Ryan White’s sweet-natured documentary, Good Ol’ Freda, features a title character who seems so endearing and unassuming you wonder how she held on to her job as no-nonsense secretary and president of the fan club for the most famous pop band in history.
When first we meet Kelly, now in her late 60s, she looks directly at the camera and asks without a trace of ego: “Who would want to hear a secretary’s story?” But Kelly has a story worth sharing.
Plucked at age 17 from the Cavern Club, a crowded basement bar in Liverpool where John, Paul, George and Pete (Ringo had yet to join) first sewed the seeds of Beatlemania in 1961, Kelly was just another fan. But Beatles manager Brian Epstein saw something in this particular fan and hired her on the spot. Her adoration for the foursome never flagged. Ringo Starr quietly quit the Beatles during the fractious White Album sessions in 1968 before being lured back. But “good ol’ Freda” endured even after a volatile John Lennon fired her for speaking to members of rival pop group, the Moody Blues. She’d make Lennon beg on bended knee for her return, and he acquiesced.
No one messed with Freda — and if they did, romantically or otherwise, she’s not telling. “Oh, there are stories, but I don’t want anyone’s hair falling out,” she demurs when asked if she ever dated one of the Beatles. “It’s personal.”
Kelly would remain in the Beatles employ even after the four began releasing solo albums. She performed secretarial duties for the group’s parent corporation for a year after the Beatles broke up in 1970. She finally ends the fan club herself with a straightforward letter to fans that the long and winding road had hit a brick wall.
Surprisingly, only her children, a son and daughter, shared first-hand knowledge of her 11-year run with the Fab Four. For more than 40 years Kelly kept her past private and was a footnote in British pop music history. Remarkably, she never attempted to cash in on the memorabilia she had stored in her attic in plastic and White repeatedly sets her on a pedestal for her faithfulness.
But Kelly, after the death of her son, agreed to share her story with White, a friend, so that her grandchild would know what she once did in the 1960s.
White lets her take control of his film. If Kelly doesn’t want to dish, White’s not pushing. This makes Good Ol’ Freda somewhat non-essential viewing for anyone but diehard fans who will adore hearing the group’s original songs on the soundtrack (no other film of this type has had such access to the original recordings) and getting a glimpse of the Beatles’ personalities from an insider’s perspective.
John was moody but the quickest with a quip. “This is John speaking to you, with his voice,” he says on a 1963 Christmas recording for the fan club. Paul was “nice,” and George wasn’t as quiet as legend suggested. Ringo was her favorite for a while, and his mother became a confidante and pal. (Starr, alone among the two surviving Beatles, offers an on-screen testimonial to tout “good ol’ Freda.”)
Otherwise, Good Ol’ Freda is charming but slight and its stories and observations grow repetitious even with the relatively short running length. White’s engaging film is mostly notable for its homage to working-class Liverpool in the tumultuous 1960s and its championing the value of loyalty and integrity. You’ll surely fall in love with Kelly, she’s irresistible, but you’ll do so only on her terms. If you want to know a secret, as the early Beatles once sang, keep digging.
With: Freda Kelly, The Beatles.
Director: Ryan White.
Screenwriters: Ryan White, Jessica Lawson.
Producers: Kathy McCabe, Ryan White, Jessica Lawson.
A Magnolia Pictures release. Running time: 87 minutes. Mild adult themes and language. Opens Friday Sept. 27 iIn Miami-Dade only: O Cinema Miami Shores.