The historic implications of the Beatles’ ‘A Hard Day’s Night’

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The historic implications of the Beatles’ ‘A Hard Day’s Night’

Posted on: July 20th, 2014 by tommyj

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The new restored digital era version of Richard Lester’s “A Hard Day’s Night” couldn’t possibly look better.

I watched the 50th anniversary version of the Beatles’ first and best film in April on Turner Classic Movies and I had a fine old time. But then I always do.

It has, in fact, become something of a personal ritual. I seem to wind up watching “A Hard Day’s Night” again about once a decade.

I’m struck, every time, that Lester’s 1964 classic was one of a handful of early 1960s films that we can recognize today as belonging to the same cinematic species as movies being made in the 21st century.

Even so, the North Park Theater is doing something Monday through Thursday that I don’t think anyone has done since the film first opened 50 years ago.

And that is, the theater is showing the new, fully restored, sparkling new version on its own big, beautiful fully restored screen. For a film of the demonstrable importance of “A Hard Day’s Night,” I’d submit, it’s probably best to see it the way we first saw it 50 years ago – as a reckless, hilarious blast of youthful energy meant to occupy big theater screens in an entirely different way than other 1964 films did. (Aside from Stanley Kubrick’s ground-breaking “Dr. Strangelove,” the only cinematic comedies that had a fraction of the impudence of Lester’s antic presentation of the Beatles were Blake Edwards’ “A Shot in the Dark” and Billy Wilder’s ever-so-gently salacious “Kiss Me Stupid.”)

If you think about the films of 1964 now, “A Hard Day’s Night,” “Dr. Strangelove” and Sergio Leone’s “A Fistful of Dollars” were almost at the very beginning of what we might think of as modern movies. I’d argue that, after the French New Wave, the English language film that preceded them all in presenting a truly contemporary film was John Frankenheimer’s “The Manchurian Candidate” from 1962, a film whose singularity in its time never ceases to amaze me.

Bless the Screening Room Cinema Cafe whose programming is often as astute as can be. It showed the fully restored version of “A Hard Day’s Night” on four separate days recently, but comparing the screen size of The Screening Room to that of the new North Park is like comparing Nietszche’s to Kleinhans Music Hall as musical concert venues.

And both, of course, are grander than the way I saw it back in April – which is on my splendid home TV through the courtesy of TCM.

But let’s be honest here. As great an opportunity as it is to see The Beatles’ arrival on film on a screen the size of the North Park’s, the movie, in its way, couldn’t be more at home on a small screen.

Why? Well, a good argument could be made that what Lester did on “A Hard Day’s Night” is the very beginning of MTV. When we watched the Beatles’ running, jumping and falling down in an open field to the premiere of “Can’t Buy Me Love” on the movie soundtrack, we studious film types thought at the time that what we were seeing were The Beatles plugged into another Lester film joke. In other words, we thought it was a rock ’n’ roll adaptation of the high-energy showing off previously unveiled Lester’s film with Spike Milligan “The Running, Jumping, Standing Still Film.”

It was true as far as it goes. But where it didn’t go is into the next 50 years of rock history, where that scene in “A Hard Day’s Night” could truly be said to be the beginning of rock video.

Whatever MTV gives us now, whether it’s Miley Cyrus riding a wrecking ball or Robin Thicke leering at scantily clad women or Iggy Azalea gyrating in front of a classroom, all, to some extent, have a precedent in what Lester did by just letting the Liverpool lads loose in an open field and filming them running around like first-graders in “A Hard Day’s Night.”

What Lester and his screenwriter Alun Owen did that was historic was give us, in the drollest possible way, the essence of the Beatles’ absurdist sarcasm.

There is, by the way, a counterargument here, that you can find in the work of film critic David Thomson. It’s his feeling that the essence of the Beatles was a good deal raunchier than what put into “A Hard Day’s Night.”

In fact, one of the more advanced 21st century notions about the whole British Invasion era of rock is that the reality of the Beatles and the Rolling Stones versus the commercial images of both bands is the opposite of what we now accept.

The Beatles, in that view, are the raunchy, decadent, rebellious bunch that got their start in some of the sleazier districts of urban civilization in Europe, while the Stones were really the nice boys from art school that the Liverpool moptops only pretended to be.

But then it helps to understand how little interest Lester – a much underrated filmmaker these days – had in the subject of sex. I interviewed him once before “Superman II” came out and what he said, quite memorably I thought, is that he’d never be able to film, say, an extremely graphic sex scene in a hotel unless he were also able, immediately afterward, to show the hotel chambermaid carrying the sheets out of the room to be cleaned.

Let other filmmakers in the ’60s open up the sexual frontiers. He was in the business of cinematic energy, irony and absurdity.

I remembered Lester’s quote years later, the first time I went to London. At the hotel where we stayed there was a very brief mixup with the luggage. I had to go down and retrieve it from to the place where the bellmen stored it all.

I overheard the fellow who found our bags in the process of bragging to his mates about the big rock concert he was taking his girlfriend to that night. The tickets, he said, were freebies given to him for no good reason other than spontaneous generosity by none other than Lester (who also had to retrieve some luggage).

“Richard Lester, the director of ‘A Hard Day’s Night’?” I asked. “The very same” he replied, thereby giving me an insight into the character of the man who made “A Hard Day’s Night” that I’d never have had otherwise.

By all means, see “A Hard Day’s Night” again. Or grab some young folks who have never seen the Beatles’ debut on film before.

And remember the utterly gratuitous generosity of the man who made it – a fellow who enjoyed making a hotel bellman happy by giving him freebie concert tickets to the biggest rock event happening in all of London that night.

No wonder, he couldn’t wait to film the Beatles cutting loose from their tour and frolicking in an open field accompanied by “Money Can’t Buy Me Love.”

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