AUSTIN — Freda Kelly was just 17 when she began working for the Beatles, answering letters for their official fan club after spending countless hours watching them perform their earliest gigs at the Cavern Club in Liverpool. She remained with the group for its entire lifespan, working as their secretary and managing the fan outreach — and she's barely breathed a word about her life with the biggest band in the world to anyone, including her own family.
Until now. In the feature documentary Good Ol' Freda, which debuted this weekend at the SXSW Film Festival, the modest Liverpudlian finally shares what is likely the final untold story of the Beatles. (The title is a reference to the Fab Four's term of affection for Kelly.) Director Ryan White has known Kelly for years — White's uncle, Billy Kinsley of the Merseybeats, is an old friend of Kelly's — but while the 31-year-old grew up a big Beatles fan, he had no idea the "sweet and funny lady" who knew his uncle was a living piece of Beatles history.
Producer Kathy McCabe did know, and had been gently prodding Kelly for years to tell her story. It wasn't until Kelly's grandson was born, however, that her vow of silence began to soften, and she allowed McCabe to organize a private talk with some 30 people about her time with the Beatles. When that went well, McCabe suggested to Kelly that they approach their mutual friend White, who had worked with McCabe on his first documentary. After a series of phone calls, Kelly finally agreed to share her deep, detailed memories of John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison, and Ringo Starr (whom Kelly calls by his real first name, "Ritchie"). White and McCabe spoke with me in Austin about their fascinating film.
Adam B. Vary: I understand Ringo Starr was a last-minute addition to the film?
Ryan White: Yeah, he did a little interview. It's in the credits of the film. It's just him saying a few things to Freda and to her grandchildren.
ABV: Are you hopeful Paul McCartney will be able to do an interview before this gets a general release?
RW: We'll see. Obviously the focus of the film is on Freda, and having Paul and Ringo would be really cool, but I think it's a solid film without it. We'll see what happens. But we were really pleased when Ringo did do something. It's very heartfelt.
ABV: How long did you shoot with Freda?
RW: We did two three-week-long interviews. I think it's about 40 hours of interviews with her, and then obviously many hours of B-roll and other interviews with other people on top of that. So for someone who had never taken the time to tell her stories to the family or her best friends, she was a real champion for sticking it out.
I think she enjoyed the process too. You could literally see her remembering the stories as we'd talk them out. It runs the gamut. Really charming and funny stories, and some are really emotional for her too — and Freda's not an emotional person. To delve into these things that she hadn't thought about in 40, 50 years…
ABV: You do see a few interviews she did back when she was with the Beatles in the film.
RW: A handful, but she never really got the attention. Probably because she never sought it, and also because she says she thought she was just a secretary. We have searched everywhere for anything that exists of Freda, and there are a few that she remembered that don't exist any more, that were done by, like, local news stations or a local newspaper. I think what you saw is all that exists from that decade. There's a real written document of her mostly because her name was on everything and she wrote the Beatles' monthly column [in the official fan magazine]. But not a real audio or visual record of her.
Kathy McCabe: I think one of the most important parts for her was going back to Ringo's [childhood] house, because she had such a close relationship with his parents — his mom and stepfather.
ABV: It seemed like they almost adopted her.
KM: Yeah. She considers Ringo's mother her mother figure, because her mother died when she was a baby. That was very emotional for her. She hadn't been in that house since she was with them. They sold it in '64, and she literally hadn't set foot in it. That was really cool to watch it all flow through her there.
ABV: Her ability to recall all these stories she'd never discussed was really impressive, but did she not remember certain things?
RW: If Freda doesn't remember something, she won't speak to it. I can't tell you how many times I've been shot down trying to get her to remember something. Sometimes I needed connectors to pull different parts of Beatles history together. You just want a general sound bite of the Beatles hitting America or the Beatles starting to disband. And if she doesn't remember or she wasn't there, she won't open her mouth. So everything in this movie is 100% the truth. Freda is legendary in Liverpool for not putting up with the BS or folklore that surrounds the Beatles. She's always the one who puts all those fires out and not have any patience for it. So in many ways, she's the real authority on what's true and not true.
ABV: There is a melancholy that runs through the whole movie, because she was so instrumental in the Beatles' success, especially in the fan outreach. It was remarkable to me to learn, especially in the early days, that if, say, someone asked for a pillowcase that had touched Ringo's head, she would ask Ringo to do it and get it for the fan. Which I can't ever imagine happening…
RW: …with Justin Bieber.
