Book Review:The Man Who “Framed” the Beatles: A Biography of Richard Lester by Andrew Yule
“Asked on one occasion to hold forth on his innermost thoughts, Lester produced the first completely silent stretch of tape in almost forty hours of recording. Finally, his features contorted almost in pain, he offered an apologetic, ‘I don’t think I can,’ followed by another long patch of agonized silence” (348). That’s the main issue holding back this highly readable biography of Richard Lester, who somehow ended up directing several rock movies including A Hard Day’s Night and Help! despite being raised on classical music, and directing Superman II and Superman III after having been raised in a house where comicbooks were forbidden, that we don’t get much more than a glimpse at best of the mind of their creator. I read through this book in only seven days of commutes, and it was effective at reinvigorating my desire to be a filmmaker again, because it gives an excellent journalistic breakdown of Lester’s experiences making each of his films, many of which I’ve seen, but many of which I haven’t. The Bed-Sitting Room has been on my must-see list for over a decade, but the British-made (as are most of Lester’s films, even though he was born in Philadelphia) film is not readily available in the United States.
Like A Hard Day’s Night and Superman III, the book has a rollicking opening, and it achieves this by beginning not at the beginning, but in the chapter on A Hard Day’s Night. This has the benefit of drawing in the reader, particularly those drawn by the Beatles connection, but it also leaves the book’s focus, Lester himself, almost completely subsumed as a minor character in his own biography as we get an uncensored version of Beatles antics involving sex and drugs, which were beyond the pale of realism that Lester was going for in the film while deliberately leaving out those elements, as required of him. Earlier in the above-quoted paragraph, Yule describes Lester as “not a man of towering heights and plummeting lows with the odd car chase flung in–” which adds to his burial in the first chapter, although his wedding night would seem an ideal subject for one of his own pictures, since so many odd things happened that the consummation didn’t come that night, but “a creature of considerable modesty and charm, with a complexity beneath his buttoned up exterior.”
In addition to a play-by-play of the making and reception of each of his films (Lester, now 83, has made no films since this book was released in 1994), we get interesting anecdotes, like how he finally got the crew–on the Musketeers films no less–to stop calling him “Dick”–he was called Richard at home, and it was always his preferred name, and Paul McCartney admits it took him a while to adjust to the change–Lester’s final film to date having been a film of McCartney in concert. Another quirk of the book is the way Yule refers to the Beatles by their first names and Lester and everyone else by their surnames, which might make more sense if the Beatles were the stars of the book.
Still, I think this is a must-read for aspiring filmmakers, at least those who like Lester, and for those only interested in the portions on the Beatles (three chapters, plus the introduction and a deleted scene), the book certainly has some amusing anecdotes, such as a shopping trip in the Alps during the filming of Help! The end gives Lester’s comments on all of the films he turned down, a particularly interesting choice for a director who chose to do so many films that flopped, such as Butch and Sundance: The Early Days, in which he again strove for realism and authenticity, even down to the music. The book documents a major fight on music for Robin and Marian (in which a Michel Legrand score inspired by the work of Michael Tippett at Lester’s request was rejected by producer Ray Stark in favor of John Barry schmaltz), but I would have liked a bit more about Lester’s work with frequent composer Ken Thorne, whose major mention in the book is when Lester himself had to play an authentic Roman instrument he wanted featured in A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum and split his lip in the process (124-5).
As an aspiring filmmaker, I found the nuts and bolts of making the films fascinating, but this may not be to all tastes. It also shows you how much easier it was in the 1960s to break into television and film than it is now. Lester had no particular advanced education, but even with a master’s degree in film the doors to the industry seem to be completely shut on me. Yule seems to have had young filmmakers in mind as the target audience, and compromised the book to better market the Beatles angle. It doesn’t disappoint in this respect, but it also undermines the book in some ways, although less so than Lester’s owned closed and undiaristic interviewing style.