A few weeks ago in Chicago at its annual gathering of thousands of Fab Four fans, The Fest for Beatles, the biggest applause this year wasn’t for John, Paul, George or Ringo, Instead, the crowd cheered for a name that only they might actually know until now: Freda.
“Whenever Freda’s there [at a screening], she gets a standing ovation,” says Ryan White, whose film “Good Ol’ Freda” will introduce the Beatles’ secretary Freda Kelly to the world over. “But this one felt like it was never going to stop. The moderators had to stop it.”
It was one of the biggest highlights of what has been one crazy summer for White, who premiered “Good Ol’ Freda” at SXSW in March only to get a lot busier this July when the Supreme Court gave him a happy ending for the documentary on the gay marriage referendum Proposition 8 he’d been working with Ben Cotner for the past five years. As it happens, his portrait of Kelly is equally overdue, finding the reserved and dignified assistant to Beatles manager Brian Epstein as both a most casual witness to one of the greatest pop phenomena in history and a crucial participant in spurring it forward as the person charged with handling all that fanmail and spearheading the Beatles’ newsletter.
Not only does Kelly’s unique perch at the edge of every photograph of the band in their early days allows for a perspective on the band that few others were around to observe, but the long-private figure who finally opened up to give her grandchildren an idea of who she was imparts what she can recall with warmth and insight – so much so that the band’s surviving members likely felt that they had no choice but to give an all-too-rare greenlight for the use of their songs in the film. Recently, White took the time out of his hectic schedule to talk about how much care he had to take in making the film about a longtime family friend, what it was like to rediscover the past along with Kelly and recreating the excitement of Beatlemania.
How did you get involved in this?
My uncle Billy Kinsley is actually in the film. He was in a band called The Mersybeats that was a contemporary of the Beatles and my aunt Sandra worked for Freda and the Beatles Fan Club, so I’ve grown up around that generation of people that are from the musician scene of Liverpool in the 1960s. I knew Freda growing up, just casually from family events or weddings, but I didn’t know she was the Beatles’ secretary. She really is that private about it in her day-to-day life and as you saw in the film, she’s reached this point over the last few years where she thought maybe it was time to share her story as a legacy for her family, so she approached me. She knew I was a documentary filmmaker from my previous film [“Pelada,” about amateur soccer around the world] and she approached me about possibly doing three years ago.
What was it like to know her as a personal acquaintance, but to only discover this entire history of hers now?
I had no idea, not only that she was the Beatles’ secretary, but really what that meant. She was one of their longest serving employees and was there from beginning till end and there were so few people in the inner circle, so all of that was new to me. Then we started having these conversations over the phone and I was immediately blown away with Freda’s storytelling ability and her memory because she hadn’t shared all these stories for 40, 50 years, even with her family members. Her daughter came to the premiere at SXSW and she said afterwards that 95% of the film was completely new to her.
So Freda had never really taken the time with the people closest to her in her life to share these memories and that was definitely the most special part for me of making the film was getting to be a part of that process. Once the shooting began, just getting to sit in Freda’s living room and kitchen and listen to her stories from morning till night and be a part of that remembering process was really cool.
When she was opening those boxes of Beatles memorabilia and old knicknacks, did she have any sense of what was in there?
It was total discovery. I didn’t even know when we began filming that boxes existed. Freda’s extremely private and very protective of her things and I think as filming went on, she became more comfortable revealing things. At some point, she said, “I think I might have some boxes in the attic with my old stuff,” so I convinced her to go up there with me and trust to shoot it. She didn’t know what was in those boxes and I think [last thought about them when] she moved houses, so the boxes were a little bit old and rattled. So when she’s looking through things, those are genuine moments and she’s so matter of fact about everything. While we were filming it, it was really incredible. I was just thinking, wow, this is going to be such a cool moment in the film to be able to use that as kind of a structural device to start telling stories.
When Freda’s telling you about these extraordinary moments for the band in such a matter of fact way, was it hard to reconcile that with what you knew about the Beatles?
Something that appealed to me from my very preliminary conversations with Freda was the way she humanized the Beatles. I was born in the early ’80s, so I grew up with the Beatles as gods, as the most famous musicians in the world and getting to have these conversations with Freda where she knew them before they were superstars, epecially because the emphasis of our film is really 1961 through 1964 -the years they hit really big worldwide – her stories are really about them as teenage boys. So what really appealed to me as a filmmaker was the idea that we could tell this story of a girl who was 17 when she started the job and was a fly on the wall for all these amazing events.
With all of this at your disposal, was it easy to figure out that you wanted to narrow it down to that ’61-64 stretch?
We tried to cover the whole decade, but the bulk of Freda’s stories come from those early years, ’61 to ’64…’65 too. Then there’s the scene in our film where the Beatles finally move from Liverpool to London and they started Apple and Freda stayed up in Liverpool, so after that, not only were her day-to-day dealings less with the Beatles so there’s less personal stories, but also the Beatles were spending less time together.
Also, the later years are so well-covered, but there are so few people that were a part of that original inner circle and almost all of them have passed away by now, so I thought it was a really unique perspective on those early years.
As a filmmaker that’s had no trouble finding exciting things to document, was it interesting to evoke the excitement of Beatlemania rather than capture it directly as you did in “Pelada”?
Yeah, absolutely. It’s a very different film than “Pelada” and I’ve been following the Prop. 8 case for the last 5 years and those were films that were more normal [for me], at least the way I’m schooled in documentary where you’re following events and you don’t know when you’re ending is going to happen. The challenge of “Good Ol’ Freda” was that the story had already happened for the most part, so we had to make Beatlemania the major character in the film because that’s Freda’s real focus too. She can speak to Beatlemania almost better than anyone from that decade, maybe even more than the Beatles themselves just because she was the gatekeeper that decided what got through and what didn’t, so especially for Beatles fans, the people of Freda’s generation who are probably going to be major viewers of this film, we wanted [Beatlemania] to really shine through for them too.
“Good Ol’ Freda” opens on September 6th in Los Angeles at the Sundance Sunset Cinemas and will be available on iTunes and VOD. It will open in New York on September 13th at the Sunshine Cinema and will expand into limited release. A full schedule is here.