The Beatles solo cinema projects. Some not-so-fab films (part 1)

22nd August 2022

Before The Beatles broke up in 1970, each member had released at least one solo record or appeared in a non-Beatles film.

These solo outings are a ‘must-see’ for Beatles fans, although none of them match the artistic excellent of The Beatles music, or come anywhere close. Most are now curio pieces, examples of the late 60s zeitgeist, and are of little cinematic merit despite amazing casts and writers.

I hadn’t previously seen any of the following five films. Unfortunately it proved to be a rather disappointing experience.

Anyway, in true Beatles style, “One, two, three, four …”

Let’s start in the Autumn of 1966. The ‘Revolver’ LP had been released in August. John Lennon was offered a part in an anti-war black comedy so left the UK to film in Germany and Spain. Meanwhile, Paul McCartney was approached to write a score for a domestic comedy-drama called ‘The Family Way.’

The film was released on 18th December 1966 (June 1967 in the US), while the soundtrack LP was issued in the new year, on 6th January 1967. First, the film review.

‘The Family Way’ is by far my favourite of the five.

The Boulting Brothers, producer and director, were significant names in 50s British cinema, making some classic films on a limited, post-war budget (films such as ‘I’m All Right, Jack’, ‘Brighton Rock’ & ‘Lucky Jim’ among others). The script was by Bill Naughton, who had written the iconic 60s play ‘Alfie’.

British viewers (of a certain age) will recognise many familiar faces from film and TV, especially the male lead, Hywel Bennett (later to play the eponymous Percy in 1971, music written by Ray Davies of The Kinks).

Hayley Mills & Hywel Bennett

The title is somewhat misleading, as the phrase is a British euphemism for being pregnant, usually out of wedlock (a social stigma at this time). In fact, the lack of a family is the main point of the film.

Set in the Manchester region of north-west England, the film following the wedding of Jenny and Arthur, Jenny from a middle-class background, Arthur’s father a life-long employee at the local gas works. Arthur enjoys classical music and literature, at odds with his uneducated father. There are tensions at the wedding between father and son, but the real problem occurs on the wedding night; Arthur is unable to consummate the marriage, and the couple to sleep separately throughout most of the film.

Finally Arthur overcomes his issues, and the couple go on a belated honeymoon, and will move into their own home when they return. It is also heavily implied that another man was Arthur’s biological father, although he now seems to fully accept and love his dad.

Of the five films under discussion, this is the only one I would be happy to watch again. Additionally, it is also one with the least contribution from a Beatle.

Paul McCartney wrote some pieces which his producer, the legendary George Martin, scored and wrote variations for orchestra. According to online sources, Martin had to force McCartney to finish the work, staying at McCartney’s house one night until Paul had produced some music. [1]

Paul McCartney at the film’s premiere

As for the music, I feel it’s pretty uninspiring and inconsequential. The LP clocks in at under 27 minutes, and I doubt if many Beatles fans who actually own it, play it often.

However, it may hold a very important key. Because of the northern setting, McCartney thought a brass band would be a good idea, and it has been suggested that this led to the idea of ‘Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.’ Of course, that LP is another story altogether …

‘Sgt Pepper’s’ epitomises the ‘Summer of Love’ in 1967. Meanwhile, the US forces were increasing in Vietnam, fighting was escalating.

At this point, John Lennon made his solo screen outing as Private Gripweed in ‘How I Won The War,’ released on 18th October 1967

The film centres on a lower middle-class man who becomes an officer (Michael Crawford), and how out of touch officers were with the men under their command. The humour, often black, is very hit-and-miss, not to say outdated. Occasionally the jokes don’t work at all.

Lennon, with cropped hair, merely plays a version of himself, and is competent and enjoyable to watch although the film does drag. The plot is basically a group of soldiers being sent into the desert to prepare a grassy area suitable for a game of cricket.

The film received moderate reviews which was disappointing as the director was Richard Lester, who had made ‘A Hard Day’s Night,’ the first Beatles film, which was so fresh and exciting.

Another interesting incident is that Lennon stayed in a villa in Spain during the shoot, a villa that reminded him of a certain building in Liverpool, a Salvation Army garden called Strawberry Fields.

One of the co-stars, Jack MacGowran, would be the lead actor in ‘Wonderwall’ (1968) for which George Harrison composed the music.

Harrison’s soundtrack was released on 1st November 1968, while the film wouldn’t get a full UK release until 12th January 1969.

MacGowran plays a stereotypical absent-minded scientist, who lives alone in a drab, brown-toned apartment, piles of dusty papers everywhere. One day, through a crack in the wall, he sees into the next apartment (alluded to in the LP cover). His neighbour is a beautiful young girl (Jane Birkin) who practises free love, her living space open and multicoloured. The scientist envies her life, and boyfriend, until he witnesses the other side of the permissive society; the irresponsibility. The girl gets pregnant, the boyfriend leaves her and she attempts suicide. The scientist sees this and calls an ambulance, thus saving her. The film is a condemnation of the hippie lifestyle, the squares save the day, depth and character over superficial image.

Jane Birkin
Jack MacGowran

Musically, the LP has its admirers, featuring Harrison’s fascination with the sitar. This works well with the film and places the film firmly in the late 60s. The music is quite listenable, without the images, mixing eastern and western influences, and did receive some praise from contemporary reviewers.

Ringo, meanwhile, made two films in the late 60s, both based on books by Terry Southern, ‘Candy’ and ‘The Magic Christian.’ The much-loved drummer worked with such screen legends as Richard Burton, Peter Sellers and Marlon Brando … but I will save that for another blog.

Goodbye from Ringo

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[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Family_Way_(soundtrack)