Music

Fab films: The best documentaries about The Beatles

The essential documentary films and TV series about The Beatles that tell the incredible story of John, Paul, George and Ringo and their musical and cultural legacy 

Ringo Starr, Paul McCartney, John Lennon, and George Harrison playing their famous gig on a London rooftop

Ringo Starr, Paul McCartney, John Lennon, and George Harrison in THE BEATLES: GET BACK. Photo courtesy of Apple Corps Ltd.

The Beatles changed the world. Their story is so compelling – practically inventing a new form of popular music, or at least, adapting rhythm and blues for a new audience. Inventing a new form of pop superstardom as their followers created a new type of fandom. Making their way from Liverpool to Hamburg to global music dominance. And expanding the minds of a generation of pop fans.

So it is little wonder that so many documentaries have been made about John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Ringo Starr’s band.

The way The Beatles evolved musically from the lovestruck young guitar pop of Love Me Do and I Wanna Hold Your Hand to the spiritual, psychedelic explorations of A Day In The Life and Within You Without You in just a few short years, pushing the vanguard of new studio technologies when the band outgrew the limitations of live performance is one of the great stories of the 20th century. All this during a decade in which pop culture exploded and teenage life changed forever.

Trying to capture the many versions of The Beatles, the personalities and creative forces within the group, their incredible evolution and influence, the multitude of meanings in the songs, and the legacy of the band in one documentary film is impossible.  

But which films have come closest? Which films have genuinely shed new light on this most closely examined rock and roll band and brought us closer to the Beatles as individuals?  

As Peter Jackson launches a new series packed with archive treasures from the band’s Let It Be sessions – and, from the clips we’ve seen, problematising and putting to bed the idea that they were by this time a fractious foursome, constantly at loggerheads. Early scenes we have seen show a band – and the central writing duo of McCartney and Lennon – still in thrall to each other’s talent, still pushing forward, still laughing at each other’s jokes, even as the business side of their collaboration was fracturing.

So, in advance of Peter Jackson’s trilogy of feature-length episodes of new interviews and thrilling unseen archive, here are some fab films about the fab four.  

The Beatles Anthology (1995) 

Over eight episodes, this series was proper event television. The Beatles Anthology featured the three then surviving Beatles and, gasp, two new songs – Free As A Bird and Real Love. These were John Lennon demos he was working on at the time of his death, that were finished by his former bandmates. Plans were afoot for a reunion concert and possible new Beatles material before Lennon’s death, making these echoes of what might have been even more poignant. Neil Aspinall, long-time friend of The Beatles , had compiled an enviable stash of archive footage, which was compiled into what was, at the time, the official, definitive Beatles documentary series. And it was fab.   

Eight Days A Week – The Touring Years (2016) 

Ron Howard’s documentary takes us right into the eye of the storm. The Beatles are shown during their most public years – touring the world, speaking to the press, landing at airports full of screaming fans and playing shows at increasingly huge venues with increasingly inadequate PA systems. From the cellars of Liverpool to the massive crowds at Shea Stadium, we see the hysteria, the pressure, the laughs, the inside story of Beatlemania alongside the frustrations with performing live and the ‘bigger than Jesus’ backlash that left the band – and John Lennon in particular – shellshocked. What comes across is the power of their friendship and creativity to help them through these pressures, and their incredible musicianship, against all the odds, when playing before their screaming fans.   

Let It Be (1970) 

This was probably not envisaged as a film showing the break-up of the world’s greatest band. But that is what Michael Lindsay-Hogg’s film became. Less than a decade into their career, they had gone through the seven stages of fame – pioneering a new way for bands to be, bringing their fans with them on a journey from Merseybeat to symphonic, psychedelic pop paeans that was truly unprecedented. 

A fly-on-the-wall film of the greatest band of all time – including taking us behind the scenes on their famous rooftop concert, the last time the four Beatles played live together – Let It Be captured the tensions at the heart of a group that had grown so big, so quickly, that there was almost nowhere left for them to go, no space from them to grow.  

A Hard Day’s Night (1964)

Not strictly speaking a documentary. Not even close. Director Richard Lester’s film was tightly scripted (by Alun Owen) and brilliantly-acted, following days in the lives of new pop sensations The Beatles (and Paul’s very clean grandfather, played by Wilfrid Brambell). And it was entirely fictional. BUT, it is hard to argue against the idea that no documentary could have taken us closer to the reality of Beatlemania, as it was happening, as The Beatles lived it. From tour bus to television studio to mobbed railway station and homes besieged by fans, this film offered fans a ticket to ride with the Beatles – and captures their wit, their talent, and their lives perfectly. 

George Harrison: Living in the Material World (2011)

This Martin Scorsese documentary is a serious piece of work, focusing on the life and music and spirituality of George Harrison and weighing in at a whopping 208 minutes. But this introspective, complex character with a blistering sharp wit, who wrote Here Comes The Sun, If I Needed Someone, Something, While My Guitar Gently Weeps and Within You Without You plus so many solo classics, deserves the extended interrogation. And the star-power of director Scorsese ensures new interviews with friends and collaborators including Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr, Eric Idle and Terry Gilliam, Bob Dylan and so many more – in a film that remembers Harrison as a Beatle, a film producer who backed Life of Brian and Withnail and I, a spiritual adventurer, and one quarter of the greatest band of all time. 

John & Yoko: Above Us Only Sky (2018)

A stunning film shot during the sessions for John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s 1971 album Imagine. Featuring incredible archive footage – of meal times, the writing process, family life as Lennon and his son Julian larked about on the lake, the incredible musicians and collaborators joining Lennon and Ono at their home studio in Tittenhurst Park near Ascot. By giving us a fly-on-the-wall glimpse at the way a work of genius was created, it shows Lennon as musical director – explaining his vision of the songs to his fellow musicians (and gives a glimpse into the slow-slow-fast pace of recording sessions. But it also shows the depth of the collaboration with Yoko Ono – with film of Ono writing lyrics at Lennon’s feet as he sang.  

Get Back (2021) 

Peter Jackson had so much footage, what was planned as a film has become a three part series. And we will lap up every second. The teaser released in 2020 suggests it might just be the best film yet. The footage from inside the studio, originally captured for Let It Be, is so intriguing. It appears that Jackson will foreground the humour, the creative horseplay and the genius of their ongoing musical collaboration in a way that might just rewrite the official history of The Beatles. The love and joy in the music is so clear in these early clips that the truth is shown to be much more complex than the dominant narrative about them falling out.  

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