Act Naturally: The Beatles on Film
- By Steve Matteo
- Backbeat Books
- 350 pp.
- Reviewed by Michael Causey
- June 14, 2023
A detailed but weak addition to the Fab Four canon.
In what too often reads like the exhaustive (and exhausting) footnotes to a missing companion volume, this new addition to the extensive Beatles library lacks the Fabs’ exuberance, wit, and cheekiness. Instead, we must endure in Steve Matteo’s Act Naturally: The Beatles on Film plodding writing, a bland, textbook tone, and an author who seemingly never uncovered a fact that didn’t warrant mentioning.
Films — especially 1964’s excellent “A Hard Day’s Night” — were a huge, sometimes overlooked part of what fueled Beatlemania. While I’d argue that the band’s early, unscripted press conferences better captured their unique charm, intelligent flippancy, and charisma, they and their entourage wisely understood the power of movies and harnessed it to mostly great effect.
The author makes a questionable decision to widen his lens to include the rise of the British film industry in the 1960s, when London emerged as a swinging place to be, influencing music, fashion, literature, and so much more. Unfortunately, in a book putatively focused on the Beatles, that means we end up getting a lot of relatively minor details about why this screenwriter was chosen over that one, or why this costumer dropped out of a film unrelated to the Beatles except by calendar proximity.
Richard Lester, director of the Beatles’ first two motion pictures (the aforementioned “A Hard Day’s Night” and 1965’s “Help!”), gets a deserved spotlight for his largely uncredited influence on music for the screen. His use of multiple cameras, quick cuts, surrealistic touches, and other techniques had a profound impact on how we later came to experience music on MTV and elsewhere.
And while the research in the book appears to be topnotch, there are odd errors. For example, Paul McCartney’s “I’ve Just Seen a Face,” a fairly well-known track, is referred to as “I’ve Just Seen Her Face” several times in different portions of the book. It’s a bit of a quibble, admittedly, but it did make me wonder what other errors I might have missed given that I’m way less well-versed in Beatles filmography than is the author.
Speaking of the cute one, the book includes interesting assessments of the Fab Four as actors. While Lester believed George Harrison was strongest, he worked with John Lennon solo on 1966’s “How I Won the War,” and it was Ringo Starr who eventually emerged with the solidest on-camera résumé. Lester thought McCartney the weakest and most self-conscious thespian, ascribing it potentially to Macca’s dating at the time of actress Jane Asher.
The book also contains insights into why the Rolling Stones, whom the press liked to portray as rivals to the Beatles, never made their own non-concert film. After all, they often copied the Fabs; just take a gander at the Stones’ 1967 album Their Satanic Majesties Request and compare it to Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band from earlier that same year. And don’t forget: One of the Stones’ first singles was a Beatles cover.
As we learn, while they had several film projects burbling along for a time, the Stones never saw a film presence materialize. Another factor favoring the Beatles’ primacy was that their talent was spread more evenly. Yes, Lennon and McCartney dominated the early songwriting days, but Harrison and Starr more than held their own musically and within the group dynamic. On the other hand, it’s difficult to imagine Stones drummer Charlie Watts or bassist Bill Wyman captivating moviegoers.
Act Naturally works best as a supplementary reference in one’s Beatles library. While certainly not without its merits, it could have been elevated by the inclusion of more fun anecdotes and far less minutiae.
Michael Causey is host of “A Good Hour” on WOWD 94.3 FM and takomaradio.org.