The Beatles' Feature Films Ranked from Worst to Best

With 'Let It Be' getting newly restored, we're counting down the Fab Four's fab five features

Photo courtesy of Apple Corps Ltd. 

BY Liam McPhersonPublished May 10, 2024

The Beatles are back on the silver screen — or, rather, the silver stream. The 1970 film Let It Be has been lovingly restored and rereleased on Disney+ after 54 years of false starts and spotty commercial availability. With the help of Peter Jackson's MAL (Machine Assisted Learning) de-mixing technology, the audio and video of the film is now crisp and clear, bearing none of the generation loss and muddy sound that fans were forced to overlook on bootlegs.

Despite starring in five feature films, the Beatles considered themselves musicians first and foremost. Practically, this meant that the group's acting and business pursuits became secondary obligations, rather than projects warranting maximum artistic focus, effecting the outcome of the final films, sometimes to their detriment.

This does not mean that the films are devoid of artistic merit; in fact, the audience can follow an evolutionary through line that runs parallel with their album output — from their debut as the vanguards of the British Invasion to the four individual artists we see in Let It Be. We'll unpack, from worst to best, what each film brought to the table, as well as some missed opportunities for the band and some historical nuggets.

5. Magical Mystery Tour (1967)

Magical Mystery Tour is a uniquely confounding film in the Beatles' oeuvre. It contains moments of jaw-dropping surrealist cinema (a possible nod to the French New Wave movement of the time) and genuine Python-esque hilarity. Unfortunately, it's edited together as if the group were in a rush, with just as much ill-placed, sophomoric non-conversation as there is good comedy, sure to disrupt any momentum the film develops.

Much to the group's frustration, Magical Mystery Tour was first broadcast in black and white, ensuring none of the beautiful psychedelic imagery translated to screen. The film was quickly met with confusion from critics and audiences alike, and it's not hard to see why. We could have enjoyed a young Steve Winwood and Traffic performing "Here We Go Round the Mulberry Bush," but no — it had to be cut so we could be subjected to a painful accordion sing-along of "When Irish Eyes Are Smiling."

During the filming of a racing scene, rubberneckers got the group's psychedelic bus stuck in a traffic jam, preventing them from finishing the sequence. In a fit of rage, John Lennon stormed out and tore the placards off the side of the bus. While I can't say I was that enraged after finishing Magical Mystery Tour, it's disappointing that this was the best final cut the Beatles could come up with; halfway to a comedy, halfway to a psychedelic masterpiece, accomplishing neither.

4. Help! (1965)

After the commercial success of 1964's A Hard Day's Night, the Beatles used their larger production budget to their advantage. We get to watch the Beatles in colour, in several different locations around the world (the Bahamas, Salisbury Plain, the Austrian Alps), while they outwit and outmatch a religious cult made up entirely of British people in brownface.

There are moments of the same Spike Milligan-esque slapstick in Help! Still, I can't help but notice that it does virtually everything A Hard Day's Night does, but worse. The dialogue isn't as clever, and even a notable performance from Eleanor Bron as the love interest cannot paper over the audible cheese and forced chemistry during some scenes.

The Beatles' interest in making this sort of film waned during the Help! period. George Harrison had just discovered Indian classical music, and along with Lennon, had begun experimenting with LSD, rapidly changing their ethos. Additionally, in an interview with Playboy in 1980, Lennon recalled that the group "smoked marijuana for breakfast" during filming, and added that "[Help!] was out of our control," as "[director] Dick Lester didn't tell us what it was all about," leaving them feeling like extras in their own film. Unfortunately, that disconnect is apparent in the final cut as well.

3. Let It Be (1970)

Let It Be's re-release helped me appreciate the artistic statement that director Michael Lindsay-Hogg set out to make. I had previously only seen the film via a bootleg with terrible quality, which probably cemented my preconceived notions that it would be depressing. Everything I had read about Let It Be to date, including from the Beatles themselves, suggested it was a sad movie featuring the group at the beginning of a breakup. Except Lindsay-Hogg didn't make a sad breakup movie; he made a fly-on-the-wall film of the Beatles at that time, warts and all.

There is personal strife, but there are also a ton of energetic musical moments, and the director takes care to showcase the palpable love they have for one another — the love that was there before and presented in greater length in Peter Jackson's 2021 docuseries The Beatles: Get Back. That love can also be found in Let It Be for those willing to see it.

