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How One SXSW Film Did the Impossible and Licensed Four Beatles Songs

How One SXSW Film Did the Impossible and Licensed Four Beatles Songs

Last May, the creators of “Mad Men” were in the news after reportedly paying $250,000 to license the Beatles song “Tomorrow Never Knows” for an episode of the show.

According to the New York Times report of that deal, there are only rare cases in which Beatles recordings have been used in television and film.

But one film premiering at the SXSW film festival (which starts today) managed to license four of them.  Ryan White’s “Good Ol’ Freda” is a film about Freda Kelly, the Beatles’ longtime secretary.  When it premieres in Austin, it will feature the Beatles singing “I Saw Her Standing There,” “I Will,” “I Feel Fine” and “Love Me Do.”

White explained, “She was their longest serving employee.  She’s had countless offers to do a tell-all book or movie.  She’s still a working secretary today in Liverpool and makes a secretary’s wage.  She never sold them out.”

So how did he manage to get the rights to the songs?  “It’s really a testament to her that we got these rights.  It was a year and a half process to get approval.”

When White started cutting the film a year and a half ago with his editor Helen Kearns, the film was full of Beatles songs.  “When I went to Apple Corps, they said how many songs do you want?  And I said 20, I figured I’d start high.”

White, who describes his budget as “tiny tiny,” found out that 20 songs would be way out of his price range.  He continued, “It’s been like killing babies left and right, getting rid of the songs, and I’ve been replacing them left and right with other songs.

“Eventually, the four songs came through.  At a certain point, I thought, if we can pull off one song, I’d be thrilled.  When the approval came in for four, I was kind of shocked.  It’s a funny process.  Once the Beatles get behind your film, everyone gets behind your film.  This film’s budget is tiny tiny.  There’s no way we could ever afford the soundtrack we have otherwise.  We’ve got an Isley Brothers song, the original ‘Twist and Shout,’ ‘Please, Mr. Postman.'”

The film as a whole covers Freda’s story, focusing on the time she worked with the Beatles when they weren’t famous.  When they were just a local Liverpool band, she started a fan club and was always going to see them.

How does someone like White, who’s based in Los Angeles and whose prior feature credit, “Pelada,” is a film about pick-up soccer across the world, come to unearth an unheard-of Beatles story?  “My uncle is a guy named Billy Kinsley, who was The Merseybeats — they were a famous band from the ’60s.  My aunt and uncle are in a whole group of friends that were involved in the ’60s Liverpool music scene.  I went back to Liverpool for weddings and Christmases, and so I knew Freda from casual conversations, weddings, and parties.  I didn’t know she was The Beatles’ secretary. I just thought she was my aunt’s friend.  She’s cool and interesting to talk to, and she’s funny.  I didn’t know it until a Kathy McCabe — a producer of the film and also a family friend — said Freda wanted to make this film.”

According to White, Freda thought it was time to make this film so that her grandson — now two or three — would have something like a home movie to see what his grandmother was like.  “She’s baffled by the whole process,” White continued.  “I don’t know how many times I’ve had conversations with her convincing her that people want to want to see this.”

After White and Freda finish up showing off their film to Austin audiences, White will be getting on a plane to Washington, DC, where he will continue shooting “Perry v. Schwarzenegger,” his Sundance Institute-supported documentary about the same-sex marriage Supreme Court case.

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