As The Beatles‘ "A Hard Day’s Night" celebrates its 50th anniversary this week with a digital restoration and theatrical re-release, it’s hard not to think that title is a perfect fit. Famously taken from one of Ringo Starr’s blurts of unintentional poetry, it’s an entirely contradictory thing — but, then, so is the film itself, in a way.
Rarely does a movie that feels so frothy, so spritely, so fun actually end up being so important, so influential and so enduring as director Richard Lester’s 1964 day-in-the-life mockumentary.
In fact, nobody really expected the film to do anything at first. Rather, it was seen as a bit of a box-office gamble, with the deal to make the film being struck before The Beatles rocked "The Ed Sullivan Show" — and all of America — and in the process kick-starting Beatlemania in the colonies.
At the outset, it was really a gambit by United Artists to gain rights to the soundtrack that would be recorded by what was then an up-and-coming band. If the film failed to earn back the estimated $500,000 it took to make, the thinking went, the soundtrack sales would probably help put the project into the black.
By the time filming started in spring 1964, the Beatlemania fuse had been lit and things were ready to explode. Lester’s film would premiere in July 6 of that same year — a remarkably quick turnaround by today’s standards (and just two months before the lads would find themselves trying to shout over the shrieks of fans at New Orleans’ City Park).
A movie poster for director Richard Lester’s 1964 music mockumentary ‘A Hard Day’s Night.’ (File photo)
In other words: John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Ringo Starr were still enjoying the ride when the film was shot, buoyed by a sense of early-60s optimism and not yet worn down by the relentlessness of superstardom. And it shows. In watching "A Hard Day’s Night," it’s clear they’re having as much fun — perhaps more — than we are.
In fact, one would be hard-pressed to name a subsequent project of theirs that is so absolutely devoid of the cynicism that would come to define the late 1960s — and which would creep its way into their work as well as their interactions with the media.
From a plot standpoint, Lester’s impish black-and-white whismy is unabashedly slight stuff. The band heads for a Liverpool gig with Paul’s grandfather in tow, played by the then-well-known — and "very clean" — British actor Wilfrid Brambell. (The repeated references to him as "clean" were an inside joke for British fans, who knew Brambell well as the "dirty old man" on the then-popular U.K. TV show "Steptoe and Son." That show would, incidentally, inspire an American offshoot. You know it as "Sanford and Son.")
And, really, that’s it. Along the way, the boys get into good-natured mischief, they toy cheekily with the media, they pull funny faces, they briefly lose Ringo — and of course, they take frequent musical breaks to perform such songs as "Can’t Buy Me Love," "And I Love Her," "I Wanna Be Your Man" and, of course, the title track.
But what they were really doing, without even knowing it, was establishing a blueprint for the marriage of film and music that exists today. "A Hard Day’s Night" gave us an up-close look at the Beatles, but it also begat the modern music video — and thus MTV. It begat The Monkees. It begat a format for the concert films that pop stars of today — most recently including from Justin Beiber, One Direction, Katy Perry and others — still emulate.
In other words, it was 50 years ago today (or 50 years ago this coming Sunday, July 6, to be exact) that John, Paul, George and Ringo taught the film and music industries how to play — together.
‘A Hard Day’s Night’
- What: The Beatles’ 1964 musical mockumentary gets a full restoration and limited theatrical re-release to mark its 50th anniversary.
- Where: Prytania Theatre.
- When: 7:30 p.m. Friday, July 4; noon Saturday, July 5; and 5 p.m. Sunday, July 6.
- Lagniappe: The July 4 screening will be paired with a presentation by local Beatles historian Bruce Spizer on the evolution of Beatlemania. The July 5 screening will be followed by a presentation from Spizer on the Beatles’ early recordings. The July 6 screening will be followed by a panel discussion on the film, featuring Spizer, WWL-TV’s Eric Paulson and NOLA.com | The Times-Picayune movie critic Mike Scott.
- Tickets: Available through the Prytania Theatre website.
Perhaps what’s most incredible about the film is how thoroughly enjoyable it is even now. With his quick cuts and pervasive sense of on-screen kineticism — not to mention a mere 87-minute running time — director Lester keeps things fairly rocketing along with an exhilarating hyperactivity that keeps audiences tuned in while at the same time portraying The Beatles themselves as lively, charming and entirely inevitable.
Like John, Paul, George and Ringo, Lester also seems to be having a ball experimenting with the craft. "A Hard Day’s Night" — which would be nominated for two Oscars, for its score and its screenplay — would be the high point of a career that includes the Beatles’ less-revered 1965 follow-up, "Help"; 1973’s "The Three Musketeers"; as well as (alas) "Superman II" and "Superman III." It also, arguably, marks the height of his creativity.
That starts with the film’s very format, but it also includes flourishes that are more fleeting, such as a scene in which he brilliantly uses a mirror to "fit" his camera into a cramped train compartment with Lennon, McCartney, Harrison, Starr and Brambell.
Later, in a nifty bit of camerawork that fits right into the sense of playfulness that permeates the film, Harrison "shaves" a reflection of the band’s road manager (portrayed by John Junkin) by spraying shaving cream on a mirror and carefully scraping it off for Lester’s perfectly placed camera.
Now, some 50 years on, "A Hard Day’s Night" has received a stem-to-stern digital restoration from the white-gloved Criterion Collection, including a 4K video scan as well as a 5.1 surround-sound track engineered by Apple Records. By all accounts, it has never looked or sounded better. It landed in stores on June 24, but for real fans the coup de grace comes this weekend, when "A Hard Day’s Night" is re-released into theaters.
In New Orleans, the newly restored "Hard Day’s Night" will be setting up shop for a three-day run at the Prytania Theatre, with screenings set for 7:30 p.m. on Friday, July 4; noon on Saturday, July 5; and 5 p.m. Sunday, July 6.
And there’s more: The July 4 screening will be paired with a presentation by local Beatles historian Bruce Spizer on the evolution of Beatlemania. The July 5 screening will be followed by a presentation from Spizer on the Beatles’ early recordings. And the July 6 screening will be followed by a panel discussion on the film, featuring Spizer, WWL-TV’s Eric Paulson and yours truly.
I’m not sure who’s more excited about it. Me, or my 11-year-old Beatlemaniac daughter, who was turned on to the band by the videogame "Beatles Rock Band" (and, a daddy likes to think, by the old Beatles albums hanging on his wall). Her anticipation for it is second only to that for Paul McCartney’s scheduled October New Orleans concert, suggesting that Beatlemania is alive and well for another generation at very least.
She loves it — yeah, yeah, yeah — and with a love like that, you know we should all be glad.Tags: actor, concert, director, film, movie, music, release, tv