For years Federico Fellini had his eyes set on Petronius’s work Satyricon, constantly toying with the idea of adapting the Latin work of fiction into a feature film but struggled to decipher the direction he would take the tale and, instead, focused his attentions on other projects.
As time passed, Fellini enjoyed major international success with his now-iconic pictures such as La Dolce Vita, 8½, and Juliet of the Spirits and his view began to change. A trip to New York City in the early 1960s proved a pivotal moment for the filmmaker who, at that time, became transfixed by the hippie culture that raged through the streets. As author Manoah Bowman once wrote, Fellini was “intrigued, even seduced, by youth culture: the clothes, hair, the adornment in colours, the moral antiwar stance in tandem with free love.”
With a slightly altered view on life, Fellini returned to Italy from his trip to the States and was officially approached to create the adaptation of the first-century tales of Rome by Petronius. The story of Satyricon, written during the reign of Emperor Nero, became the focus of Fellini, a work that is narrated by its central figure, Encolpius, a “retired, famous gladiator of the area.” The original work tackles serious and comic elements and flirts with erotic themes of a homoerotic nature in a satirical tone.
Fellini, taking on the project, had lofty ambitions. While Petronius’ original text only survives in fragments, Fellini had found great pleasure in personally filling in the missing parts with his imagination. While recovering from a serious illness in 1967, the director had decided on his surreal, dreamlike inspiration and set about outlining his mysterious, debauched plans for the film. In a later interview with Comments on Film, Fellini would explain that his idea for adapting the original tale was to “eliminate the borderline between dream and imagination: to invent everything and then to objectify the fantasy; to get some distance from it in order to explore it as something all of a piece and unknowable.”
What ensued was a feature film divided into nine chapters which, according to the synopsis, set out the ambitions of “scholar Encolpius and his friend Ascyltus as they try to win the heart of the young boy Gitón, whom they both love, within the film’s depiction of a surreal and dreamlike Roman landscape and culture.”
The impact of hippie culture on Fellini’s creative vision was clear for all to see, the erotic nature of the slightly “amoral, ambisexual, pleasure-persuing Romans” had the tongues of all those who had followed his career with interest wagging. With all the success that had predated this film, many critics began to speculate that Satyricon would be more blockbuster than his previous intimate creations, to which he dodged with pleasure: “It is you who say Satyricon is not autobiographical,” the director fired back amid murmurings of discontent. “I think it is more autobiographical that 8½. But that is not anecdotal,” he added.
In typical fashion, Fellini kept the media guessing on the outcome of his film. Having approached a number of Hollywood A-listers to join his cast, with names like Boris Karloff, Mae West, Groucho Marx and Jimmy Durante all passing up the opportunity, Fellini remained undeterred by the setbacks despite United Artists—who were partially funding the film—reportedly insisting that they wanted Satyricon to become a “youth movie”.
With those two words ringing in his ears, Fellini booked a slot on television to promote his film and, remarkably, outlined his request for cast members: “I’d like [Elizabeth] Taylor, [Richard] Burton, [Brigitte] Bardot, [Peter] O’Toole, Jerry Lewis, [Marlon] Brando, Lee Marvin, the Beatles, the Maharishi, Lyndon Johnson and de Gaulle, or else no one, not a known face, to increase the sense of foreign-ness,” he said. Without those names coming forward, Fellini reverted back to his original plans and cast relative unknowns for his lead roles.
Whether Fellini ever really had any true intentions of trying to cast the likes of the Beatles nobody really knows, but it does beg the question as to which Beatle would be considered for a specific role. Rumours circulated that the Liverpudlian group, synonymous with the ’60s as they are, were considered as potential options to create the score but that was later denied by Apple Records who had received no contact from Fellini.
The film was met by positive reviews when the casting speculation died down and was handed its premiere at the 30th Venice Film Festival on September 4th, 1969, with Giovanni Grazzini describing it as a “fairytale for adults” among other things.
While The Beatles didn’t end up working with Fellini on the project, it didn’t stop the film having an impact on the band who were obvious admirers of the Italian filmmaker. Years later, when being interviewed about their tour dates, John Lennon hinted at some of the debauched antics that would take place and referenced Fellini’s Satyricon as a comparison. “The Beatles’ tours were like Fellini’s Satyricon,” Lennon said, as quoted by Keith Badman in his book The Beatles: Off the Record.
Lennon added: “I mean, we had that image, but man, our tours were likes something else. If you could get on our tours, you were in. Australia, just everywhere! Just Satyricon. Just think of Satyricon with four musicians going through it.
“Wherever we went, there was always a whole scene going on. We had our four bedrooms separate and Derek and Neil’s rooms were always full of fuck knows what, and policemen and everything. Satyricon!
“We had to do something, and what do you do when the pill doesn’t wear off, when it’s time to go? I used to be up all night with Derek, whether there was anybody there or not. I could never sleep, such a scene it was.”