One can single out the handful of scenes with tension, like the infamous argument between Paul McCartney and Harrison, but that requires overlooking the beautiful moments of friendship the group shares. We see Ringo Starr and Harrison at the piano, laughing while working out an early incarnation of "Octopus's Garden." The adorable chemistry between Starr and McCartney's daughter, Heather, is on full display. And we can easily detect the burning love between Lennon and Yoko Ono and witness the unbridled joy of the rooftop concert. Lennon laughs and jokes with his bandmates after he flubs a cue, McCartney bounces and bobs to the beat, Harrison flashes a wide smile most of the time, and Starr surrenders himself to the music.

If this was a group in the throes of a breakup, it was also four guys who loved each other deeply. While Get Back has more time to show us that warmth, it freed Let It Be from its historical reputation. Now, fans can appreciate and reappraise Let It Be based on its own merit.

2. Yellow Submarine (1968)

After the failure of Magical Mystery Tour, the Beatles were understandably wary of being involved in another major film project, but because Magical Mystery Tour debuted on the BBC, it didn't fulfill their existing film contract with United Artists. For Yellow Submarine, the Beatles agreed to provide four new songs, but retained the best material of the era for their albums, quite literally seeing the movie as an opportunity to dump filler. Because of this creative detachment, Yellow Submarine could easily have turned out to be one of their worst films.

Thankfully, and in no small part due to the animation aesthetic of Czech-German artist Heinz Edelmann, the film was a huge hit. Embracing elements of psychedelia, surrealism and fantasy, with wordplay and poetry running rampant throughout the film, Yellow Submarine is as Lewis Carroll as the Beatles ever got. It's a visual treat, enchanting the viewer with wild images of life in Pepperland and all the bizarre inhabitants. A highlight is Jeremy Hillary Boob, a surrealistic creature from "Nowhere Land" who helps the Beatles defeat the antagonist Blue Meanies by covering them in flowers. It was the '60s, man.

Yellow Submarine uses a combination of new and old Beatles songs, such as the title song, as well as orchestral music composed by Beatles producer George Martin. The four new Beatles tunes are used with great effect during the numerous reality-defying animation sequences; three of the four are inherently psychedelic, ensuring the mood of the film remains intact. The timelessness of the music, impressive dialogue and the fantastical storytelling makes Yellow Submarine an essential part of any Beatles film collection. What better way to introduce little ones to the group as well!

1. A Hard Day's Night (1964)

No Beatles film cemented the band's importance in popular culture with as much immediate impact as A Hard Day's Night. Shot in black and white at the height of Beatlemania, the film feature the Beatles playing fictionalized versions of themselves, escaping hordes of screaming fans, catching trains, rushing from television studios to theatres to galas, and generally living the crazy life of a pop group. Lightning had already struck when the Beatles played The Ed Sullivan Show a month before filming the movie, and A Hard Day's Night allowed them to capture it in a bottle.

Director Dick Lester put love and care into the shot composition, managing to pull off the unconventional during production. Based on a previous project of his, Lester was quite enamoured with images of the group goofing off while standing, jumping, sitting or running. Without music, the sequences would have looked quite silly but, to great acclaim, Lester set those scenes to "Can't Buy Me Love." Modern music videos feature plenty of these types of shots, but it was novel in 1964, and Lester's pioneering use of these tactics deserves praise.

Lester would have been remiss to omit the Beatles's dry wit and humour, which was certainly put on display. There's lots of wordplay, and plenty of verbal and physical comedy. A scene that clearly parodies the inane Beatles press conferences of the day features Harrison telling reporters his haircut is called "Arthur." There's a sequence with Starr in a large overcoat where he kindly covers a puddle with his coat so a woman on the street can walk over it, and she promptly falls straight into what was actually a hole. Lennon disappears into a bathtub only to reappear in a robe beside a terrified staffer who had been looking for him. The late Wilfrid Brambell gives a fantastic performance as McCartney's always moody, always horny grandfather — he's very clean!

A Hard Day's Night is a must-watch, and by far the magnum opus of the Beatles's filmography. It features excellent performances and pioneering production techniques, and acts as a historical snapshot of the great heights the group were able to reach.

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