The film opens with the Beatles driving in a car with their manager Brian Epstein and John's wife Cynthia Lennon. It is 1964 and they are heading to America for the first time after already encountering massive success across Europe. They begin to remember the days before they became famous.
The film goes on a flashback to 1959, when the Silver Beatles (as they were called then) consisted of John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Stuart Sutcliffe. They need a drummer and a manager, and Sutcliffe cannot play an instrument, only being in it because he is John's friend and none of the others want to play the bass guitar. They go and audition for an agent, where they meet Rory Storm and the Hurricanes, and become good friends with the Hurricanes' drummer, Ringo Starr. The agent at the audition says that if they get themselves a permanent drummer they can have a job in Scotland and then afterward a job in Hamburg, Germany.
The Scotland gig occurs, but is not seen onscreen. The band finds a long-term drummer in Pete Best, whose mother owns the teenagers' hangout spot the Casbah Coffee Club. They begin to prepare for the trip Hamburg which lasts several months and they encounter disapproval from Cynthia and John's Aunt Mimi. When they reach Hamburg, they discover they are playing in the Indra Club on the Reeperbahn, Hamburg's notorious sex district. They play long, grueling hours (up to 8 hours a night, seven days a week), and have to stay active by taking Preludin, a slimming drug. They are living in the back of the Bambi Kino, a run down old cinema. While in the Indra, they play loudly and wildly, eating, spitting and drinking onstage, inviting women to dance on stage with them, etc. Things get so loud the club is eventually shut down.
The Beatles (as they have renamed themselves) not start before at the bigger Kaiserkeller club, and became a big hit among the German audience. While there, they meet up with Ringo and Rory Storm, who are also performing there, and Stu falls in love with German photographer Astrid Kirchherr. They begin to have a love affair. But suddenly, in the middle of a gig, German police burst into the club and arrest George for working under-age without a work permit. While searching for the paperwork to release George, Paul and Pete drop a candle that sets fire to the Bambi Kino, and the whole band is deported.
The downbeat Beatles struggle at first back home with their disapproving families, but gradually build up a positive reputation playing shows that fill the concert halls. One night after a performance, Stu is attacked and badly beaten. He is left in bad condition but refuses to see a doctor. This will have a devastating effect.
A month later, in 1961, the Beatles return to Hamburg. Stu reunites with Astrid and she cuts his hair into the famous moptop haircut. The others get their hair cut in the same manner and the Beatle haircut is born. They experience the same level of success as during the first trip, but Stu wants to leave the group and attend to art school (he is a talented painter) and marry Astrid. Before he can accomplish his dreams, however, he dies suddenly of a brain haemorrhage (in real life, he actually died in 1962). The others find this to be emotionally shattering, and think if he only had seen a doctor things would have been fine.
Back in Britain, the owner of the NEMS Records Store, Brian Epstein, is alerted that the Beatles are causing quite a stir in Liverpool with their performances at the Cavern Club. He is impressed with what he sees and asks to be the group's manager. They accept.
On 1 January 1962, the Beatles have an audition for the Decca Record Company, but are turned down. They keep searching for a record company to accept them but are turned down time after time. They are beginning to lose all hope. Around this time, they learn that Epstein is a homosexual and that he was attacked by a teddy boy in Liverpool because of it. However, they hold no prejudices and accept. Also, the Beatles finally get accepted by record producer George Martin, but they dump Pete from the group. In his place is Ringo, and the classic foursome is complete. However, before the first show with Ringo, the fans react angrily to Pete's firing but later become overly excited after hearing Ringo's drumming abilities and listen to "I Saw Her Standing There".
The Beatles release their first single, "Love Me Do" and in 1963 release their first No. 1 Hit Single, "Please Please Me". They become the most famous group in Britain, and soon become hits across Europe. The film ends when the group ventures to America and performs on the Ed Sullivan Show to a mass of screaming fans, singing "I Want to Hold Your Hand".Stephen MacKenna as John Lennon
Rod Culbertson as Paul McCartney
John Altman as George Harrison
Ray Ashcroft as Ringo Starr
Ryan Michael as Pete Best
David Nicholas Wilkinson as Stuart Sutcliffe
Brian Jameson as Brian Epstein
Wendy Morgan as Cynthia Lennon
Gary Olsen as Rory Storm
Linal Haft as Agent
Eileen Kennally as Mimi Smith
Richard Marner as Bruno Koschmider
Alyson Spiro as Astrid Kirchherr
Nigel Havers as George Martin
In a legal loophole which allowed the use of songs actually written by the Beatles themselves, every song in the film was recorded by the Beatles tribute act "RAIN: A Tribute to the Beatles". The guitar and vocal parts for John Lennon were performed by Eddie Lineberry, Paul McCartney by Chuck Coffey, George Harrison by Bill Connearney, and Ringo Starr by Steve Wight.
The film features many songs known for being performed by the Beatles, some written by the band themselves, some by other artists:
- She Loves You - Opening titles version
- My Bonnie (Lies Over the Ocean)
- Oh Baby Doll - Performed by a different group at the Liverpool audition and not by the Beatles themselves.
- Dizzy Miss Lizzy
- Blue Suede Shoes - Performed by Rory Storm and the Hurricanes
- I Saw Her Standing There - featuring Pete Best on drums
- Don't Bother Me
- Johnny B. Goode
- Lawdy Miss Clawdy - Performed by Rory Storm and the Hurricanes
- Roll Over Beethoven
- Kansas City
- Hey! Hey! Hey! Hey!
- Shake, Rattle and Roll!
- Ask Me Why
- Love Me Tender
- Twist and Shout
- P.S. I Love You
- Dizzy Miss Lizzy - Reprise, a different recording featuring heavier drums and a more raw-sounding guitar
- Cry for a Shadow
- Please Mr. Postman
- Long Tall Sally
- Love Me Do
- Rock and Roll Music
- I Saw Her Standing There - Reprise, featuring Ringo Starr on drums. The drumming styles differ between versions for story reasons
- Please Please Me
- Thank You Girl
- I Want to Hold Your Hand
- She Loves You - Ending titles version
The film tends to reflect Best's personal account of certain events, and shows some evidence of bias. The film implies that Best was terminated from the band because of resentment toward Best's popularity in Liverpool at the time. In one scene the band are referred to by John Lennon as "Peter Best and his Sods" and makes no mention of dissatisfaction with his playing, which has been thoroughly documented, even during the band's early years. George Martin has repeatedly stated that he was not satisfied with the calibre of Best's drumming at the band's EMI audition, and wanted the drum parts played by a studio drummer for future recordings. Ringo Starr, already a longtime friend of the group, proved a better personal and musical match. (Incidentally, Martin also prohibited Starr from playing drums on an early recording session for "Love Me Do," replacing him with session player Andy White).
The film received modest ratings when it premiered on American television, and was repeated in January 1981, as a tribute to John Lennon in the weeks after his murder. It later repeated on CBS, on The CBS Late Movie during the 1980s.