Music documentaries don’t get more inessential than Good Ol’ Freda, a Kickstarter-funded, not-quite-profile of Freda Kelly, The Beatles’ longtime secretary. As an interviewee, Kelly—a devoted fan from the band’s Cavern Club days who was hired at 17 to oversee The Beatles’ growing fan club—is likable and upbeat, though never candid. She blushes while telling stories, and tends to acknowledge the past (“This is bringing back so many memories” becomes a common refrain) more often than she relates it. Her observations are prosaic, never straying from 50-year-old Beatles lore. “People say George was the quiet Beatle, and I suppose he was in a way,” is a typical statement.
And yet Kelly is a somewhat compelling subject. She was valued within the band’s organization for her loyalty to the fans; after manager Brian Epstein decided to substitute rubber stamps for autographs, Kelly started sneaking stacks of mail to The Beatles so that the fans would get the real thing. She talked band members into fulfilling odd requests, and continued answering fan mail for years after the group disbanded. Her devotion to fandom was unwavering, and yet she has almost no mementos left over from her days with the band.
Unfortunately, director Ryan White uses Kelly largely as a way to relate the story of The Beatles—a story that’s been told several hundred times in films, biographies, and articles over the last half-century. Her perspective is that of a privileged fan rather than a genuine insider, with the most detail devoted to how The Beatles’ fan mail was handled, where and when it was sorted, and who carried it back to the post office. (The movie’s biggest revelation is that the Royal Mail always delivered letters sent by young American fans to “George Harrison, England” to the correct address—a fact that will probably delight several women born around 1953 and blow the minds of absolutely everyone born after 1990.)
Sometimes, the movie’s TV-ready, pan-across-a-photo style and Kelly’s narration clash comically, as when her comments on pre-Beatles pop-chart topper Cliff Richard, whose name she continually misremembers as “Cliff Richards,” are illustrated with close-ups of album covers bearing his name. Repeated zooms into the same photo of Kelly sitting at a desk become absurd punctuation. The impression left is that of a movie bending over backward to not let its subject tell her life story.