’d shine a little bit of extra light on those non-Beatles films that starred a member of the Fab Four.
Out of all of them, Ringo Starr took more of an interest and proved to be the most prolific. This should come as no surprise as Starr seemingly had more of a central role in The Beatles films. On the other hand, George Harrison proved to be the most influential as he started his own production company, Hand-Made Films.
As a matter of fact, if it weren’t for George Harrison, Monty Python’s Life of Brian would never have been made. Following the legendary comedy troupe losing the financial backing for the satirical movie, George Harrison provided financial relief, which prompted him to create his production company because he “wanted to see the film”. Despite his best efforts, Paul McCartney’s acting career was the least successful, while it seemed that John Lennon couldn’t have cared less about his own.
We decided to take a look at the best non-Beatle films to feature the individual members of the band.
The best films to feature a Beatle
How I Won The War (1967) – John Lennon
The first Beatle to star in a film without the others was John Lennon, who did a fine job as Private Gripweed in the 1967 scathing satire on the absurdity of war, How I Won The War. The film was directed by long-time Beatle-collaborator, Richard Lester, who did The Beatles’ A Hard Days Night and Help! The story follows a group of British soldiers who are attempting to set up a cricket pitch behind enemy lines.
In this film, fans were introduced to what would later become his signature look – the bespectacled revolutionary, even though it was merely a role he was playing; starring in a satirical film seemed like it was right up Lennon’s alley.
He didn’t feel too strongly about his short visit into the realm of acting, however, in fact, Lester had to convince him in the first place. This does explain why he was only ever in one film, independent from The Beatles. Lester told him that “he was a natural”, to which Lennon responded, “Yeah, but acting is silly though, isn’t it?” In response, Lester indulged Lennon, and replied, saying, “Yes, I suppose it is.”
The Magic Christian (1969) – Ringo Starr
Before Ringo Starr joined The Beatles, he had developed somewhat of a showman alter-ego that he embodied when playing with various touring bands. Therefore, a career in acting seemed like an obvious choice for the very extroverted Ringo Starr. It’s in his very name: ‘Starr.’
The Magic Christian was only one of many films he starred in, in which he portrayed a very devious Youngman Grand. Grand’s luck changed when he became the heir to the very wealthy Sir Guy Grand, played by the illustrious Peter Sellers. The pair of trouble-making characters take part in a series of misadventures as they pay people to be the sorry victims of practical jokes.
The film is a satire, loosely based on the 1959 comic novel of the same name, written by the American, Terry Southern. Despite the film’s all-star cast, including Peter Sellers, Ringo Starr, Richard Attenborough, the cast of Monty Python, Spike Milligan, and Roman Polanski — the film performed poorly, receiving a lot of negative reviews. Notwithstanding this, The Magic Christian has become a classic of black humour and is worth watching for the sheer silliness of it.
That’ll Be The Day (1973) – Ringo Starr
Moving to the next on our list, we have another film that features Ringo Starr, and this one better showcases Ringo’s talents for acting; it was clear that he took acting very seriously. Released in 1973, the Claude Whatham film, That’ll Be The Day, tells the story of the young Jim MacLaine, played by David Essex, who rejects society’s norms and traverses the landscape of Britain and its seedy hedonistic side.
Ringo Starr plays Mike who is a barman at a holiday camp and eventually takes Essex’s character under his wing. It probably came quite naturally to Starr, as he had worked a holiday camp himself prior to becoming a successful musician.
Starr does a fabulous job in it and proves to the world that he is a serious actor.
The Rutles (1978) – George Harrison
George Harrison ironically plays an unassuming TV interviewer in Monty Python actor Eric Idle’s brilliant Beatles parody, The Rutles. As it has probably already been assumed, George Harrison was close with the Monty Python crew, especially Eric Idle.
Harrison helped the Python crew make The Life of Brian a reality by funding the film through his production company, Hand-Made Films. If Eric Idle is going to (lovingly) make fun of The Beatles, the least he can do is invite one of them to star in it.
