SXSW: Beatlemania Revisited in 'Good Ol' Freda,' Film on the Beatles' Secretary

Austin Hargrave

After doing the impossible -- clearing four Beatles recordings for his documentary -- Ryan White faced the daunting task of securing the rights for Ketty Lester's No. 5 hit from 1962, "Love Letters." The most obscure song in "Good Ol' Freda," the story of the Beatles secretary/fan club manager, the song was one of Freda Kelly's favorites and a record played at the Cavern in Liverpool after the Beatles finished their lunchtime sets. And yet it was the most difficult in the film song to clear. 

"I can get the Beatles and Little Richard and Buddy Holly, but I can't get Ketty Lester?," White told Billboard a few hours before the world premiere of "Good Ol' Freda." "I have 18 songs in the soundtrack and hers is probably the least known. But it was the hardest [to clear]."

The film, made for $50,000 raised through Kickstarter, premiered Saturday at SXSW. "Love Letters" was edited into the film less than a week earlier.

Turns out it had been used in the Brad Pitt film "Killing Me Softly" just a few months before White made his request for the song, which Kelly felt was crucial to the story: It was one of the songs played at the Cavern Club after the Beatles' lunchtime sets to let everyone know they had to leave.

"I was also hellbent on getting it as our end credit song," White says, "just as a nod [to the Cavern]."

During editing with Helen Kearns, White used 25 Beatles songs, figuring that eventually they would all be replaced by score. Kelly made the first phone call to Apple Records, which led to a year and a half of emails, phone calls and in-person meetings. Approvals had to come from Paul McCartney, Ringo Starr and the estates of John Lennon and George Harrison, EMI, Sony/ATV and others.

"I feel like the luckiest filmmaker in the world in that I kept getting yesses, figuring I would get a no (in the next round)," he says. "It really is a testament to Freda that I could call EMI and say this is what my movie's about and I have these people on board, here is the money I am working with and is there any way you can make this work for us. Time after time, people were drawn into Freda's story and the way she lived her life, never cashed in on the Beatles, never sold them out."

In the film, "I Saw Her Standing There" plays under scenes from the Cavern, "Love Me Do" is accompanied by record store photos, "I Feel Fine" is the soundtrack to Beatlemania at its peak, and during "I Will," the most poignant placement, we see Kelly still working today as a secretary.

The opening of the film includes the most rare track of all: one of the annual Beatles Christmas recordings, during which they reference "good ol' Freda."

The rest of the soundtrack features original versions of the songs the Beatles covered: The Isley Brothers' "Twist and Shout," the Shirelles' "Boys," Arthur Alexander's "Anna," the Marvelettes' "Please Mr. Postman," Buddy Holly's "Words of Love," Carl Perkins' "Honey Don't" and others.

"I was hoping to come away with one Beatle song," he says. "That would have been a major, major coup if we got one, so when the approval came in for four I was floored. Now I had all theses songs I needed to replace. Luckily -- and this was all unclear to me at the time -- once the Beatles have approved, everyone is willing to work with you."

Kelly, a Liverpudlian who befriended the Beatles in 1961 when Pete Best was the drummer, went to work for Brian Epstein when he set up NEMS Enterprises in 1962. She worked for the band for 11 years, handling the fan club, writing a column for the newsletter and answering the mail. Kelly was the one who followed the boys to the barber and swept up their hair to send to fans. She took shears to their clothing to create souvenirs, got items autographed and if a fan sent her a stick of gum, she'd get a Beatle to chew it, stick it on a piece of paper and mail it back.

Early on, she created a questionnaire for each Beatle to fill out with their likes; she found the originals a couple of years ago.

"In the beginning, people wanted to know how tall is Paul, what's the color of John's eyes, what's his favorite meal," she says." So I asked them to fill in [a questionnaire]. John's is hilarious -- it's scribbled all over, [says] Brigitte Bardot and things like that. For type of car, he wrote 'bus.' I typed them up, got thousands of copies made and used to stick them in the letters rather than try to answer (a specific) question."

Her job was one that kept her in the office. When the Beatles moved their operation to London, Kelly handed in her notice only to have it rejected. They allowed her to stay in Liverpool to care for her father and she wound up taking over Epstein's office at NEMS. After Epstein's death, she got on the bus for the "Magical Mystery Tour." You can see her sitting next to Ringo in a few shots.

"I should have been on the bus for two weeks, but I gave up after a week," she says. "How can you tell a Beatle fan now I didn't want to do a second week because of the madness? They wonder, is she right in the head? Who wouldn't want to be with the Beatles? I needed to get back to reality."

"Magical Mystery Tour" was the first major Beatles activity after Epstein's death, which she says hit her like a "brick to the head." "I always remember John saying, 'What happens now?' Paul tried to keep everything together, deciding to do things themselves [by creating Apple Corps.] and not having men in suits. 'Magical Mystery Tour' was Paul's way of keeping everyone together."

"Good Ol' Freda" does not yet have distribution. Submarine Films are selling U.S. rights and Ro*co Films is handling international sales.

As she makes clear in the film, Kelly did this for her grandson so he knows "what a full life I had. ... I had to do it before the memory box goes completely."

To get the extremely private Kelly accustomed to telling stories, producer Kathy McCabe had a few private gatherings at her home outside Baltimore where Kelly would speak to a small group. "That way she could get the feel for things and see how people react to her," McCabe says. "I'd say she's going to talk for an hour and four hours later she is still talking."

Kelly says she has the gift of gab, but only did the film because she had know the filmmakers for a long time. White, an Atlantan, is the nephew of one of Kelly's friends -- Billy Kinsley of the Merseybeats -- and McCabe's relatives are also in Liverpool.

"I wouldn't have done it with people I didn't know," says Kelly, who says she still loves working and continues to be a Beatles fan. "I was always cautious. Over the years there have been the gossipy books, but I don't want to do that. I didn't think people would want to know my stories."