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Music

Six Definitive Films: The ultimate beginner's guide to Ringo Starr

The Beatles made five movies during their eight-year tenure as a studio output, two of them written specifically for their talents. As it happens two of them suited acting (John Lennon and Ringo Starr), one wasn’t bothered by it (George Harrison), and one should never have given it a shot (we don’t feel guilty criticising Sir Paul McCartney, because of his extraordinary talents, but an actor he wasn’t.)

Harrison wound up producing films, and out of the Beatles who looked most comfortable on camera, only one ended up pursuing it as a career. Starr was a natural, performing alongside many of the most impressive talents in British cinema. A cruel critic might say Starr’s cinema work was more impressive than the music he wrote during the 1970s, but we’d prefer to say it made for a pleasing alternative.

He ended up working with Peter Sellers on the biting The Magic Christian, which proved that the singing drummer fitted the genre of comedy nicely. From that point on, he moved into the realm of television, where he appeared on an episode of Monty Python. Python writers Graham Chapman and Douglas Adams wrote a script for Starr that was never made into a film.

But that’s ok because the drummer featured in enough movies to paper over this gaping hole in his c.v. As it stands, this list boasts six of his most distinguished performances, provided that we can use distinguished to describe a Ken Russell film.

Ringo Starr’s six definitive films:

Help! (1965)

With this musical venture, director Richard Lester gifts viewers a sparkly produced travelogue, a punchy storyline and a commendable lead performance from Ringo Starr. The drummer gets to lead the picture, much to the expense of his fellow Beatles, who are only permitted to give off one-liners and zingers. But it’s worth it just to see Starr fighting for his life, whether it’s being hosted by a collection of disparate baddies, or playing bull tamer to a hungry lion looking to tear the musician limb from limb.

Starr showed the greatest flair for acting, although surprisingly Lester considered George Harrison the most natural of the four onscreen, and directed John Lennon in the underwhelming How I Won The War. But what about Paul McCartney, reporters asked? “Paul tried too hard,” was Lester’s delicate response, although that didn’t stop McCartney from producing Give My Regards to Broadstreet. If only it had.

The Magic Christian (1969)

Peter Sellers recognised the talent behind the drummer and invited him to work on The Magic Christian as his adopted son. Strangely, the part was actually pencilled with John Lennon in mind, but there’s no denying that Starr plays the part well, his deadpan Northern accent punching many of the weaker gags up. The soundtrack incidentally featured a Paul McCartney composition ‘Come and Get It’, although it was performed by Welsh band Badfinger, who had signed on to Apple Records. Elsewhere, Monty Python’s John Cleese pops up for an irreverent cameo.

Sellers adored the percussionist and for his part, Starr remembered The Pink Panther star with nothing but great fondness. “Peter was great to work with,” Starr told Uncut. “We went out and had some really fun dinners. In his own way, he was very humorous. We became friends.” Sellers visited The Beatles during the Get Back sessions, and director Peter Jackson included Sellers’ visit in the 2021 documentary series.

200 Motels (1971)

Now, this one is interesting. Starr plays a rock star in a film littered with rockstars, but there’s no escaping the fact that this is a Frank Zappa film in every sense of the word. The drummer portrays Zappa, largely because the subversive guitar player was too busy directing to star in the feature, but Starr does a good job emulating Zappa’s mannerisms and facial tics. There’s definitely a physical resemblance between the two, and Starr was always better served by a beard, which didn’t necessarily suit The Beatles during the early 1960s. That, and he looks natty with the long, tousled hair.

The finished film is a batty musical drama, bolstered by the Mothers of Invention’s fiery performances, culminating in a work that makes little to no logical sense, but plunges along with the urgency and speed of a rock star divulging in the narcotics and arsenal of the 1970s. It’s all much better than it reads, and for a film that throws each of the stars into a series of uncomfortable set pieces, Starr acquits quite nicely to the mania.

That’ll Be The Day (1973)

That’ll Be The Day is the best film to feature on the list, no tremendous bar, but That’ll Be The Day more than holds up with the best of British cinema from the decade. Much of the power stems from the script, which shows the transformative effects rock held on the country in the 1950s. Ringo Starr plays Mike, a shrill, slick-looking teddy boy who knows the best way to chat up women. Starr’s performance adds to the authenticity, and the film features a great selection of rock stars masquerading as actors.

Indeed, the film is more about truth than technique, and the musicians acquit themselves to the roles with great interest, investing many of their memories to the big screen. Fans flocked to see the film, and it spawned a sequel, although Starr declined the opportunity to reprise the role of Mike. The Stardust script made him feel uncomfortable, not least because it centred around a musician being unceremoniously kicked out of a band for a musician of more questionable quality. Art imitating life?

Lisztomania (1975)

Ken Russell was renowned for his desire to push audience expectations, but this film is a whole other level of crazy. Casting Roger Daltrey in the titular role, Russell punched up the cast to include a series of batty cameos. Ringo Starr appears as the Pope, which is ironic, considering he was the only out and out Protestant in The Beatles ranks. But he plays the role nicely, bringing elegance to the role in a film that shows very little of it.

The feature is unsure whether it admires or loathes the 19th-century composer, and unlike the more impactful Amadeus, the film uses very little of Franz Liszt’s work in the soundtrack. Yes keyboardist Rick Wakeman worked on the soundtrack, and he even has a cameo in the finished film. It’s an immensely watchable film, many for the right reasons as well the pleasurably wrong ones.

Sextette (1978)

When Timothy Dalton appeared on Terry Wogan’s show in 1989 to promote Licence to Kill, he was horrified to find that the Irish presenter was familiar with Sextette. “It wasn’t a great movie,” Wogan said. “It’s more of a museum piece than a movie,” Dalton replied, clearly embarrassed by his association with the work. He shouldn’t have been because it’s a cute homage to Mae West’s career as one of the titans of Hollywood.

The film centres on West, as she catches up with her many ex-husbands before settling down with her current one (played with debonair poise by Dalton.) Starr plays Laslo Karolny, a boisterous, braggadocious film director, clearly more interested in the scantily dressed actresses than the script he has at hand. Unlike Dalton, Starr’s having an absolute blast, although the film does betray some hints of the fearful acholic addiction he would pick up in the 1980s. Thankfully, he recognised his misgivings by 1989, and Starr has been sober ever since.