Belying its fun and frivolous cover, Steve Matteo’s new book Act Naturally: The Beatles on Film is a serious consideration of every short film and full-length motion picture in which John, Paul, George, and Ringo starred. Matteo places the films (and their filmmakers) within the framework of what he refers to as “the British film new wave” of the 1960s. By introducing readers to late Fifties and early Sixties contemporary landmark productions such as Don’t Look Back in Anger, Matteo meticulously traces the rise of the important British films of the entire decade.
Simultaneously, Matteo studies the evolution of the music-based “teen films” of the early 1960s, including Beat Girl, Love Me Tender starring Elvis Presley, and Beach Party starring Frankie Avalon and Annette Funicello. Matteo does this to remind us that “the British teen film with a rock music backdrop was still relatively new in 1962.” (p. 18) He reinforces the fact that The Beatles were working in a short-lived genre, one whose box office popularity came as quite a surprise to critics…and often, to filmmakers and stars as well.
Matteo tells us that The British film industry’s ascension to importance in the Sixties – with remarkable films such as This Sporting Life, Billy Liar, and Tom Jones – raised eyebrows worldwide. Accustomed to holding sway over the movie industry, Americans were rather rattled and swiftly “waking up” to the new British cinema.
Enter The Beatles. Most analyses of The Beatles’ films commence with A Hard Day’s Night, but Matteo begins at the beginning, discussing the November 1963 Pathé News film The Beatles Come To Town and the February 1964 CBS film of the lads performing in the Washington D.C. Coliseum. Matteo points out that it was surprisingly early – October 1963 – that Brian Epstein was finalizing negotiations with United Artists for The Beatles to star in three full-length motion picture films. Matteo observes, “It’s hard to imagine that at such an early stage in their recording career, the group was on the verge of signing a three-picture deal with an important international film company like UA. Other than ‘My Bonnie’…The Beatles had only released four singles, two EPs, and one album in England up to that point.” A coup, indeed!
In studying each of the films that The Beatles eventually made with United Artists, Matteo is extremely thorough. Of course, he discusses the careers and talents of producer Walter Shenson, director Dick Lester, and playwright Alun Owen. But he also delves into the resumes of cinematographer Gilbert Taylor (who had previously worked with Stanley Kubrick on Dr. Strangelove) and editor John Jympson (who had worked on Michael Caine’s breakthrough film Zulu and Tommy Steele’s music film It’s All Happening). Matteo fully acquaints the reader with assistant director John Merriman and camera operators Derek Browne and Paul Wilson. Digging deep to reveal A Hard Day’s Night’s wealth of creativity and experience, Matteo demonstrates the myriad reasons that the film was so incredibly unique and successful.
Because Matteo’s knowledge of The Beatles is remarkably vast, he also includes in each chapter a wealth of information not strictly related to The Beatles’ films…details that almost certainly, however, influenced the way the boys performed. For example, he offers a detailed account of each Beatles’ residence and home life in the interim between A Hard Day’s Night and Help!. He shares the January 1965 vignette of The Beatles’ reluctance to record (and failure to show up for) the German iterations of “She Loves You” and “I Want to Hold Your Hand” in Odeon Records, Paris. And for each film considered in his book, Matteo also provides a comprehensive examination of the soundtrack studio sessions. (For example, when discussing the A Hard Days’ Night soundtrack, Matteo goes into detail about EMI’s REDD.51 mixing desk and the subtle differences in tape recorders employed during those sessions.)
Suffice it to say, Act Naturally: The Beatles on Film is no “fluff study” of Beatles’ films. Matteo’s goal is to place the jewel that is each Beatle’s picture within the platinum setting of its time and place in history. When Magical Mystery Tour is examined as part and parcel of the exceptional richness in literature, art, music, and filmmaking of the psychedelic era, MMT emerges not as the throw-away that many critics (and even fans) have deemed it. Matteo extols the lush creativity of the “psychedelic period [that] began with Help! and ended with Yellow Submarine,” and in doing so recognizes both Magical Mystery Tour and Yellow Submarine as works of art, reflecting the diversity and richness of that late Sixties bohemian era.
The very good news for Beatles Fans is that Matteo’s work does not end with the last note of Yellow Submarine or with bootlegs of Let it Be. His study extends to The Beatles’ solo film creations (for example, Ringo’s role in The Magic Christian) and to magnificent Beatles-related films, including Ryan White’s exemplary work on the story of Freda Kelly’s role as The Beatles’ Fan Club Secretary in Good Ol’ Freda. Act Naturally: The Beatles on Film is so exhaustive and current that it also provides a blow-by-blow history of Peter Jackson’s Get Back project, aired on Disney+ in late November 2021.
Bottom line: Act Naturally: The Beatles on Film is a highly researched historical account of the many short and full-length pictures that featured John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison, and Ringo Starr. As the stars of these cinematographic creations, every aspect of the four remarkable young men from Liverpool is taken into account: their personal lives and their significant roles as influencers, authors (when pertinent), composers and performers, artists and artistes, fashion icons, philosophers of an age, and friends of other highly creative and influential people.
Matteo’s work is a “must-read” for serious Beatles fans, researchers, and experts. But it can also be enjoyed by the novice as well. For those longing to be transported back to the Sixties in all its full-blown glory, this is your billet, and it’s a front-row seat!
-Jude Southerland Kessler
Photo: The Beatles watching Yellow Submarine (Getty)