When MTV declared Richard Lester, the director of the Beatles movies A Hard Day's Night and Help!, to be the "father of the music video", he flippantly demanded a blood test. But little evidence is needed to prove that the films' pioneering blend of pop music and kaleidoscopic visuals remains an influence on filmmaking today. Despite not being the first recording artists to conquer the box office as well as the pop charts, the Beatles' contributions to cinema are still admired today in a way that those of their contemporaries, such as Elvis Presley or Cliff Richard, are not.
As well as creating five incredibly diverse films during their career, the British group has continued to appear on the big screen over the four decades since they broke up. In just the past year, the films Nowhere Boy and Lennon Naked have been released - each focusing on different eras of the legendary lead singer's life. Plans were announced at the Cannes film festival in May to shoot The Longest Cocktail Party - a movie about the dramatic rise and fall of the group's record label, Apple, to be produced by the Oasis singer Liam Gallagher. The long list of other planed Fab Four-inspired movies, includes ideas as strange as Paul is Undead: The British Zombie Invasion.
But why, almost half a century after their first movie adventure, has the Beatles' presence on the big screen proved so enduring? "They seem to have some quality that almost makes them a 20th-century fairy tale - their story is almost dreamlike and can be reinterpreted in so many ways," says Peter Doggett, the author of You Never Give Me Your Money: The Battle for the Soul of the Beatles. "The speed at which their rise happened and the bewildering quantity of changes that they went through is fascinating. I don't think anybody had been that famous before, or had had such a global reach within the realm of entertainment."
Many believe the Beatles' first film outing, 1964's black and white A Hard Day's Night, is still their finest. When approached by United Artists to make a movie - something that was expected of almost all successful performers at the time - the Beatles were keen to avoid the kind of flimsy performance-based fare that many other musicians had appeared in. Fans of the Goons' idiosyncratic radio shows, the group enlisted the US filmmaker, Richard Lester, to direct their big-screen debut. The film shows a day in the life of the band, beset by screaming fans and dealing with the demands of a rigorous touring schedule.
"Although Richard Lester is American, he had a very British sense of humour - very zany," says Dick Fiddy, a consultant for the British Film Institute. "I think the Beatles had that sort of zany sense of humour as well. The film is cut in a very strange way, there are lots of jump cuts and it's almost a nascent pop video. Lester amalgamated some of the slickness of American filmmaking with the surrealness of British humour and it seemed to work very well."
The film saw the Beatles make their first attempt at acting and (because it was shot in chronological order) it is even possible to watch their performances improve towards the end of the movie. But despite their first feature becoming a widespread critical and commercial success, the group claimed to find the experience of making the film a dull one. When it came to creating a follow-up, 1965's Help!, Lester was brought back into the fold.
"I think Help! was more of an imposition on them," says Doggett. "They had done it once and decided it was something they weren't very good at. In a strange way, the Beatles are hardly in Help! - they're on screen all the time, but there's a slightly glazed feel to their performances that suggests they weren't really involved at all." The films helped the Beatles' music reach parts of the world to which their extensive tours had yet to take them. Part of their international success was the easily definable personalities of each band member; John was sarcastic, Paul was loveable, George was quiet and Ringo was a clown. But the Beatles would later claim that the characters they portrayed on screen bore little resemblance to their real selves.
"I think it affected them negatively, particularly when they tried to project a more intellectual image in about 1966 - when they came out with their album Revolver. They said that they didn't want to be reduced to their movie image," says Roland Reiter, the author of The Beatles on Film. But despite often feeling restricted by their one-dimensional movie alter egos, many others have claimed that the Fab Four's onscreen personae did have fundamental groundings in reality.
"I think it was fairly accurate," says Doggett. "A friend of mine who worked with the Beatles quite a lot in the early 1960s said it was true that Paul was the charmer and the PR man. But apparently the idea that if you sat in a room with John Lennon he just wise-cracked all day couldn't have been further from the truth. Apparently he didn't speak much at all." The film Help! sees the group chased through exotic locales around the world, after an Asian cult targets Ringo for its next human sacrifice. The full-colour movie is now noted as a major influence on the espionage thrillers of the late 1960s and even later comic book movies. Although Help! was the group's final feature with Lester, the filmmaker would go on to become a big name in Hollywood, best known for (appropriately enough) directing a number of the Superman movies, with Christopher Reeve.
