Freda Kelly was a shy, 17-year old typist when Beatles manager Brian Epstein plucked her from the group’s earliest handful of followers and offered her the job of band secretary. Over the duration of the band’s career from 1962 to 1973, Kelly handled the Beatles fan club, scribing its newsletters and personally responding to every hysterical girl who wrote them. She followed John, Paul, George, and Ringo to the barbershop and swept their hair to send to fans. “Good Ol’ Freda” revisits Kelly 50 years later, where she reflects back on her unique affiliation with the Fab Four.
In the strictest sense, I suppose you could say that “Good Ol’ Freda” is a historical rock documentary. But director Ryan White has created something more transcendent and unique. Kelly isn’t a glamorous fame-seeker, and has always been reluctant to tell her story (in fact, she admits that her primary reason for participating in the film was to immortalize it for her grandson). Meanwhile, her longevity within the band’s insular inner circle, we suspect, was earned through a steadfast refusal to sell them out (she never wrote a tell-all book or dished up incriminating dirt during interviews).
One would be forgiven for thinking that Freda’s inherently private nature would be bland and boring. After all, where’s the dirt? Paradoxically, “Good Ol’ Freda” derives its fascinating, compelling strengths not from scandalous revelations, but from Kelly’s unquestionable integrity. Not for one moment do we question the accuracy of her accounts, and when she does open up, we feel privileged to vicariously share in her memories. She’s also witty and quietly charismatic. When asked if she ever dated a Beatle, Kelly retorts in characteristically sly style: “That’s personal. Next question.”
Meanwhile, “Good Ol’ Freda” packs surprising emotional punch. Kelly isn’t one for tears or temper tantrums, but the camera captures subtle moments of bittersweet reflection on her face as she pulls faded band scrapbooks from her attic crawlspace that we sense haven’t been revisited in half a century. There’s a pure, unforced intimacy that sets into these moments, as she sifts through old boxes and says, “When I pick something up… I’ll remember that day.” Cue misty eyes and lump in throat.
In addition to toggling his film masterfully between epic Beatles history and Freda’s more personal story, White also secured four original Beatles song recordings for his film. Incredibly, “I Saw Her Standing There,” “Love Me Do,” “I Feel Fine,” and “I Will” were all approved by Starr and McCartney (and the estates of Lennon and Harrison) for use in the film, testimony to their appreciation of Kelly’s steadfast support.
In the paragraphs that follow, “Good Ol’ Freda” director Ryan White discusses how he balanced the film’s personal attributes with its larger historical themes. He describes Brian Epstein’s struggle to live as a closeted gay man during an era in which it was illegal, and how a piece of George Harrison’s hair was integral to financing his film.
“Good Ol’ Freda” features an amazing amount of trivia and Beatles memorabilia, but it’s also very much Freda’s personal story. The balance between the two feels organic and natural, without falling too much into either direction. Was it difficult to achieve this balance between the larger “band story,” and Freda’s more personal perspectives?
My editor and I spent a lot of time trying to strike this balance. We knew we wanted to appeal to our niche audience, which are Beatles fans, but we also wanted this to be a character portrait of a teenage girl thrown into a whirlwind and the job of a lifetime. We decided early on that we wouldn’t try to re-tell Beatles history in general with this film, we would only tell that history through the eyes of Freda. Lucky for us, Freda is such an amazing story-teller that I think her perspective feels really fresh to people.
Amazingly, you managed to secure four Beatles recordings for use in the film. Can you explain the process for obtaining the rights to these songs?
It’s a real testament to Freda that we were given very rare permission to use four original Beatles songs as well as the songs that were on the Beatles Fan Club Christmas record you hear at the beginning of the film (on which the band give the shout-out “Good Ol’ Freda!,” inspiring the film’s title). Freda’s name — and the way she has lived her life — got us into places we normally would have never gotten. The process took almost two years and we were genuinely shocked when we pulled it off, because everyone had told us it would be impossible. I’m so pleased they saw the worth in giving us access to that music, though. It really took the film to another level.
“Good Ol’ Freda” finds original ways to make its photos and memorabilia look exciting and unique. For example, the initial credits for your film are designed like a giant scrapbook of photos and autographs. It sets the vibe perfectly. Many documentaries get so lost in their archival footage that they become bland and boring. How did you avoid this trap?
The initial credits graphics were inspired by the scrapbooks Freda discovered in her attic during filming. They were all tattered and falling apart. The tape was still there that had held the mementos in place 50 years ago and we wanted to use that as an aesthetic device throughout the film. We had an amazing graphics guy, Steve Antholis, who helped create that scrapbook world which we then thread throughout the entire film.
At the end of your film, Ringo Starr can be seen acknowledging Freda’s contributions to the band. How did you obtain the footage, and did Paul McCartney provide any similar words of praise? Have they reported their reactions to the film?
We’re so grateful to Ringo for recording that heartfelt message to Freda. Sadly, Freda lost her own mother when she was 18 months old. She was so close to Ringo’s Mum Elsie that she considered her a mother figure. Paul knows about the film and gave it his important approval. Freda was also very close with Paul’s father who she called Uncle Jim. We worked with Paul’s office to get a message but despite great efforts on both parts the scheduling didn’t come together.
“Good Ol’ Freda” is very empathic in its handling of Brian Epstein’s homosexuality. It really hits home how difficult it was for the gay community during the band’s era, relative to contemporary times and the growing acceptance of gay marriage in some states. Do you have any comments on this?
It’s a great question, and shows how far we’ve come. In Freda’s own lifetime, it was illegal for her gay boss to be openly gay. That’s only 50 years ago — today, gays and lesbians are much farther along in what they have to fight for, but the fight still exists. My next film is an HBO documentary about gay marriage that we began before “Good Ol’ Freda” was even conceived, so I was always very aware (while filming “Good Ol’ Freda”) of Freda’s stories about Brian Esptein and other gay friends of hers in the 1960’s who were forced to live very difficult lives.
There’s a tremendous emotional pull in the film, when Freda returns her boxes of memorabilia to the attic. It’s as if a chapter of history has been told, then put away forever… almost a mournful quality to the scenes that brought me to tears. How difficult is it to capture and elicit strong emotional moments in a documentary with a large historical component?
Freda is not an openly emotional person, but there is a lot of emotion in her that you can read just by leaving the camera on her. Her actions carry a lot of emotion. I loved the idea of someone looking back on her life that was so far long ago, taking the time to tell it, and then closing that chapter forever. It is mournful to me as well, but in the type of way that we mourn losses but also celebrate that we had something to lose.
My favorite part of the film was Freda’s fan club anecdotes, like the pillow sent by a fan who asked if Ringo would sleep on it. What was your favorite anecdote? What was your favorite piece of fan club memorabilia that she disclosed?
The pillowcase was one of my favorite stories too. It’s difficult to imagine that kind of personal service happening today with pop stars. When we were raising funds to start the film, a fan did an eBay auction of one strand of George’s hair that he’d owned for 20 years and donated the proceeds to the film. We were shocked when that one strand sold for nearly $3,000. And then the envelope Freda finds in her attic is filled with George Harrison’s hair. I said, ‘Freda that hair is worth a fortune.’ And she shut me down with that stare that only Freda can give when she disapproves. I wilted.