The Bottom Line
Delightful doc gets as much mileage from its subject’s cheer as from Beatles lore
South By Southwest, Documentary Spotlight
AUSTIN — Pure joy for Beatles fans and, one guesses, charming enough to seduce some viewers who wouldn’t mind never hearing "She Loves You" ever again, Ryan White‘s introduces us to a woman who had a ringside seat for Beatlemania and, until now, has never spoken about it. Long video life is assured, but the doc is handsome and satisfying enough for an arthouse run beforehand.
Freda Kelly was a teenaged typist in Liverpool when coworkers took her to a subterranean joint called the Cavern Club one lunch hour. Immediately taken with the band doing a residency there, she went on to see the nascent Beatles, by her count, around 190 times in that dank cellar. So it was no surprise she chipped in when another local girl started a fan club, or that Brian Epstein, once he became the group’s manager, hired this plain-faced girl with the lovely smile to be their secretary.
Kelly answered fan mail from that point through the band’s breakup, and in this cynical age one can hardly believe the earnestness with which she approached the job: Yes, she really got Ringo to sleep a night on the pillowcase one girl sent; sure, she’d hoard bits of Paul’s shirts for those who couldn’t live without a fragment. She once fired a whole gang of assistants because one tried to pass off a girl’s hair for a Beatle’s. Why do that, when Freda already had an arrangement with their barber?
In hounding the four men to sign autographs and answer fans’ questions, she became almost literally part of the family: For years, she spent every Wednesday hanging out with Ringo’s mum, and was nearly as chummy with the others’ families. Unsurprisingly, her perspective on their career is singular. She brings the Cavern Club scene to life in a rare way, and is especially good at conjuring the personality of "Eppy," the temperamental manager who appears to have fired everyone in the Beatle operation at some point or another but her.
Backstage rock stories are a dime a dozen, but they’re usually well-rehearsed anecdotes told by hangers-on who’ve dined out on them for years. Kelly, on the other hand, hasn’t told these stories even to her family; a genuinely modest woman, who works as a secretary to this day, she just couldn’t see exploiting her old friends’ fame to make a buck. (She finally decided to share the stories, she says, so her two year-old grandson will have DVD proof his grandmom did something interesting as a youth.)
Many of the stories are clearly coming to her as the camera rolls, as she opens boxes of memorabilia that have been in the attic for decades. White has parlayed Kelly’s involvement into a very rare license to use a few Beatles songs in the film. But audio cues are unnecessary given the spark in Freda’s eyes as she conjures the personalities of four young men whose stardom she enabled, even while remaining (to this day) a fan herself.