The mockumentary evolved from a TV sketch on Idle’s Rutland Weekend Television, and takes a look at the fictional legacy of The Rutles. George Harrison’s character gets his microphone stolen from him outside of Rutles Corp.
The Rutles is an eerily accurate parody of the Fab Four – to the point where Eric Idle and his satirical band even wrote their own compositions based on specific Beatles songs: ‘Cheese and Onions’, ‘I Must Be In Love’, ‘Hold My Hand’, and ‘Get Up And Go’, just to name a few. Ten points for naming those Beatles songs in the comments.
Life of Brian (1979) – George Harrison
This naturally brings us to the next film on our list and it is a satirical comedy Tour De Force. Monty Python outdid themselves with this hilarious take on the birth of Jesus Christ and an exploration into the often absurd notion of the worship of an idol. Brian Cohen, played by Graham Chapman, is mistakenly chosen as the son of God, and subsequently runs for his life from hordes of believers and Roman authorities.
In the words of Cohen: “Alright, I am the Messiah, now f**k off!” As previously noted, George Harrison made a paramount contribution to the world of film by funding Life of Brian through his then-newly created production company, Hand-Made Films.
As a gesture of gratitude, Harrison was given a small cameo role in the film and plays Mr Papdopolous, the owner of ‘The Mount’, who shakes Brian’s hand. Initially, Harrison had a line, but it was overdubbed by Michael Palin.
Both Lennon and Harrison were giant fans of Monty Python (how could you not be?) and often referred to the troupe as “Keepers of The Beatles Flame.” Both Monty Python and The Beatles, as time has shown, have proven to be two of the most important cultural pillars bolstering Britain’s artistic output into the world at large.
Caveman (1981) – Ringo Starr
Created by one of the masterminds responsible for the Jaws screenplay, Carl Gottlieb’s slapstick comedy film kind of saved Ringo Starr who was, at the time, in the middle of a prolonged alcoholic phase. Starr plays Atouk, a bullied caveman, and is enamoured by the beautifully prehistoric Lana, played by Barbara Bach, and is subsequently banished from his tribe by the overbearing Tonda, played by John Matuszak.
The film is cheesy, to say the least, and follows Starr’s character, Atouk, who, alongside a band of misfits, go on a series of adventures. Along the way, they have to flee from dinosaurs, impending ice ages, abominable snowmen; all the while inventing the basic tools that have allowed civilization to grow and prosper over the centuries.
Who would have thought that civilisation was founded by a babbling fool, who somehow managed to survive? Survival of the fittest is overrated.
Eat The Rich (1986) – Paul McCartney
One of the rare occurrences where Paul McCartney solely starred in a film without contributing any music to it; Eat The Rich, as the name suggests, is about a rich guy, played by McCartney, who ends up getting eaten at a restaurant.
Peter Richardson’s movie is a sharp criticism of Margaret Thatcher’s government and places McCartney in the centre of some vibrant political satire..
McCartney plays a wealthy banquet guest who gets knocked out at the table and carted away to the kitchen just to be served as a fine dish to unassuming guests. While Macca’s cameo appearance is somewhat understated, the film itself is a masterclass in its field.
Forrest Gump (1994) – John Lennon
As is the case with many of these films, if a Beatle has a part in the film, more often than not, they are simply playing themselves. The American classic, Forrest Gump, written by Eric Roth and directed by Robert Zemeckis, pulled on the heartstrings of millions, with the sweet but dull Forrest Gump played by the inimitable Tom Hanks. Forrest unwillingly influences major historical events that have shaped the United States.
One of these events involved the one and only Beatle, John Lennon, when he appeared on the Dick Cavett show in 1971. This scene is a piece of cinematic trickery, of course; Tom Hanks as Forrest Gump was superimposed into the scene, in place of where Yoko Ono was sat. John Lennon’s dialogue is overdubbed with a voice actor.
It doesn’t take away from the overall feeling of the cameo, computer-generated or otherwise.