Founded in Liverpool during the late '50s by guitarists John Lennon, Paul McCartney, and George Harrison, with drummer Pete Best and Stu Sutcliffe on bass, the Beatles were initially a skiffle band, playing a British variation of American folk music. The band -- which went under several names before arriving at the Beatles -- incorporated numerous American rock & roll, rhythm & blues, and pop music influences in their playing and songwriting, most notably the sounds of Buddy Holly, Chuck Berry, Little Richard, and Arthur Alexander. By the early '60s, they had developed significant popularity in Hamburg, Germany, where dozens of Liverpool bands were booked into local clubs, and this soon translated into success in their hometown, where the band's mixture of solid American rock & roll and careful music articulation made them stand out from the rest of the city's music scene. Sutcliffe left the band in 1961 and McCartney took over on bass. After finding their manager Brian Epstein -- who got them an audition with George Martin, the head of EMI Records' tiny Parlophone label -- the band was signed to a recording contract in 1962. Ringo Starr replaced Best on drums soon thereafter, and the group's lineup was set.
By the spring of 1963, the Beatles' singles and albums were breaking sales records in England, and they were officially introduced to America in February 1964 with an appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show followed by a whirlwind tour. The group had been signed the year before to do a movie, and, through a stroke of good luck, they were turned over to producer Walter Shenson, director Richard Lester, and screenwriter Alun Owen, who together created A Hard Day's Night, probably the best rock & roll movie ever made. This film, a black-and-white, documentary-style, fictionalized account of the fishbowl lives that the Beatles were leading during the first wave of Beatlemania, was popular with parents as well as their teenage children, and critics loved it, too. (Andrew Sarris called it "the Citizen Kane of jukebox movies.") The mix of the four personalities -- Starr's honest, earthy, clownish presence; Harrison's cutting, funny personality; McCartney's pleasant, engaging presence; and Lennon's snide, sarcastic wit -- won over audiences around the world.
The band's follow-up movie, Help! was made on a much bigger budget and in color, but it failed to repeat A Hard Day's Night's success, suffering from an unfocused script and a good, but not great, selection of songs. The group was generally as unhappy with the results as everyone else, although the film did make money and have some entertaining moments. The Beatles tried directing and producing their own television film, 1967's Magical Mystery Tour, but the result -- outside of a couple of scenes and a handful of good songs -- were amateurish. In 1968, they provided the songs for the psychedelic animated feature Yellow Submarine, and made a brief onscreen appearance at the movie's conclusion. The divisions that would eventually lead to the group's break-up were chronicled in the 1969 documentary Let It Be, directed by Michael Lindsay-Hogg, with impressive results.
The Beatles' exposure to movie-making whetted their appetites for filmmaking on a variety of levels. Lennon had an acting role in Richard Lester's anti-war satire How I Won the War, while McCartney wrote the score for the John and Roy Boulting comedy The Family Way. Meanwhile, Starr acted in the film Candy, while Harrison produced the soundtrack to the Indian movie Wonderwall. During the late '60s and early '70s, the Beatles' corporate entity, Apple, acquired the distribution rights to various movies, including El Topo and La Grande Bouffe, and made a number of films, most notably Born to Boogie, directed and produced by Starr, and The Concert for Bangladesh, co-produced by Harrison. Starr also took an occasional acting role, most notably in the David Puttnam-produced period drama That'll Be the Day. McCartney also composed and performed the title song for the 1973 James Bond movie Live and Let Die, but it was ultimately Harrison who became the most active of the Beatles in filmmaking. Through his company Handmade Films, he helped produce such hit pictures as Monty Python's Life of Brian and the fantasy Time Bandits. The end of the '70s also saw the lingering mystique of the Beatles parodied by Monty Python alumnus Eric Idle and Bonzo Dog Band-founder Neil Innes in the film The Rutles: All You Need Is Cash, in which Harrison made a cameo. ~ Bruce Eder, Rovi