The Beatles knocked the music scene on its ear almost a half century ago. Their songs filled Top 40 radio charts, and their singles and albums sold like vinyl hotcakes, then continued to sell briskly in every emerging format. Feature films with and about the Liverpudlian lads made them bigger than life, and tribute bands, from the Bootleg Beatles to the Fab Faux, kept their sound alive onstage long after the group disbanded. They were even brilliantly lampooned on TV by the Rutles in the 1978 mockumentary “All You Need Is Cash.”
For the past three years, composer-producer-educator Scott Freiman has been putting his own spin on all of this history with a series of multimedia shows called “Deconstructing the Beatles.” He’s bringing his 90-minute lecture “A Trip Through Strawberry Fields” to the Coolidge Corner Theatre on Monday.
Speaking by telephone from his home in Irvington, N.Y., Freiman, 49, who has his own music studio and plays keyboards in the all-purpose cover band the Frisky Chestnut, said, “This lecture concentrates on three songs. The bulk of the presentation is taken up just by ‘Strawberry Fields Forever,’ tracing it from John Lennon’s original demo through its various incarnations in the studio. I also talk about ‘Penny Lane’ and ‘A Day in the Life.’ ”
A Trip Through Strawberry Fields
But “A Trip Through Strawberry Fields” isn’t simply a lecture. It also includes a lot of sight and sound. Freiman plays multiple versions of the songs, sometimes manipulated to highlight certain parts, and he enhances them with an array of images that make use of a large-screen venue such as the Coolidge.
“I have a lot of photos,” said Freiman, “and I’ll show some footage of the Beatles and what they did in the studio. I’ll also be showing the promotional videos they did for ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’ and ‘Penny Lane.’ ”
The mention of those short films, which predate the onslaught of rock videos on MTV by a decade and a half, led Freiman to reveal his love and fascination for and, in one case, discomfort over, feature films starring the Beatles.
“ ‘A Hard Day’s Night’ is absolutely critical to the genesis of music videos,” he said. “I think it changed rock ’n’ roll cinema, and it’s a joy to watch. ‘Help!’ is kind of fun, but it’s silly. ‘Yellow Submarine,’ which really wasn’t a Beatles project, per se, but took their music and created something from it without a lot of the Beatles involvement, broke all kinds of ground for animation.”
All he would say about “Magical Mystery Tour” is that it was “a bad idea, but some great music came out of it.” Then he added, “But Steven Spielberg has claimed that ‘Magical Mystery Tour’ was very influential to him.”
Freiman was less kind to the documentary “Let It Be,” as he found it “painful” to sit through.
“You’re watching a band working in the studio, but they’re clearly people who don’t really want to be there,” he observed. “I don’t think it was one of the Beatles’ high points. But the concert on the roof was very cool. It was a nice climax to the film, and you can see that there they were having some fun.”
All of those films live on on DVD, with the exception of “Let It Be,” which played briefly in theaters in 1970, won an Oscar and a Grammy for its soundtrack, and had a limited life on videocassette in the 1980s. Segments of it can be found on YouTube and there are plans for an official DVD release in 2013.
For anyone looking to revisit the Beatles’ movie legacy, here is a guide.
A HARD DAY’S NIGHT (1964)
Part romp, part farce, part lip-synced performances, this black-and-white gem follows John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison, and Ringo Starr from concert stage to train to concert stage to helicopter on one of their typically hectic tours of England. Asked only to play scripted versions of themselves, they are absolute naturals on camera, displaying their own camaraderie, playing nicely off of established actors Victor Spinetti (a frazzled TV director) and Wilfrid Brambell (Paul’s mischievous grandfather), cracking wise to members of the press, effortlessly pulling off both subtle and slapstick sight gags and plays on words, all while constantly on the run from screaming fans. Looking back now, it’s an obvious precursor to the TV show “The Monkees.”
Favorite moment: George says to Ringo, “You’ve got an inferiority complex.” Ringo replies, “I know. That’s why I play the drums. It’s my active compensatory factor.”
There aren’t many good human-sacrifice comedies, and this surely isn’t one of them. Ringo gets a big ring from “some bird in a fan letter,” puts it on, and can’t get it off. Turns out it’s the ring that must be worn for ritual sacrifices in some unnamed Eastern nation, and now there are men with big knives hunting for Ringo. It’s a silly movie that tries too hard to be madcap, and has too many gags that fall flat. But the songwriting has matured, and the Beatles (all of whom have admitted to being very stoned during filming) are comically candid and self-deprecatory about their success. Much of the dialogue moves along quickly, but so do the locales, with the film jumping, simply for the sake of scenery changes, from London to the Austrian Alps to the Bahamas.
Favorite moment: A stylized performance of “You’re Gonna Lose That Girl” in a smoke-filled recording studio, with Ringo on bongos.
MAGICAL MYSTERY TOUR (1967)
This grainy looking, utterly nonsensical, plotless exercise in psychedelia was originally made for British TV. There’s no director credit, but the cinematography, for what it’s worth, is by one Richard Starkey (a.k.a. Ringo). Alas, the result is something that might come out of a Moviemaking 101 class . . . for 7-year olds. The Beatles play just normal British folks who, along with a load of other folks, climb aboard a bus that sets out to find “magic.” They also appear as four magicians “living above the clouds.” But all of this is merely filler for goofy videos of some less-than-inspirational Lennon-McCartney numbers, as well as Harrison’s near-unlistenable “Blue Jay Way.” But there’s at least one good song in a nightclub scene: The Bonzo Dog Doo Dah Band does “Death Cab for Cutie.”
Favorite moment: A dream sequence in a restaurant, where Lennon, his hair slicked back and wearing a big smile, shovels loads of spaghetti onto a diner’s plate.
YELLOW SUBMARINE (1968)
Hmmm, can we actually call this feature-length cartoon a Beatles film? It does have their music, sung by them, and there are four characters named John, Paul, George, and Ringo. But they’re voiced by relatively unknown Brit actors. The Beatles appear onscreen only at the end, for about a minute, during a segment of the song “All Together Now.” The fairy tale-like story is an offshoot of the album “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band,” and is set in happy Pepperland, which is about to be taken over by the vicious, music-hating Blue Meanies. Co-written by Erich Segal (“Love Story”), the script, along with the simple, surrealistic animation, is a pleasant piece of fluff that works better for young kids than the supposedly acid-dropping fans it was aimed at. A remake by Robert Zemeckis is expected to be released in 2014.
Favorite moment: The brief, wordless revelation that there are also blue, red, and green submarines.
LET IT BE (1970)
It’s been suggested that this is a sad documentary about the Beatles’ breakup. That’s not the case. There are definitely testy moments, as when (self-proclaimed leader) Paul gets into a quiet tiff with (just the guitar player) George. But this is a fascinating film about how the four Beatles worked together in the studio, creating, shaping, and perfecting songs. Some of their time there is a repetitve slog owing to Paul’s demands. There’s also the specter of Yoko Ono always hovering around John and appearing to make the others uncomfortable. But the film concludes with the iconic – and Yoko-free – rooftop concert, at which the Beatles once again become a tight outfit, singing and playing both new and very old songs (“One After 909”) with powerful, effortless musicality. And they’re obviously having fun.
Favorite moment: On the roof, a guy is on his knees, holding up the just-written words of “I Dig a Pony” for Lennon, in case he forgot them.
Ed Symkus can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.