Let It Be Funny: Comedy and The Beatles

As Lord of the Rings director Peter Jackson releases an all-new version of The Beatles' worst film, we take a look at the comedy that made the band so memorable

Feature by Ben Venables | 21 Oct 2021
  • The Beatles

With one exception, every film The Beatles made is a comedy.

A Hard Day's Night (1964) is a parody of the band's lives during Beatlemania. Help! (1965) is a spoof-and-slapstick thriller, recalling the Marx Brothers' Duck Soup. Magical Mystery Tour (1967) is a hallucinogenic hot mess, like a rough draft of Monty Python. Yellow Submarine (1968) is a remarkable triumph in animation. All are tongue-in-cheek and charming: the comedic qualities that lodged The Beatles in the public mind, driving their fame as much as their music.

Comedy is central to The Beatles' story, the true 'fifth Beatle'. When The Beatles travelled to London to audition for EMI, they met producer George Martin. Martin had worked with The Goon Show, Beyond the Fringe and Peter Sellers. His reputation as a comedy producer could have alerted other bands they weren't being taken too seriously. Yet, for The Beatles it meant they'd found the very producer who spoke their language. When George Harrison took the piss out of Martin's tie, it reassured them all they could work together.

Their music started the craze known as Beatlemania, but it was the quip at the 1963 Royal Variety Show that meant The Beatles never looked back. John Lennon addressed the Royal Box: "Would the people in the cheaper seats clap your hands, and the rest of you, if you'll just rattle your jewellery." In America, their quick and caustic wit on arriving at JFK airport in 1964 ensured a heroes' welcome. They made millions of new fans parrying subtly-loaded questions ("Do you like Beethoven?", "He's great, especially his poems," answers Ringo).

Paul McCartney grew up in a family steeped in the Music Hall tradition, comedy which passed into his songwriting. The Beatles' albums often veer from the proto-punk and heavy-metal sounds of Lennon's tracks to a jolly old knees-ups from McCartney. But listen to When I'm Sixty-Four, Your Mother Should Know and the much reviled Maxwell's Silver Hammer with your ears open to a sense of humour, and much of The Beatles' appeal and radical influence falls into place.

Nonsense was an integral ingredient to The Beatles, even unlocking their creative jams. When McCartney woke from a dream with the tune for Yesterday formed in his head he had no idea about the lyrics. 'Yesterday, all my troubles seemed so far away,' started as 'Scrambled eggs, oh how I love your legs.' John Lennon was a master of nonsense. A fan of Lewis Carroll and Edward Lear's literary humour as a boy, he channeled their wordplay into his writing, most obviously in I Am The Walrus: 'I am the egg-man, they are the egg-men, I am the walrus, goo goo g'joob.'

The Beatles weren't only funny themselves, but actively supported comedy. When Monty Python's funding went south before filming The Life of Brian, George Harrison stepped in and bankrolled the whole thing. He mortgaged his house to do so and created Handmade Films – a film company that went on to back another classic of British comedy, Withnail and I.

And yet, there is one piece of The Beatles' back catalogue where humour is absent – the dreary documentary Let It Be (1970). The film is mostly remembered for one bickering argument between McCartney and Harrison. It was released as the band were breaking up, and seemed to capture a group of friends bored at the sight of each other.

The Beatles seem to have done everything they can to fire the film from their canon of work; even their famous rooftop gig can't save something so tedious. It has never made it to DVD. Only a completist would want to hunt it down on shady internet backchannels.

There is one strange comedic legacy from Let It Be, albeit accidental. It inspired 'mockumentaries' that take the piss out of bumptious bands falling into 'musical differences'. It is hard to imagine This is Spinal Tap existing without Let It Be, or The Simpsons' barbershop quartet episode, which brilliantly parodies the rooftop performance.

It is a surprise then that for its 50th anniversary (though delayed by the pandemic), Let It Be is now rebooted as The Beatles: Get Back. Using hours of footage, Peter Jackson has remade and restored the film with the same techniques he used with the WWI documentary They Shall Not Grow Old. The question among Beatles fans, of course, is whether Jackson can do anything but roll this turd in glitter. Judging by the teaser alone, Jackson has not only made the film look pretty, he's captured everything left out of the original. Ringo is juggling drumsticks, John is dicking around and they're all making each other laugh. In other words, it includes all the levity and humour that made The Beatles such a success.

The Beatles: Get Back is released on 25–27 Nov via Disney+