Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Quick Review: Good Ol' Freda

 At this point, you'd think there would be nothing about The Beatles that fans wouldn't know. Between the biographies, anthologies (musical and televised), fictionalized accounts (Backbeat), and the vast swath of websites devoted to the "Fab Four," all the ground has to have been covered, right? The Cap'n used to pore through books at the local library, soaking up details about the earliest days of the band, the transitional periods, the acrimonious break up, and solo careers, and while I don't pretend to know it all, I've certainly heard a lot of it over the years (and we're talking pre-internet for a lot of that). That considered, it's refreshing when a documentary like Good Ol' Freda pops up in the instant queue - it's a different side of the story of The Beatles, from someone who hasn't spoken about it in more than forty years.

 To put some context at the opening, Good Ol' Freda begins with The Beatles' 1963 Christmas recording, where John, Paul, George, and Ringo give greetings to all of their fans. As they're moving through their "hello's" and Christmas wishes, George mentions their secretary, Freda Kelly, and the boys pipe in with "good ol' Freda!" - voila, we have our title. Kelly was Brian Epstein's secretary and the head of the Beatles fan club from before they were famous until the very end, and Ryan White and Jessica Lawson spend the lion's share of the film letting Freda tell her story of Beatlemania from the inside.

 At 17, Freda Kelly was a typist in a secretarial pool, until one day her friends took her to the Cavern Club in Liverpool. She enjoyed the club so much she went back just about every day, and in 1962, that meant seeing quite a bit of The Beatles (John, Paul, George, and Pete Best at the time). The atmosphere was intimate enough that fans in the audience could request songs, although it was best not to send notes to John (Freda learned quickly that without his glasses, he couldn't read a thing onstage). Eventually, she started hanging out backstage with the bands and almost by accident became the fan club president of a band nobody knew - yet. In short order, that would change, and so too would her life...

 There's a level of intimacy in Good Ol' Freda that's really fascinating, because Kelly was so close to the band, their families, and Brian Epstein, that you don't really get elsewhere, even in the anthologies. She's very particular about what stories she's willing to tell and what she chooses to keep private - Kelly draws the line at sharing details about relationships and at one point sheepishly dodges the question "did you ever go out with any of them?" - but all of her anecdotes are personal. Hearing Kelly say "Richie" instead of Ringo, or about George's father insisting that he teach her ballroom dancing are a side of The Beatles that doesn't get covered much. It's less about the music and more about the lads. John tries to fire her after Freda has too much to drink in the Moody Blues' dressing room, so she tells him that she'll answer everybody's fan mail but his, and he begs her to stay on one knee. Her perspective on the Magical Mystery Tour is quite interesting, and I must admit that it's hard not to see her in the footage and photos from the movie once you've seen Good Ol' Freda. She was there the whole time (also amusing is her anecdote about booking the entire tour at a hotel as the "Women's Catholic League" because no one would dare book The Beatles).

 Much of the well covered territory in Beatles lore is left out - conquering America, the psychedelic phase, the tension towards the end - because Freda didn't travel with the band much. In fact, when Epstein moves the base of operations from Liverpool to London, Kelly doesn't join them after her father objects. He never approved of The Beatles, and his health is such that she can't in good conscience leave, so rather than lose the heart and soul of the organization, Epstein gives her his old office and Kelly continues to run the fan club from Liverpool. Quite a step up from accidentally using her home address for the fan club in the early days. She's free to hire (and fire) helpers to maintain a massive operation (including the assistance of other Liverpool bands like the Merseybeats to help deliver mail every now and then), and does her level best not to disappoint the fans. After all, she's a fan, too.

 Kelly is a fascinating figure in her own right, and scattered throughout Good Ol' Freda are brief interviews with her daughter that give us some idea why we've never heard this particular story before. There are other contemporaneous interviews, particularly with Tony Barrow (former Beatles press officer), mentioning that while most people related to the band decided to "cash in" at some point, Freda has been curiously silent about her life at the center of Beatlemania, a life she walked away from after the birth of her second child. Her decision to put that part of her life aside - in some instances, to literally pack it up in the attic, where we see hear going through some of the impressive memorabilia she didn't give away - was a personal one, and the reason for telling it now is one I'll let you discover in the documentary. One gets the impression that Kelly is happy to have told it now, so she doesn't have to again.

 She's a great storyteller, and White and Lawson bridge her interviews with plenty of rare footage and photography, along with something that must be hard to get making a documentary on the outside of the band: Beatles songs. While Paul isn't in the film (and Ringo pops up at the very end), I suspect their longstanding affinity for Freda Kelly helped in approving the rights to use the band's songs in the film, which is rare outside of Apple produced films. It's necessary and would be strange for Good Ol' Freda not to have, but I sense that the surviving members still think fondly of "good ol' Freda" and are happy to see her tell her story. I think most Beatles fans will be happy to hear it too; it's rare to hear a perspective on the band you haven't heard, and even if you're caught up with archival interviews with her, seeing Freda Kelly tell the stories is something fab indeed. While I haven't seen it yet, I imagine Good Ol' Freda would make a good double feature companion with 20 Feet from Stardom, so maybe I'll check that out next...

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