Certain entertainers’ levels of fame know no boundaries. Such is the case with The Beatles, a band whose musical popularity catapulted them into film stardom, and whose legacy remains strong enough more than 50 years later to pin yet another major motion picture release around. With “Yesterday” as the newest addition to the canon of films paying tribute to and featuring the Fab Four themselves, we’re ranking all the most prominent Beatles films from worst to best, based both on how they represent the band and how they hold up on their own merits.
9 – “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band”
If you ever thought The Beatles couldn’t act, wait till you see the Bee Gees. This whole movie seems elaborately constructed with voiceovers and title cards to conceal their lack of onscreen charisma (seriously, they don’t have a single spoken line), which unfortunately just leaves more runtime for dated ‘70s soft rock covers of the Beatles’ later catalog, with some truly odd choices left in (a synthesized and extended version of “Mean Mr. Mustard”). It feels like the filmmakers lined up the songs and the cameos and hoped that would be enough to sustain a film. It wasn’t, making “Sgt. Pepper’s” feel like a cash grab that’s worse than bad — it’s boring.
8 – “Across the Universe”
The only good thing I can say about this overstuffed jukebox musical is that it makes me appreciate the Beatles’ original tracks that much more. Whereas “Yesterday” mostly lets the songs stand on their own, Across the Universe can’t do enough to dress them up with overproduced vocals, melodramatic montages, and visual flourishes so on the nose it’s a wonder this isn’t a student film. Any semblance of decent story or character development is sacrificed to fit in more subpar covers and stereotypically ‘60s iconography. Maybe it helped some people to discover the Beatles, in which case good for them, but this is not a movie that holds up well on its own merits.
7 – “Magical Mystery Tour”
“Magical Mystery Tour” was a TV movie made by amateur filmmakers without a script, and it feels that way. It works if you know what to except — an experimental oddity made by some musicians and a troupe of oddball friends with free reign, not a fully-realized feature on par with their earlier efforts “Help” and “A Hard Day’s Night.” Whatever you can say about the product as a whole, it’s hard to argue against the psychedelic music videos, or even the wacked out spaghetti shoveling scene based on one of John’s dreams.
6 – “Let It Be”
Where “A Hard Day’s Night” captured the excitement of the Beatles’ early years, “Let It Be” shows unvarnished the bitterness and bad blood that preceded their breakup. A failed project that only saw the light of day in bootleg form, this rather uneventful, mumble-y documentary contains some worthwhile studio footage and juicy but nonetheless painful passive-aggressive confrontations among the band members (“Just tell George how you want him to play it, and he’ll play it, Paul!”). It’s more a curiosity than a must-see.
5 – “The Beatles: Eight Days a Week”
Ron Howard’s recent Beatles doc “Eight Days a Week: The Touring Years” offers a solid primer on the early Fab Four for new fans and a familiar “greatest hits” tour for longtime devotees. There isn’t much new to uncover here except for a supplementary recording of one of the band’s sound-garbled early concerts, but the eclectic celebrity interviews and scenes of the frenzied public controversies surrounding their rise are still fun and fascinating to relive – especially if you don’t have the patience for the whole “Anthology” series.
4 – “Help!”
The music itself is just as good in “Help!” as in “A Hard Day’s Night,” but the connective tissue is less grounded and, by the end, more tiresome. There are good gags and understated one-liners aplenty in this live-action cartoon, but it does feel like a movie pieced together in the editing room, which was probably more fun to make than it is to watch, especially for non-Beatles fanatics. Suffice to say, this was a movie made while The Beatles were very high, and it’s probably best viewed that way as well.
3 – “Yesterday”
“Yesterday” isn’t much of a Beatles film, nor a romantic comedy for that matter, but it does use a few of the Fab Four’s most timeless tracks in service of some appropriate themes and a feel-good pop culture fantasy story. In telling the story of Jack Malik, a singer-songwriter who wakes up in a world where the Beatles never existed and co-opts their catalogue to serve his own career, “Yesterday” takes at least one big Beatles-related swing that will have many fans split over its effectiveness, but it’s still a more engaging viewing experience than some of the Fab Four’s lesser filmed efforts. Though the ham-fisted storytelling neglects to explore the implications of a fascinating premise fully, I was still won over by its sledgehammering satire of commercial greed and idealistic take on the universality of art, fitting for a band whose music seems to belong to the whole world at this point.
2 – “Yellow Submarine”
“Yellow Submarine” invites kids and adults alike for an impeccably realized psychedelic odyssey based in “Sgt. Pepper’s” and “Magical Mystery Tour”-era Beatles songs and imagery. Though only featuring the band members themselves in a mid-credits cameo, director George Dunning infused their sensibilities and winking references to their songs throughout this inimitable animated film about a sailor who recruits the Fab Four’s cartoon selves to save his homeland from an invasion of fuzzy blue fascists. There’s little else like it in terms of visuals and the bold choices of certain sequences, and with Beatles classics as well as new deep cuts like “Hey Bulldog” and “It’s All Too Much” thrown into the mix, it’s an all-time great in both the Beatles’ canon and animated films in general.
1 – “A Hard Day’s Night”
I remember watching “A Hard Day’s Night” as a child, and even though I was too young to decipher either the film’s wry humor or Liverpool accents, it was still a blast. This is the infectious excitement and boyish insurrection of Beatlemania immortalized on film, what was supposed to be a trendy cash-grab turned into a fictionalized time capsule of the world’s most beloved band as they were seen in their early days. The day-in-the-life format serves the wish-fulfillment aspect of hanging out with these loveable lads as well as the infectious songs sprinkled throughout, which in many ways perfected music video editing before the medium even really existed. When it comes to The Beatles on film, it’ll never be outdone.