ABV: Exactly. But even though she did all that work, her life now is not commensurate with it. She's still working. She hasn't reaped the benefits. It certainly seemed that her daughter was pointed about her feelings about that.
RW: Yeah, but her daughter is from a different generation. I think it's interesting that you use the word "melancholy." I sort of see that too, as someone from our generation, the 15-minutes-of-fame generation. It's very important to me as a filmmaker and someone who's very close with Freda that she gets the recognition. That's why I loved telling this story. But if you ask her, I think she would take issue with the word "melancholy" and she would say, "My life is exactly where I want it to be. I didn't want to be famous. I didn't want to get rich off the Beatles." She had the choice — not just doing a tell-all, but closed down the fan club offices and left with everything that was in there. Truckloads. Really expensive Beatles memorabilia. And instead of selling it, like she could have over the years, she gave it all away.
ABV: Like what?
RW: Her daughter [Rachel] told me a story about how she, the daughter, had some sort of mentor at work, and Freda was really appreciative of how this man had treated Rachel's career, and so she gave him one of the rarest photographs with all four of the Beatles' signatures on it that's worth tens of thousands of pounds. Freda just gave it to him as a thanks. Freda was just telling us the other night at dinner how there was a cancer benefit recently, and she put together a package of Beatles stuff that sold for $39,000. Well, I don't know how much Freda makes, but $39,000 is probably a lot of money to her that she can make in one sales transaction — and she won't do it.
ABV: It seems antithetical to her whole sort of being to make money off the the Beatles.
KM: That's true.
ABV: And yet, the Beatles made a lot of money off of her work. I just wish she had more balance.
RW: Yeah, I do too. But I don't think she sees it that way. I get asked a lot, "Why didn't they take care of her?" If I said that to Freda, she would scoff at it. "I don't want handouts. I work hard." You know? "I'm an independent woman." She really has that mind-set. And she's happy that she moved on with her life. She doesn't seek attention. She doesn't like attention. She was just telling us about how at her office, she works at a law firm now, and people don't know that she was the Beatles' secretary. And an article [on the film] came out in an English newspaper about her, and a couple coworkers were hovering over her desk, saying, "What the hell? We didn't know this!" She's trying to get them away, saying, "I need a cup of coffee."
ABV: Do you think watching how fame affected the lives of the Beatles soured her to the whole notion of pursuing that?
RW: I think some of that might pre-date that. I think it might be ingrained in Freda, the way she was raised. But absolutely, I think she witnessed firsthand what fame can do. She was very protective of them, and she watched them lose their privacy, and she's such a champion of privacy that I don't think she would ever risk that for herself.
ABV: I found that so interesting — that she's a champion of privacy and yet also managed fans' access into the lives of the Beatles. She actually sent fans their hair from the barbershop. Those are pointed privacy violations. Does she recognize that irony?
KM: It wasn't [a violation] for her. It was for the fans, and that's what she was trying to do. Whatever the fans' requests were — whether it was a piece of a shirt, or hair, or bubblegum — she would try to make that happen for them, because she was a fan too, and she understood these girls who were asking. And it wasn't just girls — it was guys too.
RW: There was no model for Beatlemania. This had never happened before. So Freda in many ways was the vanguard for how you deal with this type of stuff. Plus, the Beatles were participatory in all of this stuff. They had to chew the gum and stick it on the page. That's what I love most about this story. It's a complete snapshot of a time that might have only existed once and definitely will never exist again. I think Freda was at the forefront of that. I don't think she would recognize the irony in that. I think it was making the fans happy, and the Beatles wanted to do it. But it is really interesting, because what could be more invasive than sending something out with someone's DNA in it? (laughs) But you see her smack down on the fans when they're gossiping about Paul and John. It's a good point.
ABV: What do you hope most for Freda with this film?
RW: Freda's reasons for doing the film are 100% genuine. I truly believe that she's making the film for one person: her grandson. She jokes that she's living on borrowed time. She thinks that she could pass away at any moment, and this kid will never know. She's never called it a movie or a film. She calls it "a little DVD." She pictures giving a DVD to her grandson, so one day he can watch it and understand. I think she clearly has an appreciation for Beatles fans and is happy to share the story with them. But I think when it comes down to it, it's for him. So I felt a responsible to make something really cool about his grandma that was honest and true. That's my main hope, that he gets to see it one day and say, "Wow. My grandma was really badass."