Saturday, November 30, 2013

Good Ol’ Freda DVD Review

I was six years old when I got my first Beatles album, and I was hooked. Since then I’ve gone through periods when I’ve read everything I could find on The Beatles. And even when I’m not doing that, I always keep an eye out for anything new on the band. It’s kind of crazy that after all this time there is still new information, new angles, new stories. The new documentary film, Good Ol’ Freda, tells a tale I had not heard before. This is the story of Freda Kelly, the woman who worked as Brian Epstein’s secretary, and therefore as The Beatles’ secretary. She worked with the band for eleven years.

The film opens with The Beatles Christmas recording from 1963, with that famous bit from John Lennon: “Hi, this is John speaking with his voice.” And then after Paul and Ringo speak (also with their voices), George actually mentions Freda: “Nobody else has said anything yet about our secretary, Freda Kelly, in Liverpool.” The others yell, “Good ol’ Freda!

And then we meet Freda. Freda Kelly is an instantly likeable and believable subject. She comes across as sweet, honest, loyal and endearing, and you immediately trust her as well as like her. She says she was just a secretary, and asks, “And who wants to hear a secretary’s story?” Come on, Freda! You know we want to hear everything that’s even remotely connected to this band.

There, of course, is old footage of hysterical girls. But then Freda says, “A lot of people didn’t take these girls seriously. But I did, because, you know, I was one of them. I was a fan myself, so I knew where they were coming from.” You never really hear that perspective elsewhere on those screaming girls.

The film then goes basically in chronological order. Freda was taken to the Cavern on her lunch break (and she describes the place in terms I hadn’t heard before). The Beatles were playing when she first walked in.

The film focuses on interviews with Freda Kelly, but there are several other interviews as well, with folks such as Billy Kinsley (of The Merseybeats), who says that Freda was always at the Cavern, always in the same seat. And yes, the film shows us a photo of her there. She tells delightful and very specific anecdotes about those Cavern days (and there are lots of photos, some of which I hadn’t seen before). She also says, “I got to know them personally through just talking to them, going in the band room.”

At the time she was working in a typing pool (she’d left school at age 16 and started working). Another girl started The Beatles fan club, and Freda helped out. But the other girl lost interest, so Freda took over. She recounts getting the job with The Beatles, with Brian Epstein saying he needed a secretary. In addition to working as a secretary, she was still doing the fan club. And she had used her own address, leading to a wonderful anecdote about receiving thousands of letters at her home (with her father none too pleased).

Freda goes through her Beatles scrapbooks and fan club letters on camera, which is a delight to watch. She gave away a lot of stuff in 1974, but still has a good amount of memorabilia. Late in the film she reads some of the old newsletters that she wrote.

Early on she says, “I was 17, so naturally I had crushes on them.” I love her description of how she had various crushes. But she doesn’t dish out any dirt, and never did; she never betrayed the band, never abandoned her loyalty, which is admirable. By the way, she mentions Pete Best, but there is nothing about him leaving the group. (There is some more about Pete Best on the DVD’s commentary track.)

She has tales about Brien Epstein in the work environment, which are interesting. She also got to know the guys’ families. George Harrison’s dad taught her some ballroom dances. She talks a bit about being on Magical Mystery Tour. And she does talk about the end of The Beatles, how George talked to her about ending the fan club.

Other people interviewed include Rachel Norris (Freda’s daughter), June Underwood (a fan club assistant), Tony Barrow (Beatles’ press officer), Billy Hutton and Joey Bower (both of The Fourmost). There are no interviews with the two surviving Beatles, though Ringo does give a message during the film’s closing credits. And toward the end of the commentary track, director Ryan White mentions that Ringo’s people and Paul’s people were very supportive of the project.

By the way, I've seen several Beatles documentaries that are completely devoid of Beatles music, as it's difficult to secure the rights. But this documentary actually has a few Beatles tunes.

Special Features

Documentaries don’t often have commentary tracks because basically the whole film itself offers some sort of commentary, and so a commentary track would be somewhat redundant. However, with Good Ol’ Freda, it’s quite a good thing that the track is included, as it’s done by both Freda Kelly and director Ryan White, and it offers a lot more information and memories. Freda talks about how she learned she was mentioned on the first Beatles Christmas message. Interestingly, they shot the footage of Freda’s present job on the weekend because she didn’t want anyone there knowing about her work with The Beatles. Of course, she must have known that with the documentary being shot it was only a matter of time. Ryan White also mentions his connection to the whole Beatle scene (Billy Kinsley is his uncle). They do talk a bit about the whole Paul-is-dead thing, and there is more about Freda’s time on Magical Mystery Tour.

The special features also include several deleted scenes, including scenes about the receptionist, Kelly’s appearance on Juke Box Jury with The Beatles, the premiere of How I Won The War, Kelly’s wedding, and about John Lennon’s death and the way the press approached her about it.

There is also footage of a Q&A after a screening of the film, with Ryan White and Freda Kelly. The first question from the audience is about John Lennon’s death. Someone else asks Freda how she was capable of not spilling the beans over the years. One of the most interesting questions, actually, was about tearing off the international stamps from correspondence. Ryan White talks about one letter in particular that Freda answered from a Beatles fan. And Freda says that Ringo was the best dancer among The Beatles. This feature is approximately 23 minutes.

The special features include an interview with director Ryan White, in which he talks about how he’s known Freda Kelly since he was a young boy, but didn’t know she had been The Beatles’ secretary until a few years ago. He also talks about how Freda is now able to interact with Beatles fans, and how that has affected her. He says one of the highlights for him in making the film was being able to go into Freda’s attic and look at the old letters and whatnot.

There is also a photo gallery, which includes not only old photos of Freda with members of The Beatles, but also such things as Freda’s ticket to the premiere of How I Won The War. The film’s trailer is also included in the special features.

Good Ol’ Freda is scheduled to be released on DVD on December 3, 2013 through Magnolia Home Entertainment.

(Note: I also posted this review on Pop Culture Beast.)

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