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Non-Review Review: Good Ol’ Freda

This film was seen as part of the Jameson Dublin International Film Festival 2014.

Freda Kelly was secretary to The Beatles, and the head of the official Beatles fan club. She managed letters and schedules and magazines and wages and all these different aspects of the lives of John, Paul, Ringo and George. However, she remains something of a peripheral figure in the grand tapestry of Beatles lore. According to most of the commentators in Good Ol’ Freda, there’s a very simple reason for this.

“My mother never played the fame game,” her daughter notes. Freda never published a tell-all book. She never betrayed confidence. Indeed, one of the stories in Good Ol’ Freda has her firing two assistants for one’s attempt to pass off the hair of a sibling for the hair of a Beatle. Integrity was very much the watchword of Freda Kelly, and it’s something that comes across in the documentary, as Freda rather pointedly refuses to be drawn on more personal or intimate questions.

As a result, there’s very little information here that won’t be familiar to fans of the Fab Four. There are some nice insights and an occasionally endearing anecdote – poor Ringo and his nine fan letters! – but Good Ol’ Freda never really pries too deeply into lives Freda managed for a decade at the peak of their popularity. Instead, Good Ol’ Freda works best as a character study of its subject, a glimpse of a woman who was caught up in a maelstrom and walked out almost completely unaffected.

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Freda Kelly is remarkable – she is an absolutely fascinating subject for a documentary. She worked as a secretary to the biggest band on the planet. One might imagine that Freda would have been taken care of, and allowed to retire quietly in a life of relative luxury for services rendered. Instead, Freda is still working as a secretary – albeit in what appears to be a slightly less glamourous or exciting field.

Several of the contributors note that Freda has had the opportunity to make a fortune. She might easily have sold her story or auctioned off her collection of Beatles memorabilia. Instead, she didn’t. Freda opted to respect the confidences she had earned, and made sure to give away most of her collectables to deserving fans for free. She is quite proud of that, pointing out that she handed over most of the material herself.

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It’s an absolutely remarkable story, and Freda herself is a fascinating subject. She refuses to be drawn on the personal lives of The Beatles. She is very diplomatic when talking about potentially troublesome stories. She is quick to qualify an observation about John Lennon’s fickleness with assurances that he could be the kindest person in the band. She won’t talk about any romantic relationships or flirtations with particular Beatles.

It’s a very classy, very dignified affair, particularly in this era of mud-raking and excavation into pop culture history. Good Ol’ Freda is hardly a warts-and-all “tell all” exploration at a new side of The Beatles‘ ascent to stardom. Freda seems to stand by her comments to the fan club during the later days of The Beatles‘ career – these four individuals are entitled to their own lives and their own freedom, and it is nobody’s business to invade their privacy.

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However, this means that Good Ol’ Freda really doesn’t have too much to offer its viewers in the way of cutting observations or inside commentary. There are a few nice stories scattered across the movie’s runtime, but very little insight into these four Liverpool lads who chanced the face of popular music forever. There’s nothing new revealed about the divide between Paul and John; nothing shocking about the band’s early days. As a result, structuring the movie as a year-by-year history of the band feels like something of a mistake.

Freda Kelly herself is the much more interesting story here. Freda seems willing to talk more freely about her family history and her reasons for coming forward at this point in time. Coupled with the commentary from various talking heads about who Freda was and how she approached her job, Good Ol’ Freda works infinitely better as a heartwarming character study than a behind-the-scenes documentary. While the film does spend a bit of time digging into Freda’s personal story, there’s a lot more fertile ground to cover.

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Still, there is something wonderfully warm and affectionate about Good Ol’ Freda, as befits the subject of this documentary. It’s hard not to like Freda Kelly, to respect her loyalty to The Beatles, and to understand why she has chosen this point in time to come forward. In fact, the credits feature a heart-warming message from an old friend; prompting one to notice a very conspicuous absence from the documentary, but also to wonder why that talking head didn’t pop up sooner. It’s not a big deal; the movie paints a clear enough portrait as is, but it doesn’t necessarily reflect well on those involved.

Good Ol’ Freda isn’t as insightful or instructive as it might claim to be. It’s not a new window on an old story, or anything like that. Instead, it works best as a look at a most remarkable life that got caught up in one of the greatest pop culture phenomena of the twentieth century… and then continued straight on afterwards.

All audience members are asked to rank films in the festival from 1 (worst) to 4 (best). In the interest of full and frank disclosure, here is my score: 3

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