Published by the Alternate Dream
Good ol’ Freda
By Ryan White
UK, US | 86 min
When it comes to documentaries, a lot depends on the subject and access. How ‘lucky’ a filmmaker gets in gaining such access, however, doesn’t automatically produce a good or even watchable film. (Just watch some of the horrible informercials of this year’s festival like Fight Like Soldier, Die Like Children or Unbelievers or even an average film like Anita.)
Ryan White is one of those lucky directors that has used the opportunity provided to him to make a great and memorable film that is sure to be a eternal favorite for Beatles fans and more.
The film opens with a Beatles christmas album where we hear John Lennon give a shout out to his fellow Beatles and a little-known woman that was an integral part of the Beatles team (as such prominent shout-out suggests): Freda Kelly, Beatles secretary or, to use her official title, the National Secretary of their Fan Club.
Kelly worked in this position for Beatles from when they were hardly known in their own native Liverpool (Freda’s biggest dream being to see them play in the city’s largest venue, The Empire) until 11 years later, when they broke up as a band.
Freda is a very unusual character, ‘the most private person I know,’ according to her own daughter. During all these years, she had not spoken of her glamorous years and led a normal life as a working secretary in Liverpool. Not only she never published a tell-all book or sell thousands of Beatles original memorabilia she owned (either of these could have, without exaggeration, make her a millionaire) she didn’t even spoke of her past to closest friends. Very few knew that Freda was once dubbed the possessor of ‘the most coveted secretary job in the world’.
This changed when Freda decided that her little grandson ought to know that her grandmother once had such an exciting life, and fearing that it might be too late one day, she accepted the request of an acquaintance, Ryan White, to make a film about her life. This is what makes Ryan, who, for years, was unaware of the past life of Freda (her auntie’s friend), one of the luckiest music documentary-makers of all annals. He now had access to a rare eyewitness to the rise and fall of one of the most legendary bands in the history of modern Music.
White has used this opportunity excellently and has made a great film. Interviews with Freda, her family members, her associates in the high times of Beatles and music journalists, mostly from Liverpool, are used together with images and film footage that makes this a lively documentary that anybody with the slightest interest in the issue would watch enthusiastically. Beatles music has been used generously, an asset that would be close to unachievable for most films, if it wasn’t for the reputation and good name of Freda with the copyright owners (not least, the two Beatles who are still alive.)
There is such a fine balance between the ‘tree’ and the ‘woods.’ The film is unapologetically about Freda the person, with her calm and humble attitude dominating over it, but at the same time it places her squarely within her times and her conditions. This is achieved by a smart use of footage and appropriate interviews with those who knew her and those who know her times well.
Good Ol’ Freda is as much a film in the genre of music as a historical documentary. It tells us a lot about a world that was lost, so strongly that even a reviewer born in 1988, like this one, could feel a whiff of nostalgia for it. The nostalgic adjective used in the film title could also apply to the whole era, the whole world, that was lost.
Freda deserves that adjective every little bit. It is hard to imagine anybody like her exist in today’s music industry. Here we have a secretary, who was, first and foremost, a fan herself and remained so even when she reached the pinnacles of worldwide fame with her band. She first fell in love with Beatles in the local club, Cavern. When she took a small photo of Beatles to put on her desk, where she worked as a typist, her boss didn’t knew who these boys were. Within a few years, Freda was working full-time as Beatles secretary, and no less than 250,000 gathered in Liverpool’s city hall square to welcome their return from a tour. The feverish Beatlesmania, from a humble port in the Island, went to invade the United States and then the entire world.
Throughout all this, Freda remained first and foremost a fan. She would respond, with the help of many volunteers who’d love the job, to every single fan letter from around the world. She would provide the fans with every request they had, no matter how weird: Send them a piece of a shirt worn by John Lennon, or a clip of George Harrison’s hair. She even once complied with a girl who sent a cushion and wanted Ringo Starr to sleep on it for a night. (Freda gave it to Ringo’s mom and asked her to make sure he does sleep on it for the night.) She refused to send juicy secrets about Beatles to the media (no matter what the proposed price was) and after their downfall, married and went back to an ordinary life, gradually giving away most of her vast collection of Beatles original memorabilia without getting a penny for it.
By watching the film, we can engage in comparative history. Compare the humble attitude of this working-class Liverpudlian to an average staffer in the music industry today. Compare the accessibility and people-rootedness of Beatles to any other band today. It’s that lost world that the film documents and it does so excellently and elegantly.