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Barry Keoghan, Andrew Scott and Paul Mescal as stars of four Beatles biopics? I’ve heard better ideas

Donald Clarke: The musical biopic is among the most benighted of cinematic genres, but there is perhaps more chance of innovation with Sam Mendes’s planned set

In 2022, John Higgs published a fine book entitled Love and Let Die: Bond, the Beatles and the British Psyche. The author points out that Dr No, the first James Bond film, and Love Me Do, The Beatles’ first single, were released on the same day in 1962 and goes on to wind the phenomena together as defining manifestations of the British superego.

Sam Mendes, director of Skyfall and Spectre, two huge Bond films, had nothing to tell us about that libidinous agent this week. The 007 camp has been eerily silent since No Time to Die emerged a full 2½ years ago. But he had news of the other lot. The director tells us that, with the blessing of living Beatles and relevant estates, he is to embark on four films, all to be released in 2027, telling the band’s story from the perspective of each individual member. Tom Rothman, the man from Sony Pictures, was not holding back. “Theatrical movie events today must be culturally seismic!” he tubthumped. “Sam’s daring, large-scale idea is that and then some.” Okay, then.

The internet reacted with the hysteria you’d expect if ... well, if Eon Productions had just announced the next James Bond. There was particular enthusiasm for speculative casting. With the current surge in Irish acting, we shouldn’t be surprised to see both the Guardian and Variety naming Barry Keoghan – for John and Ringo, respectively. George MacKay, the charming star of Mendes’s own 1917, popped up in a few outlets. Both Variety and the Daily Telegraph wondered about Timothée Chalamet, but Robbie Collin, in the latter publication, felt Timmo would be too expensive. Collin also argued Paul Mescal might be otherwise engaged. For what it’s worth, my shout among the domestic talent would be Andrew Scott for Brian Epstein. He’s technically a whole decade and a half too old, but you’d never know it from comparing photographs.

Anyway, the point is that the public just refuses to stop caring about The Beatles. Americans are, if anything, even keener than the British. In a famous interview with David Frost from 1964, McCartney wondered what he would do “if we flopped tomorrow”. Watching again, you wouldn’t say his tone suggested he felt this all that likely. McCartney nonetheless had a back-up plan. “Write songs for other people,” he said. Fully 60 years later, news of the first semi-official biopic infested the media pages in seconds. Six decades before the David Frost interview, Edward VII was on the British throne.


None of which means this is necessarily a great idea. Indeed, an argument could be made that the musical biopic is the most benighted of cinematic genres. As you read, Bob Marley: One Love, an entry of the corniest hue, is defying indifferent reviews to register respectable box office. Last Christmas, Whitney Houston: I Wanna Dance with Somebody hit the same hokey beats in its retelling of that singer’s ultimately tragic life. (“Artist Name: One of Their Hits” is fast becoming the industry-standard title template for such things.)

If there were any justice in the world, Jake Kasdan’s Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story, a pitch-perfect satire from 2007, would have killed the genre stone dead

You know how this goes. Miraculous discovery. World fame. Silly scene where they spot inspiration for best-known tune. Drink’n’drugs hell. Sad premature death or redemptive resurrection. End credits play over footage of real performer. All that marinated in well-spiced hagiography. Subsequent reviews praise lead performance while expressing reservations about the film itself. Ladies and gentlemen, put your hands together for La Bamba (Ritchie Valens), Great Balls of Fire! (Jerry Lee Lewis), The Doors (The Doors), Beyond the Sea (Bobby Darin) and Nina (Nina Simone). Even relatively successful biopics such as Walk the Line (Johnny Cash) and Ray (Ray Charles) play close to the patterns outlined above. We juggle hope and expectation while awaiting upcoming films on Amy Winehouse and Michael Jackson.

If there were any justice in the world, Jake Kasdan’s Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story, a pitch-perfect satire from 2007, would have killed the genre stone dead. That film is, at least, sufficiently well remembered to enter the casting debate this week. A few too many jokers suggested Paul Rudd, Jack Black, Justin Long and Jason Schwartzman, who play The Beatles in Walk Hard, as suggestions for the Mendes project.

It sounds as if the British director is attempting to navigate fresh waters. The best musical biopics – Todd Haynes’s bizarre I’m Not There, on Bob Dylan, and Alex Cox’s Sid and Nancy, on Sid Vicious, stand out – come at the subject from eccentric angles. The hagiography meter bleeps at that imprimatur from the surviving Beatles, but, remember, A Hard Day’s Night is still among the best rock films ever made. They weren’t fools then. And they’re not fools now. The oddball notions outlined allow at least the possibility of innovation. And, meanwhile, still no sign of a new James Bond.