Richard Starkey, aka Ringo Starr, turns 75 on July 7th. The lad from Liverpool who’s been the world’s most famous drummer for more than a half-century has provided the world with infinite musical reasons to celebrate his life and work. Less immediately known but certainly also worthy of celebrating is Ringo Starr’s one-of-a-kind cinematic career.
Inherently funny, sympathetic, and warm, Ringo looks like a born character actor and exudes a screen presence on par with his dynamism behind a drum kit. He so clearly and effortlessly steals the Beatles’ debut classic A Hard Day’s Night (1964) that the follow-up, Help! (1965), is built around him.
More work with the Beatles followed from there, but unlike most of his bandmates, Ringo kept it up until he was a bona fide go-to film actor (his only real competition of note was John Lennon, who co-starred in the 1967 satire, How I Won the War, before returning to focus on music).
So for Ringo’s reaching his seven-and-a-half-decade milestone as one of rock’s defining icons, let’s light up our screens with a salute to his secondary career as a movie Starr.
Alice in Wonderland(1985)
See Ringo as: The Mock Turtle
Children automatically loved Ringo from the moment the Beatles broke. With his puppy-dog baby blues, honkable nose, and sad-sack features that explode into pure joy when he smiles, Ringo initially came off as a kid himself. His unbeatable comic timing also put him in a category with Lou Costello and Jerry Lewis as a screen comedian with whom children naturally identified and cheered for as he contended with the world of grown-ups. See, for example, how the truant schoolboy instantly bonds with Ringo in A Hard Day’s Night.
As a result, Ringo’s stellar work in children’s entertainment has included narrating Harry Nilsson’s terrific 1971 animated musical The Point, starring as foot-tall Mr. Conductor on the TV series Shining Time Station, narrating the hugely popular Thomas & Friends, and playing a mummy on Sabrina the Teen-Age Witch.
In 1985, Ringo donned some pretty cool amphibian makeup as the Mock Turtle in an all-star adaptation of Alice in Wonderland. It was a nifty nod to Ringo’s famous Hard Day’s Night press conference response when asked if he’s a mod or a rocker: “I’m a mocker!”
Give My Regards to Broad Street (1985) / The Return of Bruno (1987)
See Ringo as: Ringo
Given his immediately recognizable face and low-register Liverpool vocal signature, Ringo has portrayed himself in number of productions. One of the best is Born to Boogie (1972), a documentary on glam-rockers T. Rex that Starr also directed.
Two of the most curious Ringo-as-Ringo vehicles are gaudy über-’80s superstar ego trips, Paul McCartney’s head-scratching 1985 big-screen musical flop Give My Regards to Broad Street and The Return of Bruno, Bruce Willis’s mockumentary about his own classic rock persona of the title.
Of the two, Broad Street is infinitely more laborious. A meandering day-in-the-life of Paul McCartney built around a non-plot regarding stolen master tapes (or something), the film’s only non-sleep-inducing moments are its song segments, wherein Ringo plays drums behind his original bassist. These include some re-recorded Beatles hits, and the movie’s sole original saving grace, the theme song “No More Lonely Nights.”
The Return of Bruno, on the other hand, is well crafted and fitfully amusing until it gets to the music. Ringo leads a genuinely impressive A-list cast that testify to the might and majesty of ’60s rocker “Bruno,” portrayed by Bruce Willis. The hour-long goof-fest also showcases Brian Wilson, Elton John, the Bee Gees, Jon Bon Jovi, Paul Stanley, Phil Collins, Graham Nash, Stephen Stills, Joan Baez, Wolfman Jack, and Clive Davis.
The downfall is when Bruno performs cornball white-man bar band soul covers replete with Ray-Ban-sunglasses and wheezy harmonica honking. The video’s purpose was to promote Willis’s album of the same name, which actually generated a cheeseball radio hit, “Respect Yourself,” a nugget that, let us be grateful, rarely makes it onto “’80s Classics” playlists.
See Ringo as: Emmanuel
World-class wit Terry Southern brilliantly ruptured American culture via novels such as The Magic Christian (1959) and Blue Movie (1970) and screenplays for classic films such as Dr. Strangelove (1964), The Loved One (1965), Barbarella (1968), and Easy Rider (1969).
Candy, a deadpan novella send-up of pornography Southern co-wrote with Mason Hoffenberg in 1958, expectedly scandalized the Eisenhower-era and seemed particularly ripe for a film adaptation a decade later, as flower-power ignited erotic possibilties and new freedoms exploded on movie screens everywhere.
