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By KJ Doughton | September 6, 2013

It’s been over thirty years since Freda Kelly helmed the Beatles’ fan club and acted as the band’s personal secretary. But you would never, ever suspect that this private, low-key brunette was once hand-picked by manager Brian Epstein to join the Fab Four’s coveted inner circle. Kelly defines anonymity, wearing a librarian’s glasses, rumpled white blouse, and modified pageboy haircut. We watch her sip morning coffee, pour cornflakes into a cereal bowl, and drive to a solicitor’s firm in Liverpool where she works as a secretary.

However, there’s something more to this charming, self-deprecating lady than meets the eye. “Good Ol’ Freda” confirms what her teasing smile suggests: that a treasure trove of extraordinary memories lies beneath this modest, seemingly ordinary, veneer.

“Good Ol’ Freda” is Ryan White’s magical mystery tour of a movie, and it’s easily the best in a current wave of rock docs. Don’t mistake the film for another fawning, behind-the-scenes glimpse at famous music gods. Although Beatles fans will swarm over its filmic scrapbook of photos, recordings, and memorabilia, this is no stuffy, archival history lesson. It’s really Freda’s film, pondering more profound, universal themes – the importance of integrity, the right to privacy, and the crucial wisdom of not making assumptions about others. The fact that Freda is charming and lovably charismatic doesn’t hurt the film’s appeal.

Flash back to Liverpool, England in 1961. At 17 years old, Kelly worked in a typing pool of secretaries, churning out legal reports. At lunchtime, however, she haunted the Cavern Club. “It had an interesting smell,” she recalls of the tiny rock venue, “of disinfectant, rotten fruit, and sweat all wrapped into one.” Of the bands that frequented its musty stage, she was especially fond of The Beatles. At the time, John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison, and Pete Best (their first drummer, replaced by Ringo Starr in 1962) were considered subversive. They were loud, wore leather, and teased their female audience (only 30 strong at the time) about their hairstyles from the stage.

Kelly rattles off detailed, elaborate anecdotes from the band’s embryonic Cavern era. With a grin, she recollects the way Lennon would receive handwritten song requests from the audience, only to have McCartney lean over his shoulder to read them.  Why? Lennon, she would eventually find out, was “blind as a bat,” refusing to wear glasses onstage and relying on his band-mate to decipher the notes.

Kelly became a familiar presence at the Cavern, watching nearly 200 Beatles live gigs. She caught the eye of band manager Brian Epstein, who announced, “I’m managing the Beatles. Do you want to be their secretary?” Why her? According to Beatles’ former press officer Tony Barrow, it was Kelly’s levelheadedness that sealed the deal. Epstein was looking for “somebody who was a fan, but not an over-the-top fanatic.” Soon she became a regular fixture of the thriving Beatles universe, befriended by the band as she answered their fan mail.

With great affection, Kelly reports that McCartney was the friendliest, while Lennon proved a “man of many moods.” He could be grumpy, she confirms, “but was always himself. He never put on an act.” Kelly insists that while the media dubbed Harrison “the quiet Beatle,” he was talkative around her, “soft spoken and thoughtful.”  Best, she reports, was “handsome, with a big following around town with the gals.” Asked if she had ever dated a Beatle, Kelly offers only a mischievous smile, responding, “That’s personal. Next question.”

In a move she would later regret, Kelly initially used her personal street address for Beatles’ fan club mail, receiving 200 letters a day. Eventually, the letters came in bundles, then by sack-loads. Kelly’s father was “not keen” on the band, regularly sifting through the massive piles of fan letters to retrieve personal mail and power bills. Kelly claims that at the band’s peak, following the fan club’s acquisition of a more anonymous mailing address, her daily mail pull was over 3,000 letters. Meanwhile, the fan club grew to over 70,000 members.

“Good Ol’ Freda” follows Kelly as she rides the tsunami-sized wave of Beatlemania that would forever change history. She reports being oblivious to the band’s monstrous popularity until their 1964 homecoming at Liverpool’s Town Hall. Perched on a balcony with the group, gazing down upon an ocean of 200,000 well-wishers flooding over Castle Street, she witnessed such mass hysteria that ambulances arrived to pick up hyperventilating fans. Suddenly, she was struck with the reality of what a phenomenon the Beatles had become.

For me, the highlight of “Good Ol’ Freda” involves Kelly’s many amazing fan club stories. In vivid detail, she describes how band admirers would send her directions to their parties, inviting the band to attend. She recalls the pillowcase sent in by a fan asking that it be returned only after Ringo had slept on it. And what about the Beatles worshipper who stowed away on a ship from America to Liverpool, only to show up on the McCartney family’s doorstep? Kelly took her job seriously. When a club assistant sent off a lock of her sister’s hair to a fan, pretending it was Paul’s, Kelly caught on… and sacked not only the specific fringe-forger, but her entire fan club staff.

White’s film also pays reverent respect to Epstein, a closeted gay man who died of a drug overdose in 1967. Kelly suggests that Epstein’s infamous tantrums and mood swings might have stemmed from the stress of hiding his sexuality from friends and family. Meanwhile, she confesses to what was, at the time, her own naivety concerning matters of homosexuality. Lennon educated her, explaining of Epstein, “Well, let’s just say this… if you were on a desert island with him, you’d be safe.” Reflecting back, Kelly acknowledges, “Nowadays, it’s legal and rightly so. But back then, they had a lot to put up with.”

If you’re a Beatles freak, “Good Ol’ Freda” is an indispensable must-see. But like so many of the best documentaries, it transcends the potential trappings of a “rock doc.” Beyond its massive heaps of exclusive trivia, “Good Ol’ Freda” is refreshingly unique for what it DOESN’T disclose. Kelly was, and remains, fiercely protective of the band, refusing to sell out with interviews and book deals, making her memories seem more honest and intimate. In fact, Kelly insists that the only reason she made the film was to immortalize the story for her grandson. How rare is it to hear from a fly-on-the-wall insider whose respect for her clients translates into a very tentative willingness to tell her story? What a novelty! Kelly’s reluctance to exploit her secrets is undeniably unique.

“I do respect privacy,” Kelly confirms in the film. “They’re entitled to parts of their lives that people shouldn’t invade.” Partly because of the respectful secrecy she maintained, Kelly was privy to many personal Beatles moments. She was the second person to see Ringo’s first child. When it was announced that Paul was marrying Freda, she promptly squashed the rumor.

While Frieda was loyal to the Beatles, the band has also proven its loyalty to her, evidenced by their approval of not just one, but four songs for use in the film. “I Saw Her Standing There,” “Love Me Do,” “I Feel Fine,” and “I Will” can all be heard during “Good Ol’ Freda.” Were it not for Kelly’s presence in the film, one suspects that such exclusive permission would not have been granted.

Kelly never desired fame, and despite her potential to make millions off band memorabilia, she’s given most of it away to fans. Only a few boxes remain. Throughout “Good Ol’ Freda,” we sit aside Kelly as she sifts through this tangible holy grail of pop history. When Freda returns her boxes to an attic crawlspace, where we sense they will likely remain for the duration of her life, we feel privileged to have accessed these delicate, precious reflections on a past both culturally gargantuan and intimately personal. This sweet, wise soul will win your heart, prompt your tears, and earn your respect.

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