Fate. Providence. Destiny. Call it what you will, but there’s no doubting it played a role in the turn of events that culminated with a Dunwoody native chronicling the story of woman who had a front row seat to some of the most iconic events in entertainment history.
When Ryan White, now 31, starting making movies at age 10 with his mother’s video camera, he couldn’t have known that one day he would film a documentary, “Good Ol’ Freda,” about Freda Kelly, secretary to the Beatles during their rise to fame in the 1960s. “Good Ol’ Freda” premiered at the SXSW Film Festival in Austin, Texas, in mid-March and was screened during the Atlanta Film Festival on March 16 to a capacity crowd attended by many of White’s family and friends.
Despite trying his hand at videography at an early age, photography was White’s first love, introduced to him by his aunt, Kathy McCabe, a “Good Ol’ Freda” producer. At Chamblee High School, where White was a student in the magnet program for high achievers, he enrolled in photography classes.
“Ryan was an exceptional photographer. His work was thoughtful,” said Dave Smiley, retired CHS photography teacher. “Ryan’s work always surprised me.”
At Duke University, a filmmaking class veered White from photography to documentary filmmaking at Duke’s Center for Documentary Studies.
“I’ve always liked non-fiction images,” said White. “Documentaries are a perfect combination of my passions of photography and filmmaking.”
After college, White worked with producer and eight-time Emmy winner Sherry Jones before venturing out on his own. With former Duke classmates, he directed and produced “Pelada,” an award-winning documentary about a journey to 25 countries told through the lens of pick-up soccer. The film premiered at SXSW in 2010 and played at more than 20 film festivals worldwide.
A close personal connection guided Freda Kelly’s story right into White’s lap. His uncle, Billy Kinsley, is a founder of Merseybeats, a Beatles-era rock group formed in the Fab Four’s native Liverpool, England.
“I’ve been back and forth to Liverpool all my life,” White said.
Many rockers and those associated with them from the ‘60s Liverpudlian music scene have remained close through the years. White knew Kelly, but, he said, “I didn’t know her back story.”
By all accounts, Kelly remained mum for 50 years about her 11 years as the Beatles’ secretary. According to White, Kelly helped close out the group’s office when they split, taking a lot of memorabilia with her. She never profited by selling it, but gave much of it away to fans.
“She’s remained loyal all these years,” White said. “She turned down other filmmakers who wanted to tell her story.”
When Kelly’s grandson was born a couple of years ago, she decided she was ready to share some of her Beatles stories.
“She wanted to leave a legacy for her family,” White said. “She knew about my filmmaking and she approached me.”
Besides putting her faith in White to tell her story, Kelly also was instrumental in “Good Ol’ Freda” receiving rare official permission from Apple Corps, the multimedia corporation founded by members of the Beatles in the ‘60s, to use original Beatles music in the soundtrack.
“It’s a testament to her and the way she has lived her life that we got permission to use Beatles songs,” White said.
White’s mother, Peggy White, who lives in the Dunwoody home where he grew up, is understandably proud of her son. “I think because Ryan is a compassionate and kind person, that’s why Freda trusted him with her story,” she said.
White, a 2000 CHS graduate who attended Dunwoody’s Kingsley Elementary School before transferring to Kittredge Magnet School, has remained close to former classmates and makes a few visits to Dunwoody every year from his base in Los Angeles. Along with family members, several friends attended the “Good Ol’ Freda“ premier in Austin and many more attended the local screening.
One of those is White’s Kittredge and CHS classmate Jessica Lawson, a “Good Ol’ Freda” producer also living in Los Angeles. She worked with White on his first film and looks forward to more joint projects.
“It’s something we’ve talked about since we were kids,” said Lawson, the daughter of David and Maggie Lawson of Decatur. “Ryan has done a great job of making his dream a reality, setting his sights on something and making it happen. That’s inspiring to be around.”
White is currently in Washington, D.C., filming a documentary about Hollingsworth v. Perry, the case before the Supreme Court that questions the constitutionality of California’s Proposition 8 that defines marriage as solely between a man and a woman.