A further instalment in my still-incomplete ABC of the most controversial Beatle.
Has Paul McCartney ever watched the many fictional portrayals of himself? It can’t be good for a person to have had so many actors have so many stabs at you, especially when for such a long time the stabs were potentially wounding.
In the Beatles cartoon series, ‘Paul’ was played by Lance Percival, who was probably perfectly able to do a semi-convincing Liverpool accent but who, for whatever reason, didn’t. The show manual described Paul as getting very excited whenever John was talking, thereby setting a certain tone in McCartney iconography.
Geoffrey Hughes did the voice of Paul in Yellow Submarine. He would later achieve a certain level of TV fame as the slobby Onslow in the insufferable BBC sitcom Keeping Up Appearances, the point of which appeared to be that poor people are funny. But here as elsewhere, the Yellow Submarine team achieved an unexpected degree of wit and insight. When the Beatles are first introduced, Ringo is sloping around the streets of Liverpool by himself; John appears as a Frankenstein monster who transforms into himself by drinking a potion–perhaps an allusion to the generally benign effects of Lennon’s legendary LSD intake on his personal relationships; George is first seen on top of a pyramid, meditating; and Paul walks into the film by coming offstage from an unseen concert where the crowd is going wild. He coolly adjusts his tie and asks ‘What’s the matter, fellas?’ to no-one in particular. This is McCartney the Star, affectionately parodied in Mark Shipper’s Paperback Writer; later in the film, the Beatles essentially become a hive mind and all trace of individuality is lost.
In Richard Marquand’s silly TV movie Birth of the Beatles, McCartney is played by Rod Culbertson mostly as an eager and mindless stooge of Lennon’s. This is only interrupted when McCartney gets increasingly annoyed by Stu Sutcliffe’s inept bass playing. Birth of the Beatles is essentially King Lennon and his Beatles of the Round Table, with Brian Epstein as a sweaty, nervous, painfully sincere Merlin; at one point, Eppy says to John ‘No single one of you is the Beatles. Each one of you is a part. Paul is the heart of the group. George its soul. You’re the mind.’ ‘And Ringo?’ John replies. ‘He’s the flesh and blood,’ says Gandalf. I mean, Brian Epstein. ‘If any one of you stops doing his part, the rest will die.’ Then he utters the Charm of Making, and the Beatles conquer America.
It would take a whole essay to point up the many dodgy things about Birth of the Beatles. In a scene when a disconsolate Epstein arrives at a a rehearsal room to inform the newly besuited band that they’ve been turned down by yet another record company. Lennon (Stephen McKenna, ladling on the sarcasm throughout, you sense because he doesn’t have a lot of other arrows in his quiver) barks ‘You put this in these bloody monkey suits, messed about with our style, and it hasn’t worked, has it?’ The one thing that Epstein didn’t succeed in doing was tell the Beatles what to play; it was the contrast between the immaculate appearance that he crafted, and the wild abandon of the sound they made, that made them so memorable to their earliest audiences. Later on, when Lennon visits Epstein’s office and discovers that their new manager has been beaten up by some rough trade, Saint John delivers a sincere little homily about how ‘Any loving between two people’s all right’, which was rather more 1979 than 1962. The other noticeable thing is a serious case of Seventies Movie Hair; everyone’s hair is much too long, with the 1962 Beatles having hair that belonged to the 1965 Beatles.
Finally, the movie suffers from being based largely on the memoirs of Pete Best. Ryan Michael, who plays Best, is by a large margin the best-looking actor in the film. When Epstein is made by the rest of the band to tell Pete that he’s been fired, and Pete asks why, Epstein tells him ‘They think Ringo is a better drummer.’ ‘That ain’t true!’ Pete protests, in the most excited he’s got throughout the film. ‘I know it! You know it! Even Ringo knows it! All of Liverpool knows it!’ Alas, the recorded evidence shows that Ringo was a much better drummer than Pete Best. On the evidence of his miming in this film, Ryan Michael was a better drummer than Pete Best. The film fucks up the chronology too, placing Best’s firing before the band’s first Parlophone session instead of afterwards. (As any Beatle nerd knows, it was George Martin’s dislike of Pete Best’s drumming that provoked the band into finally doing what they’d wanted for years, namely fire Pete.)
However — and we’ll get back to the Paul McCartney stuff in a second — Birth of the Beatles film does have one fabulous moment, when Ringo first appears in the Cavern as the band’s new drummer (about 1:24 into the film); the crowd hates him and starts a rhythmic chant and clap of ‘Off! Off! Off!’ Lennon instructs Ringo (Ray Ashcroft) to ‘Take ’em home, Ringo!’ (or ‘Take a roll, Ringo!’ — it’s not clear.) Ringo starts to hit a drum in between each chant of ‘Off!’, so that he and the crowd fall into a call-and-response, and then he begins to speed up, forcing the crowd to speed up their chanting and clapping, and then he speeds up so fast that his strokes turn into a ferocious, prolonged single-stroke roll, at which point the crowd dissolves into ecstatic cheering. It’s great. But it never happened.
I’ve seen John and Yoko: A Love Story several years ago, but can’t remember anything about it apart what I perhaps over-fondly remember as a rather effective performance from Mark McGann as Lennon. Kenneth Price as McCartney completely escapes my memory.
