Following the success of his award-winning documentary Pelada (a word Brazilians employ to designate a casual soccer game), which premiered at Sundance in 2010, director and producer Ryan White tells another hidden story. If in Pelada the filmmaker travelled to 25 different countries documenting the passion for soccer away from the stadiums’ spotlight, this time White took his cameras to one place, Liverpool, and focused them on Good ol’ Freda, whose job as a secretary, despite being every girl’s dream in 1960s, was in the shadow of one of the greatest bands of all times.
Freda Kelly dedicated her youth to presiding The Beatles’ fan club, acting as a liaison between the four young lads and the fans, from the times of The Cave, through eleven years of success, until the very last message to the Beatle People on the periodical newsletters she wrote. A Beatlemania victim herself, Freda began her work at the age of seventeen and developed a close relationship with some of the main characters of the Beatle family, including Ringo Star and his mother, Paul and Bryan Epstein. The latter, by the way, was pivotal in her career, for he decided to keep the fan club in Liverpool when Freda’s father impeded her of moving to London with the band.
Photographs, live concert footage and newspaper articles from the band’s golden days accompany the interviews, illustrating all the stories and emotions Freda pulls out of her memory. In a few instances, she wanders around Liverpool followed by White’s camera, expanding her voyage to the past, and illustrating some of the episodes she tells.
Making a film about The Beatles is, arguably, a safe recipe for success. Take Across the Universe, for instance. An extremely weak script, average acting and an incoherent way of linking the songs throughout the story ended up generating a box office of nearly 30 million dollars. However, Ryan White’s subtle touch endowed Good Ol’ Freda with much more to offer the audience than just an exceptional soundtrack.
Very few things are more compelling than the revival of a teenage passion in a humble woman’s sincere tales of nostalgia, especially when it comes to reliving memories so tightly connected to The Beatles. Freda talks candidly of her time with the band and presents herself as an unconditional fan – still a teenager – always grateful for having earned a job that allowed her to be so close to her greatest idols. The youth and sincerely of her love for the band is definitely what drives the documentary.
White’s best decision as the film director was, thus, to let Freda’s interview guide the narrative instead of trying to achieve some sort of complex chronology or groundbreaking aesthetic. The movie is good in its simplicity, in Freda’s good-hearted statements and in the archetype of the family member who remains loyal and loving despite not having achieved fame or extraordinary success. Freda did make the headlines a few times, as the film shows, but she eventually returns to her modest life, as a regular secretary. It is rather captivating to watch her relish memories that could have been loaded with glamour and stardom, but that come out of her mouth as filled with pure love and admiration for her idols.
That being said, however, White’s documentary is also limited by its minimalism. Naturally, there is only so much a director can explore in a (non-avant-garde) movie where one voice is heard 90% of the time. Since Freda’s passion for The Beatles is the main force driving the narrative, the formula “interview + photograph + concert footage + interview” might become dull at points for spectators who do not share her enthusiasm. The reliance on the Beatlemania, brings some weakness to the documentary. While Freda’s connection to The Beatles is undoubtedly what makes her interesting as a character, and thus worth being documented, White could have explored more of her life outside the Beatle realm, giving even more meaningfulness to the title Good ol’ Freda.
The film remains, nevertheless, an enticing documentary. A piece of jewelry that, despite not being the most expensive in the box, definitely carries the largest sentimental value.