The Beatles had a largely successful film career, beginning with A Hard Day's Night (1964), a loosely scripted comic farce, sometimes compared to the Marx Brothers in style. It focused on Beatlemania and their hectic touring lifestyle, and was directed in a quasi-documentary style in black-and-white by an up-and-coming Richard Lester, who was known for having directed a television version of the successful BBC radio series The Goon Show as well as the offbeat short film The Running, Jumping and Standing Still Film.
In 1965 came Help!, an Eastmancolor extravaganza, also directed by Lester, shot in exotic locations (such as Salisbury Plain, with Stonehenge visible in the background; the Bahamas; and Salzburg and the Tyrol region of the Austrian Alps) in the style of a James Bond spoof along with even more Marx Brothers-style zaniness: For example, the film is dedicated "to Elias Howe, who in 1846 invented the sewing machine."
In 1966, Lennon "went solo" as a supporting character in a film called How I Won the War, again directed by Lester, a satire of World War II movies. The dry, ironic British humour of this film may have been a bit over the heads of the American audience in pre-Monty Python times, as it was not well received.
The Magical Mystery Tour film was essentially Paul McCartney's idea, outlined as he returned from a trip to the US in the late spring of 1967 and loosely inspired by press coverage McCartney had read about Ken Kesey's Merry Pranksters' LSD-fuelled American bus odyssey. McCartney envisaged taking this idea and blending it with the peculiarly English working class tradition of charabanc mystery tours. The film was critically panned when it aired on the BBC's premier television network, BBC-1, on Boxing Day — a day primarily for traditional cosy family entertainment. The film appeared radically avant-garde by those standards, and instead of showcasing the lovable moptops The Beatles had been up until recently, it showed them as part of the hippie counterculture of 1967 that was at odds with the British establishment of the era. Compounding this culture clash was the fact that BBC-1 at that time still only transmitted programmes in black & white, while Tour was in colour. The film was repeated a few days later on the BBC's secondary channel (BBC-2) in colour, receiving more appreciation, but the initial media reaction is what is most remembered.
The animated Yellow Submarine followed in 1968, but had little direct input from The Beatles, save for a live-action epilogue and the contribution of four new songs (including one holdover from the Sgt. Pepper sessions, Only A Northern Song). It was acclaimed for its boldly innovative graphic style and clever humour, along with the soundtrack. The Beatles are said to have been pleased with the result and attended its highly publicised London premiere.
In 1969 Ringo Starr took second billing to Peter Sellers in the satirical comedy The Magic Christian, in a part which had been written for him. Starr proved to be a reasonable comic actor and later embarked on an irregular career in comedy films through the early 1980's. His interest in the subject led him to be the most active of the group in the film division of Apple Corp.
Let It Be was an ill-fated documentary of the band shot over a four-week period in January 1969. The documentary — which was originally intended to be simply a chronicle of the evolution of an album and the band's possible return to live performance — instead captured the prevailing tensions between the band members. In this respect it unwittingly became a document of the beginning of their break-up. The band initially shelved both the film and the album, instead recording and issuing Abbey Road. But with so much money spent on the project, it was decided to finish and release the film and album (the latter with considerable post-production by Phil Spector) in the spring of 1970. When the film finally appeared, it was after the break-up had been announced, and it was viewed by disappointed fans through the prism of that recent news.