[10 July 2014]
A Hard Day’s Night manages to be an excellent movie almost in spite of itself. That first sentence of this review may be controversial in and of itself, seeing as how we are talking about the first motion picture to star Saints John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Ringo Starr, the unassailable quartet who made up the definitive rock band: The Beatles. However, looking at A Hard Day’s Night in perspective, it’s easy to see what I mean.
Back in the early 1960s, when a band became popular, it was common to cash in on their fleeting fame with movies and other merchandise before said band’s star faded. In 1964, the latest flash-in-the-pan, flavor of the month just happened to be the superstars known as The Beatles. Thus a movie was commissioned to capture the Fab Four before they were forgotten (or, at least, relegated to the “where are they now” file) like every other pop band of the day. That movie was A Hard Day’s Night, a title based on one of drummer Ringo’s random clever utterances (which, in turn, also led to the title song). This was, of course, only one of the many media marketing cash-ins that The Beatles were involved in during the peak of “Beatlemania”—see their Saturday Morning cartoon show, which the band reportedly despised, for another example.
What makes A Hard Day’s Night different begins with the fact that The Beatles’ star never actually faded, and the Fab Four never stopped being, well, fab. The Beatles have proven to be not only stalwarts of rock and roll, but also arguably the best and most influential rock band that ever lived. I could go on, but such an argument could take up the entire article and I have a Blu-Ray to review here. At the time of A Hard Day’s Night’s making, however, no one could have quite predicted what the Beatles would become (and would never actually stop being). Putting it in perspective again, this would be like packaging Justin Bieber in movies and then later seeing him become a legend and elder statesman of pop music, as opposed to a passing fad. (One might bemoan The Beatles being compared to Bieber, but in 1964, the Beatles were a great selling band, not the artistic powerhouse that we know them as today).
What else makes A Hard Day’s Night different from the standard slate of rock merchandising films? After all, it is a rather goofy movie packed with scenes of The Beatles just acting silly while the camera runs. Well, somehow, A Hard Day’s Night manages to be a great film and, much like its subject band, incredibly influential. Director Richard Lester is known more for his slapstick stylings; he’s the man who directed Superman III, which eschewed a world-saving opening in favor of flaming penguin toys and a blind man walking through a painting. A Hard Day’s Night does make use of this same sort of silliness and, filmed at the height of “Beatlemania”, the movie opens with the band running through the streets fleeing from rabid fans, dying to get a piece of the guys. Meanwhile, Paul slaps on disguises and hangs out with his grandfather.
This (fictional) grandfather (played by Steptoe and Son’s Wilfrid Brambell, the model for the USA’s Fred Sanford of Sanford and Son) contributes no end to the frustrations and funny moments of the Beatles’s misadventures on their train ride to Liverpool and beyond. To be fair, A Hard Day’s Night doesn’t have much of a plot to speak of, and its musical interludes of the band’s performances are interspersed with wacky moments such as losing Ringo, playing low-stakes card games, and attempting to keep Paul’s mischievous grandfather in check.
However, the key here really does tend to be those musical interludes. Even though these don’t always fit perfectly or flow well with the story (such as it is), the twelve songs the Beatles perform here are excellent. The Beatles might break into song at any moment (including during that card game) or they might just be running around a park and goofing around with each other while one of their songs is playing, but these moments truly work and they clearly helped to lay the groundwork for MTV Videos and musicals to come.
Then there are the moments in the theater rehearsing for the big concert finale. Like the other interludes, these undeniably helped influence MTV and the like, but also truly capture the Beatles as performers (lip synching, though they may be). The pathos of the band mixes with the band’s humor (John begins singing “If I Fell” romantically to Ringo, to the band’s amusement before shifting into a more serious performance) and the band stops being “actors” set in contrived circumstances and prove to be in their element on stage.
As actors, though, the boys manage to be natural and convincing, albeit from a self-aware and comical perspective. Much of this is owed to writer Alun Owen, who spent a great deal of time with the band and wrote their dialogue based on things they said (or, more often, might say in the situations presented in the film). This natural dialogue and delivery, coupled with Lester’s use of hand-held cameras, creates a more documentary feel to this obviously staged film and the dichotomy manages to work as the naturalness and zaniness play well against each other. This influence led directly to the TV show The Monkees which desperately tried to replicate this formula for a television band (though, admittedly, The Beatles are an institution that cannot be topped).
For their next film, Help! (also a collaboration with Lester), the band embraced complete fiction, full color, action, adventure and even horror, making Help! anything but a remake of A Hard Day’s Night. While both have their place and both are undeniably silly comedies, A Hard Day’s Night is definitely the movie for fans of “The Real Beatles”. Of course, the Fab Four are quite fictionalized here; their characterizations are based on their real mannerisms and personalities.
Because the 2014 home video release carries the name “The Criterion Collection”, it’s a no-brainer that the picture and sound quality are excellent. This is definitely the case and the black-and-white image is crystal clear, just as the band’s music is beautifully high-definition. The restoration and extras on this Blu-Ray and DVD set were approved by Lester himself and those extras are voluminous. Lester’s Oscar nominated short The Running Jumping & Standing Still Film is included, and proves to have informed the Beatles’ sillier musical interlude scenes. Audio commentary featuring the cast and crew is also included as are interviews with the band, new and old interviews with Lester, a number of documentaries, outtakes and promotional materials are all included.
Of course, such a Criterion treatment could only be done for such a movie as this because transcended its own limitations and the band itself went from being “The Beatles” to “THE BEATLES” and remain legendary today. As for the film itself, yes, there are as many overly zany eye-rolling moments as there are clever one-liners and hilarious situations. The real attraction to A Hard Day’s Night is, and should be, the music and the way said music is presented. After all, there is a reason that director Richard Lester (an American, incidentally) was granted an award from MTV, calling him “Father of the Music Video”.