In as much as the Beatles experienced any kind of movie career beyond “A Hard Days Night” and “Help,” the two cheeky vehicles directed by Richard Lester in the mid-’60s, Ringo Starr took the medium a bit more seriously, at least for a while. To paraphrase a country song covered by the Fab Four and sung by Ringo, all he had to do was act naturally.
“He was used perfectly in the movies,” says Chris Carter, longtime host of the Sunday-morning radio show “Breakfast With the Beatles” on KLOS-FM. “In ‘A Hard Day’s Night,’ he had his own scene and his own theme; in ‘Help’ it’s all about the ring and Ringo; he sings the title song for ‘Yellow Submarine.’ So if you think about it, he was really used to great effect, and I don’t think the other guys minded it in the least.”
Ringo experienced a natural predeliction for the visual medium, and as his recent limited-edition book, “Photograph” attests, Ringo took to photography early on.
“Ringo was always into gadgets,” says Mark Lewisohn, author of “Tune In: The Beatles: All These Years,” the first of three volumes planned on the lives of the Fab Four. “And when the Beatles began to earn serious money, they would buy themselves — or indeed be given, because that’s the prviledge of being very famous — things. Ringo loved cameras and was taking photographs quite seriously from the end of 1963. He had a knowledge of cameras and an interest in filming. And he was good in front of the camera and good behind the camera.”
Adds Ringo: “I just like to take pictures. I was always videoing, with our the family get-togethers I was taking shots of the babies, you know, the children growing up. I realized, let’s say 10 years ago, I slowed down because I was never at the party. I was surreptitiously filming people.”
After the Beatles’ manager Brian Epstein died in 1967, the Beatles began to initiate their own projects, such as “Magical Mystery Tour,” a loose concept dreamed up by Paul McCartney and more or less inspired by Ken Kesey, his Merry Pranksters and their psychedelic road trip on a magic bus called “Further.” “Paul was the instigator of many of the things the Beatles did because he is a workaholic,” explains Ringo. “We liked to relax but he’d get us up.”
Observes director David Lynch: “The Beatles had that creativity flowing big time. And when that flows it flows into all their mediums. It’s really beautiful.”
“Magical Mystery Tour” was filmed as a TV special but was largely panned upon its initial airing the day after Christmas in 1967. “It didn’t do very well in England because the first time the BBC showed it, they showed it in black and white,” explains Ringo. “By then we participated in some sort of mind medication and color was important.”
What a lot of people might not know is that Ringo is the credited director of photography on the project, possibly the most amped-up, hallucinatory longform video ever produced in the guise of a movie. In one scene in this largely improvised mind trip, filmed outside Ringo’s country house in Weybridge, U.K., Ringo projects slide images on George Harrison’s face, with the band’s “Blue Jay Way” playing on the soundtrack.
“I didn’t photograph all of it,” Ringo admits of “Magical Mystery Tour.” “But I had all the crazy lenses, all the prism lenses, and I was making slides. So I knew that stuff.”
When asked if the Beatles’ minds were as altered as it feels by viewers watching “Magical Mystery Tour,” Ringo demures: “Well it does look psychedelic,” he explains. “But one thing we learned was that it’s great to get out there, but when you’re working just bring that with you, don’t be it. A lot of the time people thought we were out of our heads, but actually we were out of our heads the night before.”
When the Beatles became patrons of arts by establishing the multimedia Apple Corps in 1968, Ringo took it upon himself to run the film portion of the company, as short-lived as it was. He would eventually direct the documentary “Born to Boogie” (1972), centering on Marc Bolan and T-Rex, made at the height of “T-Rextacy” as it was known.
“Most days and all nights, I’d be sitting around the table in my office, with Harry Nilsson, Keith Moon and myself discussing ‘world politics.’ And Marc (Bolan) came in one day – I don’t know how he got in but he got in – and he said ‘I came in the charts at number 10. Next week I’ll be number one.’
“I said to him, ‘I want this to be the way of Apple Films.’ If you had a great idea we’d supply the cameras and the money and you’d bring the product back. But most people forgot to bring anything back, they just ran away with the cameras. And with him I said “You put yourself up, I’ll put everything else up.’ That’s how I wanted to work and we did that with him. He loved the idea.”
The documentary is part concert film, part improvisation a la “Magical Mystery Tour” and part music rehearsal scenes, some of which feature electrifying footage of Bolan, Ringo and Elton John on such songs as “Before the Revolution,” filmed at Apple Studios on Savile Row in London.
After “Before the Revolution,” Ringo would concentrate on acting. He shared top billing with Peter Sellers on “The Magic Christian” (1969) and with David Essex in “That’ll Be the Day” (1973), his most naturalistic and acclaimed performance. “Caveman” (1981), a slapstick comedy with cartoony stop-motion dinosaurs and stoner humor in which Ringo played the title role, is as bad as you might imagine, and could have convinced the drummer that his movie career had run its course.
“(That) all went downhill, and my recording career went downhill,” Ringo says of his ’80s slide. “I was too busy doing other stuff. And I realized that there’s enough actors; I’m a musician.”