Freda Kelly grew up in Liverpool in the years after World War II. Her mother died when she was very young. An only child, she lived with her rather strict father. At 15, Freda — she has such an open, amiable manner it’s hard not to be on a first-name basis — dropped out of school and went to work in a typing pool. On her lunch hour, she’d go to a nearby club called the Cavern to hear local bands. She became a particular fan of one of them. How big a fan? When they released a single, she bought it even though she didn’t own a record player.
The single was “Love Me Do,” and the band was the Beatles. This was so early in their career that Pete Best was still the drummer. Brian Epstein was already their manager, though, and he knew that he needed someone to run the nascent Official Beatles Fan Club. Freda, just 17, got the job. She was an inspired choice. “A lot of people didn’t take these girls seriously,” she recalls in “Good Ol’ Freda,” Ryan White’s documentary about her, “but I did, because I was one of them.”
It was a sign of Freda’s inexperience that she gave out her home address as the club’s mailing address. Her father was not pleased when his utility bills would get lost amid the piles — no, make that piles — of mail that started arriving every day.
Freda’s official title was “national secretary,” but it could just as well have been “unofficial Fab Four kid sister.” Or even better was the one a newspaper headline bestowed: “the girl with the most coveted secretarial job in the world.”
Much of the charm of this highly charming film is the window it affords on the offstage Beatles and their families. George and Paul, the only two Beatles with cars in the early days, would give Freda rides home. George’s father tried to teach her ballroom dancing. “I just really didn’t want to learn,” she says with an embarrassed smile. After Ringo joined the band, his mother all but adopted Freda, adding her to the guest list for exclusive events as a family member. It’s a mark of Freda’s insider status that she refers to Ringo (né Richard Starkey) as “Richie,” the way Magic Johnson’s really close friends call him “Earvin” or Tip O’Neill’s called him “Tom.”
And then there was the time John tried to fire her. Freda was dating one of the Moody Blues, who were sharing a bill with the Beatles. When she got to the Beatles’ dressing room a little late, having tarried in the Moodys dressing room, a ticked-off John told her she was through. Freda asked the other three if they agreed. No way, they said. All right, then, she’d work for them and John was on his own. Oh well, he said, he’d just been kidding (John may have been cranky, but no one ever called him stupid). Freda said he had to get down on two knees to ask her back. They compromised on one knee, and Freda stayed. She lasted longer with the Beatles than they did with each other. The fan club shut down in 1972, and it was her decision, two years after the Beatles broke up.
“Good Ol’ Freda” is a mite overlong. We learn more about her present (she still works as a secretary) than might be necessary. It’s Freda’s past — and past associates — that viewers are most interested in. White has skillfully combined vintage photos (in one of them, John can be seen wearing a bow tie!) with period music (from both the Beatles and others), archival footage, and interviews with Freda and some contemporaries. Among the latter is Paul’s stepmother, who describes Freda back then as “vivacious and fun and just a snip of teenager.” Snip out the “snip” bit, and she could be describing “Good Ol’ Freda.”