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Beatles’ ‘A Hard Day’s Night’ gets fab 50th anniversary makeover

Randy Lewis
Los Angeles Times (MCT)

Given the sacrosanct aura that’s developed around pretty much everything to do with the Beatles over the past half-century, it seems unbelievable that anything related to the Fab Four might have ever gone missing through the decades.

But in coming up with a 50th anniversary, 4K digital restoration of the band’s beloved feature film debut “A Hard Day’s Night,” technicians at the Criterion Collection and Janus Films had to work around missing chunks from the first and last reels of the original negative. Producer Giles Martin, son of the Beatles’ original producer, George Martin, also had to compensate for a missing stereo master of their early single “She Loves You” and use the existing monaural recording as part of a new audio mix of the film’s dialogue and soundtrack.

All of which serves as a reminder that in early 1964 when Beatlemania was exploding worldwide, musical immortality seemed in doubt for the four lads from Liverpool.

“It was never my dad’s intention to be digging this up after 50 years,” Martin said this week. “I know it was his view that there would be more Beatles projects coming along down the line, and that some other young act would find the Beatles’ spark and the same (phenomenon) would be replicated. I think that was the case really until about 15 years ago. Now the Beatles have become this cultural phenomenon and they are stamped in history, and that hasn’t washed off in any way.”

The younger Martin’s mission in creating a surround-sound mix for a low-budget, black-and-white film that originally was presented in monaural sound in theaters around the world “wasn’t to be a modernized version of ‘A Hard Day’s Night.’”

“It’s not as if I’m mixing ‘Avatar,’” he said. “It still should sound like it’s in 1964.”

In fact, Martin said, “the advantage of 5.1 is that you can actually be more faithful to the mono. ... The film was in mono, and I found it weird that we would be listening to the Beatles talk and have it all come out of the center (channel), but then the band would play and the music would come out of the left and right speakers.”

The restored version expands some of the sonic elements but keeps the Beatles’ voices at center stage. “It makes for a more immersive environment,” Martin said, also noting that for the DVD and Blu-ray home video versions released last week, viewers have the option of choosing between a fully monaural audio mix or the 5.1 surround version. The discs also include bonus features, including the documentary “Things They Said Today” and a commentary track drawn from interviews conducted by Beatles expert Martin Lewis for the 2002 DVD release of “A Hard Day’s Night.”

The film itself “has never looked this good in theaters,” said Criterion Collection President Peter Becker, because “the prints made in 1964 were two or three generations away from the original 35mm negative.”

“When you’re working on the Beatles, it’s really a double-edged sword,” said Lee Kline, who headed Criterion’s film restoration team that located the best existing sections of the missing original negative to use for the restoration. “You’re working with things so many people are excited about, and something that’s very important to people’s hearts. You can’t talk to Beatles fans without some of them overwhelming you with how excited they are, and you take that into consideration.”

The tradition of translating popular music performers to the big screen was a spotty one before the Beatles came along, with movies often placing performers in awkward settings by directors who often had no feel for the exuberant energy of rock music.

“A Hard Day’s Night” director Richard Lester and screenwriter Alun Owen avoided those pitfalls by channeling the Beatles’ inherent personal charm and sense of humor into their script, and allowing John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Ringo Starr the opportunity to improvise many of their lines.

“In this case, the fifth Beatle was Richard Lester,” Becker said, referring to the 82-year-old director who has given his approval to the new restoration. “They trusted him, from his work with Peter Sellers and Spike Milligan and the Goons, which they totally loved. The level of freedom you feel in the film, a lot of that is from some of the things Lester introduced.”

Becker said his hope is that the wide release of “A Hard Day’s Night” will in some way echo the shared international experience it created originally. (“A Hard Day’s Night” opens Friday at select theaters around the country.)

“There are ways to mess up a restoration,” he said. “You can over-produce things, and over-process them to where they start to lose their shimmer, lose their grace, lose their energy. For this film, that would have been a complete tragedy. This is all about life and liberation and freedom. The Beatles are constantly breaking out of rooms, they are uncontainable in every way, which is how they were in life.

“Much of the humor in the film comes from people trying to get them to stay where they’re supposed to be, and they’re always running away to where they’re not supposed to go,” Becker said. “That freedom and freshness has to be there.”

In Americana music the present is female. Two-thirds of our year-end list is comprised of albums by women. Here, then, are the women (and a few men) who represented the best in Americana in 2017.

If a single moment best illustrates the current divide between Americana music and mainstream country music, it was Sturgill Simpson busking in the street outside the CMA Awards in Nashville. While Simpson played his guitar and sang in a sort of renegade-outsider protest, Garth Brooks was onstage lip-syncindg his way to Entertainer of the Year. Americana music is, of course, a sprawling range of roots genres that incorporates traditional aspects of country, blues, soul, bluegrass, etc., but often represents an amalgamation or reconstitution of those styles. But one common aspect of the music that Simpson appeared to be championing during his bit of street theater is the independence, artistic purity, and authenticity at the heart of Americana music. Clearly, that spirit is alive and well in the hundreds of releases each year that could be filed under Americana's vast umbrella.

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Features

The Best Country Music of 2017

still from Midland "Drinkin' Problem" video

There are many fine country musicians making music that is relevant and affecting in these troubled times. Here are ten of our favorites.

