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Good Ol’ Freda (Blu-ray Review)

6 Jan, 2014 By: Mike Clark

Box Office $0.14 million
$26.98 DVD, $29.98 Blu-ray
Rated ‘PG’ for some thematic material and smoking.

So you see there was this Liverpool manager of rock acts repping a quartet he thought might be coming along, which necessitated the hiring of a secretary to troubleshoot the needs of still relatively unknown group members John, Paul, George and Pete (forget Ringo at this point: this was early in the game). As a result, Brian Epstein plucked a teenager (Freda Kelly) from a typing pool to become an indispensible aide and even friend to the Beatles — a union extending a little beyond the time when the Liverpool lads (as they used to be called) finally broke up, those seeds of destruction planted (many think, Kelly among them) by Epstein’s untimely and drug-related 1967 death.

For all this, Kelly has remained unassuming and unpretentious for 50 years — finally, just this once, agreeing to tell her story for benefit of any grandchildren who may come to think she was just some old woman who had never accomplished much in life. She doesn’t tell all she knows here — in fact, she won’t even say if she ever dated any of her employers — but this is quite a story just the same. Basically a talking heads documentary augmented by good music and some largely unseen Beatles photos that will likely short-circuit the brains of fans, Freda (the “good ol’” part ultimately doesn’t come off as patronizing as it initially sounds) shows how watchable a purely functional narrative can be if the material is there — though it does have more visual elements going for it than 2002’s Blind Spot, which traced the story of a woman who’d been a secretary to Hitler. (Can you imagine? You’re a personnel director looking for grabber intros on the pile of resumes you’re perusing, and you see one that answers “Reason for Leaving Last Job” with “It was cold in the bunker.”)

In other words, Kelly was a modest fan who, for starters, was a legitimate fan of the Beatles, though the fame for them she always thought inevitable was of, say, the Cliff Richards variety and not as international end-all, be-alls. In one memorable bit, we see old newsreel footage of a young blonde woman practically in dry heaves because the cops or some other security force kept her and her friends from getting too close to the boys after they’d shown up at something like 5:30 in the morning to catch a glimpse. A sad case, she is definitely cute enough to attract 50 or so of her own boyfriends, yet Kelly didn’t think she or others like them were pathetic or silly and always kept their welfare on her mind. In the one instance where we’re told of the occasional necessity to institute a get-tough office policy, Kelly tells of sacking multiple employees for the sins of one who’d tried to palm off a lock of her own hair as one belonging to one of the group (hair requests were common). You didn’t disrespect the fans.

And speaking of hair, we see Kelly discovering a lock of George’s right off the bat during a visit to her attic here, where all kinds of you-gotta-be-kidding-me memorabilia is stored and mostly ignored, though there isn’t nearly as much as there used to be. This is because Kelly parceled a ton it of out to fans — personally — in 1974, booty that could have kept her from having to work today (though she doesn’t seem to mind). Matter of fact, this is one question that you can’t keep wondering about when watching this modest charmer of a film. Couldn’t the Beatles have set her up for life with a trillionth of 1% of the royalties from “I Am the Walrus” or something?

Regardless, this is definitely an insider’s view. Kelly befriended the Beatles’ parents (Paul McCartney’s stepmother is an ongoing presence here), who all regarded her as something of a surrogate sister — and enough of one to refer to Ringo Starr as “Richie.” There are stories of Brian Epstein’s temper, which Kelly surmises might have been at least partly due the necessity of keeping himself in the sexual closet, the era being what it still was. John had a temper, too, or was at least mercurial — enough so that he once fired her before almost instantly relenting; a contributing factor might have been the other Beatles’ refusal to do the same themselves, whereupon Kelly simply said she would continue to handle correspondence for the other three and let John fend for himself. There’s also a funny anecdote in the bonus section about Kelly having to get all dolled up to attend a very exclusive party (mostly parents of the Beatles) following the premiere of Richard Lester’s How I Won the War, in which Lennon had a major role. She says it took three hours for some challenged stylist to do anything with Kelly’s hair — but there, finally, she was in a super-exclusive bash that Mama Cass tried unsuccessfully to crash.

Unaddressed is one bit of trivia I’d be curious to have answered: How much did Kelly spend on postage every year, answering correspondence and putting out a fan club newsletter? On the other hand, I wasn’t prepared to see Ringo show up at the end to offer a personal greeting, definitely a feel-good moment. Though unless we missed something, Ringo never followed through on a fantasy he notes in some old footage here: a desire to perhaps one day open a string of his own hairdresser shops. Just think: he might have done for spit-curls what Roy Rogers Roast Beef joints later did for a “holster” of fries.

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