WITH THIS WEEK'S release of Nowhere Boy, an account of John Lennon's teenage years (with Kick-Ass' Aaron Johnson playing the would-be Beatle—see our review here), it's clear that no one has been as successful at playing John, Paul, George, and Ringo as the Beatles themselves. 1964's A Hard Day's Night is still the best piece of celluloid with their names on it—a dizzy, funny romp that ends with a fine mini-concert.
Everything else is more or less dispensable: 1965's Help! is a pale shadow of Hard Day's Night, despite excellent photography and better songs; 1967's Magical Mystery Tour is still as incomprehensibly bad as everyone says it is; the surviving Beatles are still too embarrassed by 1970's Let it Be to release it on DVD. Even documentary overviews are lacking: 1984's The Compleat Beatles barely scratches the surface, while 1995's Beatle-authorized, 11-hour-long(!) Anthology digs too deep for all but obsessives, coming off oddly clinical in the process.
Fictionalized accounts aren't much better. 1994's Backbeat is the best of the lot, focusing on Stuart Sutcliffe and boasting a grand-slam soundtrack by all-stars like Greg Dulli, Thurston Moore, and Dave Grohl. But Backbeat is marred by historical errors and a streak of sensationalism. The 2000 TV movie Two of Us stars Aidan Quinn as Paul McCartney and Mad Men's Jared Harris as Lennon—son of Richard, Harris is probably the best casting of Lennon we've yet seen. But Two of Us, based on a theoretical meeting between the estranged Lennon and McCartney in the mid '70s, is otherwise godawful. There's a part where they put on disguises and walk around New York, interacting with their fans. It's an embarrassment—further evidence that Beatles magic rarely translates to film.
An exception: 1968's Yellow Submarine is fantastically enjoyable, a gorgeous, surrealist delight. The Beatles didn't perform their own voices, nor did they do much to contribute to the film's stunning visuals. But its full-blown kaleidoscopic color is a perfect counterpoint to the black-and-white minimalism of A Hard Day's Night.