While Candy, the book, came off hip, cool, and perfectly in keeping with the underground rebellion of its contemporary beat generation, Hollywood’s handling of the material plays more like crusty old men trying to get in on the youth scene’s free love action, one of the very notions that Southern most savagely satirized in the original material.
The grotesque failure of Candy, the movie, certainly stems not from lack of talent. It was written by Buck Henry (The Graduate) and directed by Christian Marquand (And God Created Woman, Lord Jim). It a must-be-seen-to-be-believed roster of A-listers that includes Marlon Brando, Richard Burton, James Coburn, John Huston, John Astin (aka Gomez from The Addams Family), and, as the titular teenage sex bunny over whom every man loses his mind, the perfectly cast German beauty Ewa Aulin.
Ringo is in Candy, too, of course. His raucous, Frito-Bandito-accented turn as Emmanuel, a Mexican gardener with whom Candy joyfully shares her first on-camera fornication, represents one of the film’s moments of relative subtlety. And that is saying something.
The Magic Christian (1969)
See Ringo as: Youngman Grand
A year after Ringo’s cinematic path crossed with writer Terry Southern in Candy, the two shared far greater success with The Magic Christian, a madcap, psychedelic adaptation of Southern’s 1959 satirical novel.
Peter Sellers stars as billionaire Guy Grand who, accompanied by Ringo as his son Youngman Grand, plays huge-scaled pranks on strangers and offers money to others to either go along with his schemes or to perform some other bizarre undertakings. Sellers and Ringo make a charming pair onto which director Joseph McGrath, formerly of Sellers’ The Goon Show, hangs a kaleidoscopic overload of the sublime and the ridiculous.
As with Candy, the cast alone speaks volumes. Yul Brynner plays a drag queen. Christopher Lee appears in full vampire garb. Raquel Welch, as the Priestess of the Whip, drives galley slaves to row a luxury liner for the world’s elite. Monty Python’s John Cleese and Graham Chapman turn up. Roman Polanski drinks alone.
Arguably even better than The Magic Christian film itself, though, is Magic Christian Music, a spinoff album by Badfinger that features the great Paul McCartney-penned theme song, “Come and Get It.”
Son of Dracula (1974)
See Ringo as: Merlin the Magician
In no way to be mistaken with the 1943 Son of Dracula (which features, as Gilbert Gottfried puts it, Lon Chaney Jr. playing “Fat Dracula” after starring as “Fat Wolf-Man” and “Fat Frankenstein”), Harry Nilsson’s Son of Dracula is a stamina-tester for all but the most determined fans of the erstwhile brilliant singer-songwriter and/or devotees of disastrous rock star ego trip films (see also, as noted, Give My Regards to Broad Street).
Nilsson himself plays Count Downe, son of the recently staked-to-smithereens king of vampires. Merlin the Magician, portrayed in full white wig and beard by Ringo, counsels the young bloodsucker on playing rock music, which he does with a band whose members include Peter Frampton, Leon Russell, Klaus Voormann, the Rolling Stones’ horn players and—dig this—John Bonham and Keith Moon taking turns on drums.
On top of that assemblage of rock royalty, Son of Dracula was directed by UK fright film favorite Freddie Francis, who helmed The Evil of Frankenstein (1963), Dr. Terror’s House of Horrors (1965), and Dracula Has Risen From the Grave (1968).
Somehow, the final result of all this is boring.
That’s no mean feat, given Son of Dracula’s titanic talent, although it’s more evidence of how the enormously gifted Nilsson notoriously destroyed himself during his ’70s career peak with drinks and drugs. It’s also another reason to be glad that once Ringo cleaned up his own act at the decade’s end, he’s stayed that way ever since.
See Ringo as: The Pope
Ken Russell, the mad British cinema provocateur who reached a pinnacle with his electrifying midnight movie adaptation of the Who’s Tommy, immediately followed up that triumph with Lisztomania. It’s an even crazier and more over-the-top “biopic” of the classical composer and pianist Franz Liszt whose performances drove audiences to frenzies the world would not see again until Ringo took his proper place in the Beatles.
Fresh from Tommy, Roger Daltrey stars as Liszt, Rocky Horror’s Little Nell as his muse, and pop star Paul Nicholas as a vampiric Richard Wagner who ultimately evolves into a machine-gun toting combination of Hitler and Frankenstein. Rick Wakeman of Yes, who also provides Lisztomania’s score, turns up as Norse god Thor. In the midst of this highly entertaining lunacy, Ringo displays relative calm as The Pope.
