Reporting Jonathon Sharp
Full disclosure: I’m not exactly a big Beatles fan. So take that into consideration when reading the following on “Good Ol’ Freda,” the latest doc on what many would call the greatest, most influential rock band ever.
So who’s Freda? She’s the band’s longtime secretary, who literally grew up with the Beatles, and saw their lives like no other fan girl did. Director Ryan White records her story, apparently so Freda can show her descendants how she spent her late teenage years and most of her twenties. An intensely private person, Freda Kelly has pretty much kept her exceptional past to herself. It’s telling, for instance, that she didn’t hang on to what would be precious memorabilia to make millions later on. Today her home, which we see in the movie, is decidedly modest, considering who she worked for. One almost feels bad seeing that she still works as a secretary.
But work is something Freda takes pride in. She’s an old-school Liverpool girl, in that way. As head of the Beatles fan club, her job was to answer fan letters — thousands and thousands of fan letters — and that’s what she did. What the fanatical fans wanted, she delivered as best she could: even if she had to take the hairs from Paul McCartney’s head. But she’d never discuss their love lives or their internal issues. She believed in personal privacy, a concept perhaps lost on our modern gossip-and-surveillance culture.
For the non-Beatles freak, Freda’s stories are interesting, but not particularly engaging. She shares anecdotes about how the guys were — John was moody, George was quiet, Ringo didn’t get too much fan mail — but never gets into dirty details. (She does hint, however, that she may have dated one, or more, of “the boys.”) More interesting are her descriptions of the Beatles’ families, which she grew quite close to, and how they interacted with the musicians as their fame took off. Probably her most valuable insights to fans are of the band’s fracturing and eventual demise.
No living Beatles appear in the movie, save for a few seconds of Ringo during the credits. It’s sort of disappointing. Moreover, nothing related or captured in the film makes it into something beyond fan fodder. That’s not necessarily a bad thing (there’s plenty of Beatles fans, obviously) it’s just that I don’t see why one not into the Beatles would want to see this. There’s no insight into the Beatles’ creative process, and no real look into the massive cultural flux happening in the 60s. This is the story of an insider with no ax to grind. This is the story of a girl’s dream job — a gig that took her to amazing places, but dropped her off right where it picked her up: good ol’ Liverpool.
Larry King telling of his first sexual experience on a baseball field in the Catskill Mountains is one of the better stories related in When Comedy Went To School, a History Channel-grade documentary focused the comic training ground that brought forth the likes of Jerry Lewis, Mort Sahl and Sid Caesar.
Directors Mevlut Akkaya and Ron Frank try to explain why the resorts in the mountains northwest of New York City were a hotbed of comic experimentation and the bedrock of today’s stand-up comedy. In part, they succeed, based the on the testimony of so many funny guys just talking about their early days in the spotlight, trying to “kill” tough audiences and “dying” on stage. Yet the doc also bends over backwards in an attempt to bring the history of Jewish comedy, from the deserts of Egypt to Vaudeville, into the picture. The labor feels forced, superficial and contributes to this made-for-TV quality. The ugly opening animation sequence, tasteless graphic design and contrived writing don’t help either.
While When Comedy Went To School might not be pretty or expertly put together, it does capture a nostalgia for a time when New York’s Jewish community had a place to go and laugh and eat and drink and find kosher lovers. You admire how a comic like Jerry Lewis honed his craft, cracking jokes as he bused tables. And you marvel at the footage of tummlers, these hotel jesters who were paid to flail on the diving board, fall in the pool or send plates of brisket to shatter on the dining room floor — anything to get a laugh. Mel Brooks (Spaceballs, Young Frankenstein) was such a court jester.
Is the movie funny? Well, sort of. The jokes — a great many of which are about married life — seem dated, if not a tad misogynistic. But if you want a history lesson told by people who know how to tell jokes, go for it. Check this out. But perhaps you’re just better off knowing that Larry King lost his virginity on home plate in the Catskills. The legendary broadcaster, of course, likes to say he scored.