Good Ol’ Freda (2013)

Rock history is replete with well-intentioned superstars who chose to people their inner circle with blood-sucking sycophants.  Elvis had his Memphis Mafia, a nasty little cadre of shitkickers who strip-mined Presley’s well-known generosity and contributed heavily to his emotional and physical disintegration.  And though possessed of a greater sense of savvy, the Beatles were no less vulnerable to this style of vampiric scavenging.  Their entourage was often stocked with hippie fortune tellers, fame-hungry drug doctors, and half-assed con men who spotted four marks with deep pockets.  Once these gypsies, tramps, and thieves looted the kingdom, they promptly turned on the kings themselves—publishing salacious paperbacks and doling out pay-for-play interviews that leaned heavily on half-truths and speculation.  These clingers didn’t so much bite the proverbial hand that fed them as consume it whole.  If these people represent the putrefaction of friendship and loyalty, then Freda Kelly is their antithesis:  A gentle, mild-mannered woman who served as the Beatles personal secretary for the duration of their existence.  She had long resisted attempts to coax her into reminiscing for fear of trashing the boys who once regarded her as a kind of stepsister.    But here, at last, is Good Ol’ Freda, a documentary that while neither probing nor particularly revelatory is quietly moving and deeply felt, just the same.

Freda’s story begins in 1962, when she wandered into the sweaty, soot-stained environs of Liverpool’s Cavern Club and caught the Beatles on one of their furious, Scotch-fueled lunchtime gigs.  Immediately smitten with John, Paul, George, and Pete Best (they would soon swap out for Ringo, who would glom onto the group dynamic like a mangy yet lovable stray), Freda became a fixture at the Cavern.  She witnessed nearly 200 of these performances, ultimately catching the eye of high-strung Beatle manager Brian Epstein in the process.  He employed her as the secretary in his main office, with the task of handling the sudden encroachment of global superstardom.  Freda’s laid-back personality and gentle touch allowed her to endure Brian’s volcanic mood-swings when so many other employees were lost in the pyroclastic blast.

In addition to her administrative duties, Freda also oversaw the official Beatles fan club.   The letters came in dozens, then in hundreds, and finally in astronomical numbers.  As working-class boys themselves, the Beatles were well aware that buying records and concert tickets represented a hardship for many of their fans.  So, they signed autographs by the sackload and never complained.  “George was the best,” Freda recalls, a tinge of sadness in her voice.  Freda also empathized with the frenzied obsession the group inspired:  “I was fan meself, you know?!”  So, when a faraway girl wrote in requesting a signed pillowcase that Ringo had slept on, she faithfully trooped over to 10 Admiral Grove in Liverpool and presented a fresh pillowcase to Ringo‘s mum.  “Make sure he sleeps on it,” she requested at the front door.  (Indeed, Freda endeared herself so much to the Starkeys that she was often invited to formal dances and dinners as a de facto member of the family.)

It’s gentle anecdotes like this that drive the film.  Throughout, Freda steadfastly refuses to stick pins in the people who gave her so much.  (When asked if she ever dated any of the lads, her response is coy:  “That’s personal.”)  She undoubtedly sits on a Mt. Everest of Beatle intrigue—closed-door meetings and hallway blowups to which she may be the only living witness.  And yet, in a world corroded with tabloid vulturey and corporate greed, Freda’s motives for standing mute come across as simple and honorable:  “They asked me not to say anything.”

This statement feeds into the film’s most poignant scene, in which Freda goes over all the Beatle-related people who’ve passed on—Brian Epstein, roadie Neil Aspinall, and, of course, John and George.  As she lists the names, Freda does what we suspect she’s wanted to do for the entire film: She cries.  “Money and fame—they aren’t worth anything!”  She sniffles.  Freda might be unique in the world of rock superstardom:  A devoted fan who was lucky enough to have her idols love her right back.  She was there when the foundation of Beatlemania was being poured, and she stuck it out through the fratricidal rows that demolished it.  Good Ol’ Freda isn’t so much a tell-all as it is a testimonial—a final acknowledgement of both a story worth telling, and the decent woman telling it.  If fleeting fame is wasted on dolts and jackals, here, at last, is someone worth celebrating.

Author: Todd Wofford

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