For their next film outing, the Beatles were determined to take control of the artistic process themselves. "[Magical Mystery Tour] was 100 per cent made by the band, to the extent that Paul sat in the editing room all the way through," says Doggett. It was screened on Boxing Day afternoon of 1967 - when many audience members were expecting traditional, light-hearted programming, such as The Morecambe and Wise Show. The BBC made the unwise decision of broadcasting the film, about a vaudevillian concert taking place in a country field, in black and white. Not only did the psychedelic movie look drab, but whole sections failed to make sense.
"It is considered a failure by a lot of people on almost every level, but I've got a lot of time for it," says Fiddy. "It's grubby in some ways, but every now and then it has these fantastic psychedelic moments, such as the I am the Walrus scene, which looks like pop videos would 20 years later." Despite their phoned-in performances on Help! and the underwhelming response to Magical Mystery Tour, the Beatles owed United Artists a final movie. Based on their song Yellow Submarine, the animated adventure featured voice actors playing the Fab Four. The group reluctantly agreed to hand over whatever unused recordings they had (as well as access to their back catalogue) to provide the soundtrack for the feature.
"Originally, they wanted nothing to do with it and would have preferred it if it hadn't happened," says Doggett. "The fact that the Beatles appear in real life at the end of the film is a compliment to the filmmakers because the band saw an early cut, thought this is OK and decided [to film the scene]. Evidently, they didn't like it enough to re-record the voices." Although now considered a classic, the movie received poor reviews upon its release in 1968, with many critics stating that the film's psychedelic imagery was already out of date. But Yellow Submarine is now so highly regarded that it is being remade (set for release in 2012) using Avatar-style actor-driven digital animation.
The band's final big-screen outing, the 1970 documentary Let it Be, offers a glimpse at their painful demise and featured their last public live appearance - from the roof of Apple Records' headquarters. The film began life under the title Get Back and was intended to document the group rehearsing for an ambitious tour and recapturing their live spark. "It's in the style of cinéma vérité where you don't have a narrative, you just get the impression of being there," says Reiter. "John Lennon said Let it Be was Paul's movie because it all revolved around him."
But if even a documentary about performing live together had a troubled delivery, it's of little surprise that the band's most ambitious film idea failed to materialise at all. In 1969, the band considered taking starring roles in what would have been the first big-screen adaptation of JRR Tolkein's sprawling fantasy, The Lord of the Rings. The live-action film was to feature Paul McCartney as Frodo Baggins, Ringo Starr as Samwise Gamgee, George Harrison as Gandalf, and John Lennon as Gollum. It was even claimed that the director Stanley Kubrick was involved, but backed out after deciding the project was too immense.
"It would have been interesting," says Reiter. "I assume that they would have had [the Beatles'] music in it. It might have been similar to Magical Mystery Tour - a little bit of a strange underground move." Before and after the group's break-up each Beatle made solo appearances in various films, but it was Lennon and Starr who showed the most dedication to acting. Lennon reunited with Lester in 1967 to play a bespeckled English soldier - the lead role in the Second World War comedy How I Won the War. The director claimed the Beatle was a natural in front of the camera and told him a serious acting career could lie ahead if he wished, but Lennon said he thought acting was "silly". Starr appeared in more than a dozen films after the band split, including Ken Russell's Lisztomania and The Magic Christian alongside Peter Sellers, but the drummer's performances were usually met with derision.
"He was very good if you wanted a one-dimensional comic buffoon," says Doggett. But even now, with half of the group dead and the other two old enough to draw pensions, the Beatles still make regular onscreen appearances - albeit played by other people. Last year's drama Nowhere Boy saw the Kick-Ass star Aaron Johnson depicting Lennon in his youth, being raised by his aunt Mimi in post-war Liverpool. A number of other films have also centred around the enigmatic lead singer; The Hours and the Times, released in 1991, for example, focused on his extremely close relationship with The Beatles' manager Brian Epstein.
Perhaps the best-loved post-break-up Beatles film, is 1994's Back Beat, which focuses not on any of the Fab Four, but on the "fifth Beatle" Stuart Sutcliffe and his relationship with the German photographer Astrid Kirchherr during the band's residency in Hamburg. "Back Beat is a really interesting film", says Doggett. "The striking thing is that it reimagined The Beatles as a kind of proto-grunge band. That just shows the many ways in which their story can be retold to fit the audience of the time."
With their entire back catalogue reissued last year, as well as the release of their own instalment of the Rock Band computer game series, the Beatles' popularity among younger generations seems assured. With a history that has existed in film for almost as long as it has on record, it seems the Fab Four will never be far from the silver screen as long as their music continues to be played.