Year to year, country music as a genre sometimes seems to roll on without paying that much attention to what's going on in the world (with the exception of bro-country singers trying to adopt the latest hip-hop slang). That can feel like a problem in a year when 58 people are killed and 546 are injured by gun violence at a country-music concert – a public-relations issue for a genre that sees many of its stars outright celebrating the NRA. Then again, these days mainstream country stars don't seem to do all that well when they try to pivot quickly to comment on current events – take Keith Urban's muddled-at-best 2017 single "Female", as but one easy example.

Nonetheless, there are many fine country musicians making music that is relevant and affecting in these troubled times. There are singers tackling deep, universal matters of the heart and mind. Artists continuing to mess around with a genre that can sometimes seem fixed, but never really is. Musicians and singers have been experimenting within the genre forever, and continue to. As Charlie Worsham sings, "let's try something new / for old time's sake." - Dave Heaton

10. Lillie Mae – Forever and Then Some (Third Man)

The first two songs on Lillie Mae's debut album are titled "Over the Hill and Through the Woods" and "Honky Tonks and Taverns". The music splits the difference between those settings, or rather bears the marks of both. Growing up in a musical family, playing fiddle in a sibling bluegrass act that once had a country radio hit, Lillie Mae roots her songs in musical traditions without relying on them as a gimmick or costume. The music feels both in touch with the past and very current. Her voice and perspective shine, carrying a singular sort of deep melancholy. This is sad, beautiful music that captures the points of view of people carrying weighty burdens and trying to find home. - Dave Heaton



9. Sunny Sweeney – Trophy (Aunt Daddy)

Sunny Sweeney is on her fourth album; each one has felt like it didn't get the attention it deserved. She's a careful singer and has a capacity for combining humor and likability with old-fashioned portrayal of deep sadness. Beginning in a bar and ending at a cemetery, Trophy projects deep sorrow more thoroughly than her past releases, as good as they were. In between, there are pills, bad ideas, heartbreak, and a clever, true-tearjerker ballad voicing a woman's longing to have children. -- Dave Heaton



8. Kip Moore – Slowheart (MCA Nashville)

The bro-country label never sat easy with Kip Moore. The man who gave us "Somethin' 'Bout a Truck" has spent the last few years trying to distance himself from the beer and tailgate crowd. Mission accomplished on the outstanding Slowheart, an album stuffed with perfectly produced hooks packaged in smoldering, synthy Risky Business guitars and a rugged vocal rasp that sheds most of the drawl from his delivery. Moore sounds determined to help redefine contemporary country music with hard nods toward both classic rock history and contemporary pop flavors. With its swirling guitar textures, meticulously catchy songcraft, and Moore's career-best performances (see the spare album-closing "Guitar Man"), Slowheart raises the bar for every would-be bro out there. -- Steve Leftridge



7. Chris Stapleton – From a Room: Volume 1 (Mercury Nashville)

If Chris Stapleton didn't really exist, we would have to invent him—a burly country singer with hair down to his nipples and a chainsaw of a soul-slinging voice who writes terrific throwback outlaw-indebted country songs and who wholesale rejects modern country trends. Stapleton's recent rise to festival headliner status is one of the biggest country music surprises in recent years, but his fans were relieved this year that his success didn't find him straying from his traditional wheelhouse. The first installment of From a Room once again finds Stapleton singing the hell out of his sturdy original songs. A Willie Nelson cover is not unwelcome either, as he unearths a semi-obscure one. The rest is made up of first-rate tales of commonality: Whether he's singing about hard-hurtin' breakups or resorting to smoking them stems, we've all been there. -- Steve Leftridge



6. Carly Pearce – Every Little Thing (Big Machine)

Many of the exciting young emerging artists in country music these days are women, yet the industry on the whole is still unwelcoming and unforgiving towards them. Look at who's getting the most radio play, for one. Carly Pearce had a radio hit with "Every Little Thing", a heartbreaking ballad about moments in time that in its pace itself tries to stop time. Every Little Thing the album is the sort of debut that deserves full attention. From start to finish it's a thoroughly riveting, rewarding work by a singer with presence and personality. There's a lot of humor, lust, blues, betrayal, beauty and sentimentality, in proper proportions. One of the best songs is a call for a lover to make her "feel something", even if it's anger or hatred. Indeed, the album doesn't shy away from a variety of emotions. Even when she treads into common tropes of mainstream country love songs, there's room for revelations and surprises. – Dave Heaton

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.


60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

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Scholar Judith May Fathallah's work blurs lines between author and ethnographer, fan experiences and genre TV storytelling.

In Fanfiction and the Author: How Fanfic Changes Popular Culture Texts, author Judith May Fathallah investigates the progressive intersections between popular culture and fan studies, expanding scholarly discourse concerning how contemporary blurred lines between texts and audiences result in evolving mediated practices.

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Which is the draw, the art or the artist? Critic Rachel Corbett examines the intertwined lives of two artists of two different generations and nationalities who worked in two starkly different media.

Artist biographies written for a popular audience necessarily involve compromise. On the one hand, we are only interested in the lives of artists because we are intrigued, engaged, and moved by their work. The confrontation with a work of art is an uncanny experience. We are drawn to, enraptured and entranced by, absorbed in the contemplation of an object. Even the performative arts (music, theater, dance) have an objective quality to them. In watching a play, we are not simply watching people do things; we are attending to the play as a thing that is more than the collection of actions performed. The play seems to have an existence beyond the human endeavor that instantiates it. It is simultaneously more and less than human: more because it's superordinate to human action and less because it's a mere object, lacking the evident subjectivity we prize in the human being.

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