In Iain Softley’s Backbeat, McCartney was played with jittery energy by Gary Bakewell. Bakewell at least looked like McCartney, could act, and could also play bass guitar left-handed, a fact which subsequently attracted the attention of the producers of The Linda McCartney Story, who cast him as the titular character’s spouse, thus making Bakewell one of the very few actors to have played the same real person twice in two entirely different movies. To make matters weirder, the most notable other actor to have done so is Ian Hart, who played Lennon in Backbeat and also in The Hours and Times a few years later, making the Beatles undoubtedly the only band two of whose members have been portrayed by the same actors twice each in three different movies. Bakewell’s McCartney is notably more snarky and independent than previous McCartneys, and he doesn’t hesitate to confront Lennon about Sutcliffe’s inadequacies.
Since Backbeat is a film about the friendship of Lennon and Sutcliffe, this makes McCartney one of the principal antagonists. But it also has one of the best soundtracks of any Beatle movie not made by the Beatles themselves, with rock’n’roll covers performed by a dream team of musicians from the early 90s US alternative scene.
It wasn’t until the 21st century that portrayals of McCartney really began to dig beneath the myth. In Two of Us, a film about the mid-1970s meetings of Lennon and McCartney in New York, McCartney is played with beguiling charm and remarkable sensitivity by Aidan Quinn, who manages to convey a strong sense of McCartney-ness while neither looking nor sounding like him. It helps that he’s up against Jared Harris, who if anything looks even less like John Lennon. But then Harris has the instantly imitable cawing Lennon voice to rely on, whereas Quinn manages to convey Maccahood simply by softening his voice a bit and deferring to Lennon as the senior partner.
In Nowhere Boy, Sam Taylor-Wood’s study of the teenage Lennon, McCartney is Thomas Brodie Sangster; a scrawny, quiffed, intimidatingly serious, Teddy-Boy-jacketed music nerd. Nowhere Boy was not very well-received on its release, mainly because the central character didn’t seem much like John Lennon, but the reviewers missed the point; it was a film about how an unfocused and resentful teenager transformed himself into John Lennon. Aaron Johnson’s performance is very interesting. His Lennon is not the cool, dry, deadpan snarker that we’ve seen in nearly every other Beatles film ever. He’s unformed and embryonic; he mostly comes across as an insecure, gauche, tactless, talentless twit, in desperate need of something to pull his life together. He finds it in music, but it’s not until Brodie Sangster walks his cautious way into the movie that Lennon finally comes up against someone who is as serious about music as he is.
Nowhere Boy is the only movie to have dared to portray the primal scene in Beatles mythology, the Meeting of John and Paul. Taylor-Wood plays it very cool indeed. The Quarry Men are doing their shambling thing on the back of a truck when a skinny, round-faced kid in a white jacket is seen in the crowd. He’s with a friend. The friend is smiling, obviously enjoying it. The skinny kid looks at his friend with a certain amount of disbelief. He then looks back at the band, thoughtful, and his brow wrinkles. They’re all right, he seems to be thinking, but they could be a fuck of a lot better.
After the ‘gig’, the Quarry Men are knocking back some ales in the church hall and the friend introduces McCartney: ‘Paul plays too.’ Johnson’s Lennon, playing to his mates, replies, ‘What, with himself?’ and then introduces himself and offers McCartney a beer. McCartney asks for tea, but there isn’t any. He thinks the band is ‘all right’. Lennon decides that if Ivan likes Paul, Paul’s all right. ‘How all right are you on one of those?’ Lennon asks, indicating McCartney’s guitar. ‘I’m all right,’ he says, putting it on. McCartney does a fluent version of ‘Twenty Flight Rock’. Lennon dismisses him as being too young, but in the next scene McCartney has become Musical Adviser, teaching Lennon new chords.
Later, there are two lovely scenes between Johnson and Sangster; one in which Lennon and McCartney, practising in Lennon’s Aunt Mimi’s front porch, because it sounds better there, talk about what they’re into music for. McCartney asks Lennon why he likes ‘smashin’s stuff up and actin’ like a dick’ and admits that he’s in it for the music. Lennon is taken aback to learn that McCartney’s mother is dead. Later still comes a scene after Lennon’s own mother Julia has been killed. McCartney is attending the wake when, being the nerd he is, he picks up Julia’s banjo and starts trying to figure out how it’s played.
John becomes enraged and grabs the banjo off him, and when his friend Pete Shotton tries to intervene, John headbutts him and storms out of the house. Paul runs after him, and dares John to hit him. John punches him in the face. As Paul lies in the street, astonished, John finally realises what a colossal dick he’s been being for most of the film and apologises to Paul, helping him up; the boys embrace and weep, finally finding the common ground they’ve been denying; the loss of their mothers.
It’s this scene that forms the heart of Nowhere Boy, making it the darkest and best Beatles film yet, precisely because nobody in it is attempting to impersonate the Beatles. It’s a film about a bunch of kids, specifically one kid and his relationship with his mum, but also reflecting the way in which even a band as monumental and iconic as the Beatles were once just a bunch of fuckwits knocking around Liverpool.
Whether or not it’s true to what happened is, in a way, neither here nor there. It further reinforces the ways in which the Beatles, like any other music you love, are a way you have of making sense of the world.