Does the movie retain its freshness and vitality half a century later?
LOS ANGELES—I have a confession to make. Until Saturday night, I had never seen The Beatles’ “A Hard Day’s Night.” What? I know! I felt like this was a major black hole in my cultural education, especially as someone who makes her living writing about music.
Like most folks, I was very familiar with the movie’s glorious first scene of the lads being chased through the streets by fervent female fans as “A Hard Day’s Night” plays (opened by that instantly recognizable, iconic guitar chord), but I had never seen the entire 1964 film until this past weekend.
As part of the TCM Classic Film Festival, Alec Baldwin and music producer Don Was introduced the film that some considered the greatest rock and roll movie ever made. Upon its release, the Village Voice called “A Hard Day’s Night” “the Citizen Kane of jukebox musicals.”
There’s a sense of whimsy that runs through the whole movie that makes it a joy from start to finish. The plot is negligible (not that I was looking for depth) and a great deal of it makes no sense, but there’s a cheekiness to it that never yields. For those that haven’t seen it, the Richard Lester-directed film follows the Beatles,as they travel to do an Ed Sullivan-like TV show in London. They are accompanied by Paul McCartney’s grandfather for reasons we don’t really know, but we do know he’s very “clean,” as the inside joke is made over and over. Grandpa is a mischief-making schemer and much of the hi-jinks that ensue come from his impish plotting (including a great two-part sight gag).
The whole movie is wacky and none of it makes much sense, especially that the Beatles tend to go from not being able to step on the sidewalk without being chased by literally hundreds of girls to then being totally unrecognized on a train (even to some teenage girls) to being chased again to being able to move about unfettered. This results in one of the movie’s most surreal scenes when a sly John Lennon has an entire conversation with a woman backstage at the TV rehearsal, about if he’s who she thinks he is before they deduce that he actually looks nothing like himself. The film is a spoof on fame and much of it, including the scenes with the press, were derived from experiences the Beatles actually had.
Part of the movie’s charm is that each of the Fab Four stays true to the roles fame had already assigned to them: McCartney is the winking, head-shaking, genial one; Lennon is crafty and a little bemused by it all; George Harrison is the wise observer, and Ringo Starr is the somewhat hapless, put-upon naif.
Though played for laughs and despite the film’s overall innocent tone, “A Hard Day’s Night” actually has a lot to say about the corrosive isolation that fame can bring as the Beatles become their own solitary unit, the only ones who can understand what they’re going through. Their fame has begun to imprison them as much as it has given them the keys to the world.
Lester directs it all with a deft, light touch and with an understanding of how to shoot both madcap humor and music (some of his camera angles during the concert scenes are very innovative, such as close ups of Lennon’s lips). He had worked with Peter Sellers and that’s what sold the Beatles on using him. The band had been approached to make a number of movies before, but the scripts were hokey and had the corniness of the very popular Elvis Presley movies, according to Beatles historian Martin Lewis, who joined Was and Baldwin on stage. They insisted that the movie have humor, a certain winking nod to the audience, and sophistication. Enter Lester.
The music— about half of it performed and the other half played over scenes —remains the movie’s legacy. Whether it’s the title track or “Can’t Buy Me Love” or “And I Love Her,” 50 years later, the music is a reminder of their enduring legacy . The songs sound as fresh half a century later as they did when first released.
TCM bowed the restored, remastered version of “A Hard’s Day Night,” which will be issued on Blu-ray and DVD this summer to commemorate the 50th anniversary of its original release. Lester approved the Criterion restoration, while the stereo soundtrack remastering was handled by Giles Martin, Beatles’ producer George Martin’s son. The restoration was gorgeous with the black and white images sharp and crisp. The dialog was often a little tough to hear, but that may have just been because of the Liverpudlian accents. Musically, Martin did a great job. Criterion’s 3-disc Blu-Ray/DVD set comes out June 24 and is packed with goodies.