With countless books, films, re-issues, compilations and the like, it would be easy to assume there are no new stories to be told about the Beatles. The documentary “Good Ol’ Freda,” which has its world premiere Saturday at the South by Southwest film festival, finds a previously unheard-from eyewitness to the entire history of the band.
Freda Kelly was a secretary for the band and ran their official fan club for more than 10 years. Only 17 when she started working for the band, at first she made the fan club address her home address in Liverpool. When her father got upset by the incredible volume of mail that started pouring in as the band took off, she had to have it sent elsewhere. Kelly was right there in the rush of those early days, as the band moved from small local clubs like the Cavern to larger halls and international success. Working in the office of the band‘s manager Brian Epstein, she would distribute weekly stipends to John, Paul, George and Ringo while also collecting hair cuttings to send to fans or asking a band member to sleep on a pillowcase that had been sent in.
She was in the employ of the Beatles longer than the existence of the group itself, though the film focuses most strongly on the period of their rise and early fame. Still working today as a secretary in Liverpool, Kelly gave away countless items of now-valuable memorabilia when she disbanded the fan club and kept only a few small boxes for herself. In some of the film’s most charming moments, she digs her keepsakes out from deep in her attic.
“When I ended the fan club in 1972 and the Beatles had split up as a group, I wanted to go into another box, I wanted to be a housewife, I wanted more children, I just didn’t want to do that anymore, I wanted to concentrate on my family,” Kelly said in interview in Austin on Saturday morning. “And I thought, well that’s the end of it.”
Filmmaker Ryan White had met Kelly through his family, his uncle being Billy Kinsley of the Liverpool band the Merseybeats, who also appears in the film. Though Kelly had always rebuffed all offers to tell her story, after the recent birth of a grandson she decided the time was right.
“I didn’t know she was the Beatles’ secretary,” said White, who also directed the 2010 documentary "Pelada." “I just thought she was my aunt’s friend who was a solicitor’s secretary and very charming to talk to at weddings.”
Filming some 40 hours of interviews with Kelly, White couldn’t believe the wealth of stories and information she was still able to recall. He also found that the discretion that had made her such a trusted ally of the band in their heyday still held fast, as she never revealed more than she thought proper.
“I would often get asked as I was trying to get the film made, people would say, 'What’s new in this movie?' And my answer was always, everything’s new,” said White. “Nothing has ever been heard before. Freda has never talked about it. The movie isn’t about recapping Beatles history; that’s well told, what happened during the Beatles’ decade. So it’s a very personal film, Freda’s personal experience dealing with the Beatles.”
White was even able to secure the rights to use four songs by the Beatles, “I Saw Her Standing There,” “Love Me Do,” “I Feel Fine” and “I Will.” The very morning he was first meeting with representatives of Apple Corps, who oversee use of the Beatles catalog, was the same day news broke of the $250,000 paid by the television show “Mad Men” to use only one Beatles track, “Tomorrow Never Knows.”
“We’re very grateful they were willing to work with us,” White said. “We didn’t get it for free, but we didn’t have to pay $250,000.”
Even after all these years, Kelly still considers herself a fan of the Beatles. And she remembers those early days the best, when they were playing rock 'n' roll in small clubs.
“I just wish everybody could see the Cavern days,” Kelly said. “That was the real Beatles. To me.”