See Ringo as: Laslo Karolny
Productions that set out to be cult movies often miss the mark (see almost any misguided slop produced by Troma Films), but the purposefully off-the-wall Sextette hits the midnight movie bullseye from its first insane moment (wherein Regis Philbin announces the sixth wedding of Hollywood mega-star Marlo Manners, portrayed by 84-year-old Mae West) to its last (wherein Marlo finally consummates her marriage to a British royal played by future 007 Timothy Dalton on board his yacht).
In between, Sextette is a beyond-campy musical romp that co-stars Dom DeLuise as Marlo’s assistant (he sings the Beatles’ “Honey Pie”), Keith Moon as Marlo’s flamingly, uh, “flamboyant” wardrobe maker, and Alice Cooper in a short hair wig as a bellboy who bursts into a disco song on piano and kicks off a big production number.
Among Marlo’s ex-husbands are Tony Curtis as a Russian diplomat (“Sexy Alexei!”), George Hamilton as a Chicago gangster, and Ringo Starr as Laslo Karolny, a megalomaniacal Italian filmmaker. And, truly, you do not want to miss Mae West and Timothy Dalton erotically duetting on the Captain and Tenille’s “Love Will Keep Us Together.”
Every frame of Sextette is outrageously gut-busting and impossible to believe is actually happening. In the realm of left-field cinema where Ringo Starr is a proper powerhouse, that’s among the highest praise that’s possible.
See Ringo as: Atouk
Ringo stars in Caveman as Atouk, humanity’s first drummer. As a mainstream, family-friendly comedy, Caveman echoes gags and concepts dating at least back to the Alley Oop comic strip and The Flintstones on TV, but Ringo is sweet and very funny, and the movie gained a notable, if short-lived, cult following on cable TV and in the early days of home video.
Caveman also boasts cool stop-motion dinosaurs, a great gross-out knee-slapper involving the squishing of a giant bug and an amusing fake language (“zug-zug” means sex) that some lucky theatergoers got to take home in the form of souvenir dictionaries. In addition, Shelley Long endears as a prehistoric plain-Jane, while Barbara Bach is the sexiest force in a fur bikini this side of Raquel Welch in 1966’s 100 Million B.C.
It’s fun to watch Caveman knowing that this silliness is where Ringo and Barbara first met and that they’ve been happily married to one another ever since.
200 Motels (1971)
See Ringo as: Frank Zappa
Frank Zappa conceived, co-directed, and performs music in the mind-bendingly surreal semi-concert film 200 Motels along with his band, the Mothers of Invention, but he doesn’t play himself. That honor goes to Ringo Starr who, credited as “Larry the Dwarf”, looks enough like the wildman composer and iconoclast when done up in full Zappa garb to inspire a double-take. He certainly comes closer than (the also hilarious) Mike Nesmith of the Monkees.
Ringo-as-Zappa floats on strings, bounces about the screen, and introduces 200 Motel’s episodic bursts of song, animation, and scenes of the Mothers properly freaking out on the road in the middle of a nowhere town called Centerville.
Mothers frontmen Howard Kaylan and Mark Volman tear up the screen as their alter egos Flo and Eddie, character actor Theodore Bikel is oddly intimidating as the Nazistic Master of Ceremonies, and Keith Moon is as uproarious as one would expect in full holy sister drag as “The Hot Nun.”
Throughout 200 Motels’ avalanches of cascading chaos and flights of occasional beauty, Ringo’s portrayal of Zappy is… weirdly comforting.
See Ringo as: Candy
The term “Spaghetti Western” refers to a series of Italian-made cowboy films largely inspired by the work of director Sergio Leone and star Clint Eastwood, in particular their 1966 masterpiece, The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly. It’s one cinema’s most blisteringly violent genres, emblazoned by gunplay, beatings, knife-fights, and torture that often teeter over from the merely brutal to the positively surreal.
Among the nuttiest of Spaghetti Westerns is Blindman. Genre go-to actor Tony Anthony (what a name) stars in the title role as a sightless gunfighter charged with transporting fifty mail order wives to their miner husbands. Out to bust up the bridal party is Ringo Starr as Candy, head of an outlaw gang who foresees moneymaking (and other) opportunities to be had with fifty fair maidens in the Old West.
Based on Zaitochi, a classic Japanese film about a blind swordsman, Blindman is as blisteringly violent as the most savage Spaghetti Westerns and features at least as much nudity as softcore cowpoke send-ups on the order of Wild Gals of the Naked West (1962) and Hot Spur (1968).
Most interestingly, Ringo clearly relishes playing against type as a sadistic baddie who decapitates snakes with bullets, guts an old man over an insult, and breaks Blindman’s bones with a horrifying rope punishment. Even on Abbey Road, Ringo never pounded his drums as severely as how he lays into Tony Anthony here!