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Entries in Good Ol' Freda [2013] (1)

Friday
Sep202013

Good Ol' Freda (2013)

Secretary of Discretion

On the surface, there's not much to Good Ol' FredaRyan White's documentary profile of The Beatles' career-long secretary. Sure, it's packed with great music, cool anecdotes, and beautiful high-def montages of rare photos and videos. But because Freda Kelly is a famously loyal, notoriously discreet (not to mention impossibly sweet) person, this isn't the gritty tell-all some Beatles fans may have hoped for; doc aficionados looking for hard-hitting, grim material--or even a semblance of newly unearthed behind-the-scenes drama--will also be disappointed in this light, utterly entertaining slice of feel-good filmmaking.

What's most fascinating about the movie is what it says by not saying anything. Decades from now, I can't imagine a documentary like this being made about today's pop stars because A) no single band is likely to capture and sustain the world's imagination the way The Beatles did in the 1960s, especially in our flavor-of-the-year culture, and B) you'd be hard-pressed to find a seventeen-year-old girl to take a secretary's job for the biggest musical act on the planet--who wouldn't post every detail of her employers' personal lives on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and the nine thousand gossip blogs courting her at every turn.

Several times during the movie, Kelly refers to herself as a fan foremost, with her duties as secretary to the band's manager, Brian Epstein (and eventually as manager of The Beatles Fan Club) coming in a close second. After seeing the early incarnation of the group at The Cavern Club in 1962 while on a lunch break from her corporate typing-pool job, she fell in love with the music and the musicians. Kelly became a fixture at the club and befriended The Beatles, so it was only natural that she want to help them out in any way she could. What began as a job reading and answering a handful of fan letters (which she naively asked be sent to her parents' home) became a full-time commitment to collecting autographs for thousands of requests from around the world and delivering payroll to the boys.

It was a dream gig, carried out by a truly special and empathetic girl. Though Kelly was often perceived as overly nice, she wouldn't hesitate to stand up for her pseudo-older-brothers when rumors went flying or fight for quality control with regards to the fan club. Case in point: as The Beatles' fan mail piled up in direct proportion to their increasingly busy schedules, Epstein insisted that Kelly use a stamp to "autograph" fan-requested items. She and John Lennon imagined how heartbreaking such an obvious con would be to a die-hard admirer, and carried on with authentic signatures in secret.

White and co-writer Jessica Lawson deserve a great deal of credit for making the most of what they have. The contemporary interviews with Kelly offer touching, funny stories, but the subject mostly sidesteps her post-Beatles private life (we learn that her son died, but not how) and refuses to comment on whatever intimate relationships she may have had with the band members back in the day (beyond a blushing, knowing smile). Despite what might be considered a big obstacle, the filmmakers manage to construct not only a first-person portrait of the 60s Liverpool explosion, but also a tender story about artificial families, as seen through the eyes of an adopted little sister.

Good Ol' Freda also provides a great contrast to movies like One Direction: This is Us, which feel like commercials for off-brand Beatles product. Where the Fab Four broke new ground with every album and very consciously made music that would stir fans from all walks of life, today's crop of pop stars seem to crave Beatlemania but not Beatle Integrity. The glossy highlight reels of their misadventures and bland tunes inevitably feel like imitations of A Hard Day's Night designed to sell records and tertiary merchandise--rather than give insight as to what might make them tick. Freda Kelly's story, though guarded, provides a peek behind the curtain into lives both more mature and more soulful than most artists taking up space on today's charts.

Granted, Kelly's story would not even be possible in today's hyper-driven entertainment environment, where labels, publicity firms, management teams, and myriad other interests (with just as many divisions as employees) clamor for a stake in the product. The idea of a secretary having a hands-on, decade-long relationship with not only the talent but also their families sounds like a fairy tale. And Good Ol' Freda definitely has a whimsical, nostalgic quality to it that evokes a sense of loss to those of us drowning in a contemporary sea of disconnectedness and superficiality. White has delivered one of the year's most engaging, thought-provoking films in the least assuming of packages.

Chicagoans! Starting today, you can catch Good Ol' Freda on the big screen at the Music Box Theatre on Southport.