Charming Beatles Secretary Breaks Long Silence in Good Ol' Freda

Good Ol' Freda Directed by Ryan White Magnolia Pictures, 87mins, $26.98.

Few people could have gotten the famously flinty John Lennon to literally get down on his knees to beg for something. But he did it backstage at a show to a girl barely out of her teens because he wanted her to change her mind about something -- and not what you think.

The girl in question was Freda Kelly, secretary of the official Beatles fan club and all-around Girl Friday. After Kelly was unable to reach the Fabs' dressing room due to a crush of people, she found herself in the adjoining space for the Moody Blues... and had a few drinks with the lads.

When she was able to make it back to the Beatles, a churlish Lennon fired Kelly on the spot (he later said it was "a joke," she disagrees). Buoyed by the booze, Kelly asked the other three Beatles if she was indeed canned, and they all answered with a resounding "no!" Kelly turned to Lennon, telling him he could take care of his own fan mail from now on since she only worked for the other three.

When Lennon asked what he could do to get her to change her mind, Kelly said "get down on your knees and beg me." Ever the contrarian, Lennon managed to bend just one to make amends that night.

It's one of many wonderful stories Kelly, who worked for the band and was a central part of their lives from 1961-72, tells in this charming and fascinating documentary. Its title comes from the shout out the band gave to her on their 1963 fan club Christmas record.

But those looking for more salacious material on the Beatles won't find it here. Kelly - who has never written a book, gone on the convention circuit, gave away most of her memorabilia now worth millions to fans, and participated in precious few interviews- keeps the remembrances warm.

Even her own daughter, interviewed here, talks about how she could never get Kelly to discuss her tenure with the group (as did her son, who it's mentioned has passed away). And Kelly herself says she is doing it only now for her grandchild so one day he'll know that his grandmother did have an exciting life at one point.

The most titillating things get is when the offscreen interviewer asks Kelly if she ever dated one of the Beatles. "No," she says, giggling. Then "pass," then "that's personal...there are stories but I don't want anybody's hair falling out or turning curly!" Believe me, it's much more charming onscreen than it seems here.

Of particular interest is Kelly's remembrances of the first few years of Beatlemania, which make up the bulk of the doc. After the Beatles operation moved to London, Kelly stayed in Liverpool some of the time at the behest of her ailing and wary father.

Hand-picked by Brian Epstein to handle official Beatles Fan Club operations after he signed the band, the then-17-year-old Kelly had indeed landed a dream job that made her the envy of her Cavern Club-dwelling peers. Still, there was a learning curve. When she innocently listed her own home address as the destination for all fan club correspondence, her exasperated father was for a while unable to find his own bills amidst the hundreds of letters arriving daily.

But she also tells about the bizarre things fans would send in the mail or requests. Kelly would place mats on the ground when the Beatles' barber went to work so she could fulfill just a fraction of requests for their shorn follicles.

And when one fan sends a pillowcase with the request that Starr sleep on it and then sign it, Kelly dutifully tromps over to his house and has the bewildered drummer do just that.

And she would routinely stay up until the wee hours of the morning hand-writing responses to fan mail, eventually discarding the rolling stamp that produced fake band signatures because she felt it was cheating.

But by working efficiently, in the band's best interests, and being a fan without being an overzealous one, she earned respect and love from not only Epstein and the group, but the Beatle parents and parent figures with whom she had a lot of contact.

Story continues on the next page.

Kelly found a surrogate parent in Ringo's mum (her own had died when Kelly was 18 months old). As part of the filming, she returns to the Starkey household (now a museum) for the first time in almost five decades, clearly an emotional moment.

She also tells of sneaking off for a drink with Paul's dad, and learning to dance with the Harrisons, though she seems to have had sparse contact with Lennon's famously taciturn and somewhat disapproving Aunt Mimi. Later, she is a passenger on the Magical Mystery Tour bus, and gives some funny anecdotes about the wild trip.

But after the 1967 death of Epstein and the subsequent well-documented slow dissolution of the band for personal and musical reasons -- as well as the rot of Apple -- Kelly says it just wasn't fun anymore. Still, she hung onto her post until well after the band had broken up, yearning to start her own family and live quietly as a housewife.

Over the ensuing decades, she talked little of her time of close contact to the most famous rock band in the world, and to this day still keeps a secretarial job -- shown in the film with an overwhelming sense of drudgery that makes for some cringiness. Interviews with other Beatle associates and Liverpool musicians flesh out the documentary with context.

Bonus features included deleted scenes, commentary, interview with director Ryan White, and Kelly's Q&A at a screening and interaction with fans, undoubtedly happy that someone so close to the band can offer still more new material for their insatiable quest to know All Things Beatles.

One glaring absence from the DVD, though, are contemporary interviews with surviving Beatles Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr. Surely White must have approached them, and while Starr does offer a brief "message to Freda's grandchildren" as the end credits roll, it feels tacked on.

For someone who was such a beloved figure in the Beatles' inner circle -- and who has kept the faith and the secrets for five decades -- Paul and Ringo's absence from the narrative are two gaping holes.


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