Editor’s Note: Our review of Good Ol’ Freda originally ran during this year’s SXSW film festival, but we’re re-running it now as the film opens in limited release today.
Is there any pop culture subject that’s been more exhaustively covered through documentaries than The Beatles? Both John Lennon and George Harrison have received excellent posthumous documentary treatments, and the band as a whole enjoyed one of the most comprehensive official docu-treatments in rock history with the 8-part Beatles Anthology. It seems like we’ve got the most popular band in modern history just about covered, right?
Not so fast. Of the many (repeated) stories told about The Beatles time and again, there have also been stories about those who surrounded the band, who took essential roles alongside the margins in making The Fab Four exactly how we perceive them to be today. George Martin is now one of the best-known producers in the history of rock n’ roll. Manager Brian Epstein is viewed as a martyr of a former England that criminalized homosexuality. The Hamburg-based romance between pre-fame Beatle Stuart Sutcliffe and photographer Astrid Kircherr has been immortalized in rock history (specifically through Kircherr’s iconic black-and-white photographs of the band in their earliest years). And now another previously sidelined story has been brought to the fore.
Ryan White’s second documentary feature, Good Ol’ Freda, chronicles the life and work of an important but rarely discussed member of the close-knit world of The Beatles: Freda Kelly, Epstein’s secretary and the head of The Beatles Fan Club.
As we learn early on in the film, Kelly has largely had little interest in discussing her life and work with The Beatles, expressing no desire to profit from her career with the Fab Four and holding strict standards of privacy regarding both herself and her employers. That said, Kelly is hardly seems like a reluctant or reclusive documentary subject: she comes across as magnetically warm, kind, honest, and humble. That’s a major part of her charm – if you ran into her at a grocery store, you would never know this woman manned the desk for one of the greatest defining events in popular culture.
Good Ol’ Freda begins in Liverpool in 1961. The Beatles honed their craft by playing endless nights in Hamburg, Germany, and returned to Liverpool were they rocked out and blew minds, quickly becoming a local sensation. At age 17, Freda Kelly saw The Beatles for the first time in the Cavern Club. That Kelly began her career as a fan rather than as a professional is essential to understanding her importance to Beatle history: unlike figures like Epstein, or even The Beatles themselves, Kelly, while always a professional, understood Beatles fandom, which sent teenage girls into a frenzy of heightened emotions during they heyday of Beatlemania. Kelly wasn’t only a unique bridge between The Beatles and their fans because she collected their letters, assisted Epstein, and ran the fanclub newsletter, but because she admired the band while working for them.
Kelly is a fascinating documentary subject who evokes humor, warmth, and insight particular to someone who witnessed the inner-workings of one of history’s biggest cultural events firsthand; but her insight also emerges from the fact that she is resolutely human, endearingly approachable, and exceedingly loyal. Good Ol’ Freda is, in many ways, hardly just about The Beatles or Kelly herself, but is an engrossing portrait of what one woman’s exposure to the extremities of fame in a working-class context and an evolving culture. The world changed around Kelly so quickly, and we benefit greatly from the clarity of her recollection. She is a-more-than-worthy feature-length subject for the personality resurrection trend that’s gained frequency in recent documentary filmmaking.
Good Ol’ Freda is also an important historical artifact, standing as the sole testament of a woman who rejected life amongst the famous for a life of normalcy once her duties to The Beatles’ fans came to an end (remarkably, Kelly took three years to respond to the final letters given to The Beatles fan club after the band broke up). While she began as a fan herself, she wasn’t interested in the fame, but was instead entirely devoted to the people on both sides of The Beatles phenomenon.
No stranger to SXSW, Ryan White premiered Pelada at the festival three years ago, a documentary following two would-be soccer pros exploring the culture of the game around the world. With Freda, White transitions from in-the-moment to historical non-fiction filmmaking seamlessly with his effective use of Beatles-related archival material. But Good Ol’ Freda isn’t only a retrospective documentary; the film captures a woman who lives daily with the knowledge that she bears part of history. Whether you’re an obsessive or passing fan, Good Ol’ Freda is an essential chapter in the story of The Beatles.
Good Ol’ Freda appropriately spends the bulk of its running time focused on the formative organizational years of the band, where Freda witnessed The Beatles quickly move from Liverpool sensation to international phenomenon. But Good Ol’ Freda rushes through the latter five years of Beatles history (perhaps, in part, because Kelly divided her time between London and Liverpool to care for her ailing father) and, after having spent considerable time on admittedly interesting but perhaps inconsequential details, it feels like there are important stories that may not have been told. While the film is full of engaging anecdotes and important new contributions to Beatles history, distinctions made between the two in order to guide the structure of Good Ol’ Freda are not always clear.
While The Beatles were together for only a decade (and in the public eye for around eight years), they were hardly a band with a homogenous identity. As the band and the times changed, their relationship with their fans must have as well. I couldn’t help but wonder if Kelly’s unique position would allow her to shed some light on these changes beyond the reality of The Beatles’ expansive fan base. With a wealth of history available through one person, it must difficult to make necessary editing decisions as a documentarian. It’s certainly a testament to any documentary if the audience is left wanting more from its subject. But ultimately, we’re all fortunate that Freda Kelly finally decided to speak.
The Upside: An engrossing, entertaining, and informative documentary perfect for the casual or devoted Beatles fan, all told through a warm, humble woman in a way that feels like you’re chatting together over a warm cup of tea.
The Downside: The feeling of moving forward in time in the documentary occasionally comes across as sporadic, unstructured.
On the Side: Good Ol’ Freda began with this successful Kickstarter campaign in the Fall of 2011.