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SXSW Review: Is Beatles Secretary Story ‘Good Ol’ Freda’ Really a Tell-All?

SXSW Review: Is Beatles Secretary Story 'Good Ol' Freda' Really a Tell-All?

There are two main ingredients that make “Good Ol’ Freda,” a documentary about The Beatles secretary Freda Kelly, stand out from countless other takes on the rise of the world’s most iconic band: First of all, having worked for the group during its initial decade of existence but remained largely in the shadows, Kelly held a unique ringside seat to their rise without directly being a part of it. Additionally, perhaps because of her ongoing fidelity to the band, Kelly has remained secretive about her experiences prior to this project, directed by Ryan White and mostly told from Kelly’s point of view. It’s less exposé than curiosity, adding little new information to The Beatles’ expansive mythology, but rather one more perspective on their initial days of fame that does the legacy proud.

Despite her newfound willingness to open up, Kelly stays mum about many of the details that might make “Good Ol’ Freda” more narratively enticing for those not already smitten by the lingering vibes of Beatlemania. Despite its limitations, however, Kelly’s onscreen testimony remains a thoroughly enjoyable trip back to The Beatles’ halcyon days that goes down as easily as one of the band’s early compositions. 

“I was a fan myself,” the aging Kelly says more than once from her vantage point some 50 years down the road. Now a settled grandmother ostensibly participating in this project so that her grandson will appreciate her achievements, Kelly makes a sweet, humble narrator to her own life, while White compliments her tale with ample stills and archival footage that capture the wide-eyed young woman in the corners of the band’s widening spotlight.

From her initial discovery of the group in Liverpool to her capacity for managing the onslaught of adoring fans by directing their letters to her doorstep, Kelly’s anecdotes confirm the perception of The Beatles’ popularity as an overnight success story. They also reflect the human quality of the band’s inner workings: Her recollections include standing by their side as they waved to a crowd many thousands strong and convincing John Lennon to drop to his knees in forgiveness after “accidentally” firing her. As manager of The Beatles fan club, she coped with depressed letters when Paul McCartney got married and hung out with Ringo Starr’s mother while digging through fan mail. As the mouthpiece for the band in her regular letters to the fanzine, she became the de facto chronicler of the band’s seminal moments, able to both indulge in her appreciation for them and play it up for the hysteric millions who admired her vantage point.

But even as Kelly has plenty of enjoyable memories to share, she holds almost as much back. While hinting at romantic involvement with members of the group, she never divulges many details of their private lives — or her own, for that matter. Save for discussing her strict father, particularly his unwillingness to let her travel with the band to London, Kelly offers few personal details. We know nothing about her eventual marriage or the reason for the untimely death of one of her children. The only dark ingredient she does share is one known to all: The closeted homosexuality and eventual drug-related death of Beatles manager Brian Epstein — whose unexpected passing, she says, set the stage for the group drifting apart as she headed into the next stage of her life.

Her grown daughter, one of only a few other interviewees, explains her mother’s desire for ongoing privacy — a point underlined by verite footage of Kelly unearthing her Beatles fanzines that she has kept in storage for decades. Restricted by Kelly’s willingness to only say so much, “Good Ol’ Freda” merely hints at the drama at its core: Living in the shadow of her unbelievable first job, what did Kelly do next? The details are at best rather vague.

Still, “Good Ol’ Freda” moves along at an enjoyable pace made particularly slick by the rare inclusion of authorized Beatles music. The movie is never too far away from a catchy tune, though it notably lacks the contemporary appearance of either two living band members (with the exception of a brief Ringo appearance over the credits), leaving one to wonder if The Beatles’ memories of Kelly’s role in their lives would square with her own. Like Martin Scorsese’s HBO project “George Harrison: Living In The Material World,” White’s portrait is limited by the boundaries of what its subject feels comfortable letting us know. Fortunately, for the target audience, that’s more than enough.

Criticwire grade: B

HOW WILL IT PLAY? With Beatles mythology still popular as ever and the group’s music commercially viable, “Good Ol’ Freda” stands a good chance at garnering attention from distributors willing to play up the story for music buffs; it is likely to find its best audience through a television deal.

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