Over the weekend, I watched Martin Scorsese’s excellent documentary, George Harrison: Living in the Material World. Harrison was an astounding human being- both an unquestioned musical genius, and a renaissance man with vast array of interests. Among his varied interests, amazingly, Harrison was a film producer. In fact, the Beatles have individually had a hand in shepherding quite a few films along the way to completion. As it turns out, Abbey Road was quite a hub for the world of film.
One of the most prominent examples of a member of the Beatles funding a film occurred in the early 1970s. Alejandro Jodorowsky had shaken up avant-garde cinema with his surrealist Western, El Topo (1970). John Lennon was so enamored with the film that he convinced his manager, Allen Klein, to buy the rights to it. Then he offered to fund Jodorowsky’s next project. Lennon handed a million dollars to Jodorowsky to make his follow-up to El Topo. That follow-up became The Holy Mountain (1973), an equally trippy experience about religion, frogs, and Christ figures pooping in glass casserole dishes.
Religion played a prominent role in another film, this time funded by George Harrison. In the late 70s, Harrison- a huge fan of the Monty Python troupe- caught wind of a New Testament spoof that the gang was developing. The original studio backing the film, EMI, backed out because of the perception that the content would be viewed as blasphemous. Harrison went as far as to create his own production company, HandMade Films, and supplied £3 million to get it made simply because he really wanted to see the movie. That film, of course, was Life of Brian and Harrison even makes a cameo. In Living in the Material World, Python member Eric Idle referred to the donation as “the world’s most expensive cinema ticket.”
HandMade would produce several films with Harrison serving as Executive Producer. Harrison’s organization collaborated with Python member Terry Gilliam for 1981’s Time Bandits. In 1987, HandMade produced Withnail and I (1987). In all, 23 films were released by HandMade with Harrison at the helm. By 1991, they had ceased operations and the business was sold in 1994. But Harrison had made his mark.
In fact, before HandMade, there was Apple Films, a division of the Beatles’ own Apple Corps. And through Apple, Ringo Starr served as producer on the 1974 musical-comedy, Son of Dracula. While it was a flop, the film stars an impressive array of musicians, including Peter Frampton, John Bonham, Harry Nilsson, Keith Moon, and Klaus Voorman. Ringo appears as Merlin the Magician.
Prior to funding Jodorowsky’s The Holy Mountain, John Lennon and Yoko Ono had a hand in funding another irreverent piece called Dynamite Chicken, released in 1971. This time, it was a send-up of the 60s counter-culture. It featured a young Richard Pryor; musical luminaries like Leonard Cohen, Jimi Hendrix, B.B. King, Muddy Waters, and Joan Baez; pop culture artist Andy Warhol; and Lennon and Ono.
Additionally, the Beatles have helped films along individually simply by their presence on screen. Strangely, Ringo Starr is the most prominent in this category, thanks to The Magic Christian (1969) and Caveman (1981). The former had a chance for success on its own thanks to a cast that included Peter Sellers, Christopher Lee, Racquel Welch, and Roman Polanski. The latter… well, nobody went to see it for Shelley Long or the giant mosquitoes:
Between the releases of Revolver and Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, Lennon lent his name to How I Won the War, a dark comedy war film wherein soldiers die and transform into green plastic army men. It’s exactly the kind of film you’d expect to attract Lennon.
The Beatles’ music has changed the world. That they had any influence at all on film- let alone the positive one they had- is a testament to their artistic prowess. Admittedly, I didn’t mention Paul because I found nothing about his contributions. If any reader knows of any direct tie that he had to non-Beatle films, please share. All the same, George, John, and Ringo all did well for themselves in the world of film. Much like their music, we’re all better for it.