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Film Friday: The Beatles in 'A Hard Day's Night' directed by Richard Lester

By Daniel S Levine,

If you really want to understand what it was like to be at the eye of the storm known as Beatlemania, just watch Richard Lester's A Hard Day's Night. What was first conceived as a quick cash grab became, just like nearly everything else The Beatles did, one of the greatest ever. It might be fictional, but A Hard Day's Night really captured a perfect moment in time, when the Beatles were just four lads from Liverpool having a laugh at every stiff tie, button-up shirted man they encountered.

A Hard Day's Night is a typical 24-hour period for John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Ringo Starr at the height of Beatlemania in London. They can't go anywhere outside without being chased by screaming girls and they can't attend any event without a flock of press asking absolutely banal questions. At the end of the day, they have a boring television engagement, in which they have to sing songs they've performed countless times before (except for the ones written just for the movie, of course).

However, this is fictional and there has to be a wrench thrown in – Paul's meddling grandfather John, played by Irish actor Wilfrid Brambell. Sure, the group is used to their overbearing manager (Norman Rossington) and their bumbling roadie Shake (John Junkin), but they are not prepared for that “very clean” little old man. He's conniving and even has members of the group go against each other, all just for a laugh. The elder McCartney has particular fun picking on poor Ringo. Even at this early stage of their career, Ringo gets made fun of for 'just being the drummer.'

Even if United Artists first planned to make A Hard Day's Night just so they could make money from the soundtrack, they spared no expense getting top talent to make the film. Writer Alun Owen followed the group before putting the script together and one can tell. AHDN feels like an improvised film, thanks to Owen's incredible script, which captured how the Beatles sounded and responded to silly questions. My favorite remains the question George gets: What do you call that hairstyle? “Arthur,” George replies.

Director Lester also excelled at bringing off that improvised feeling by using a documentary, cinema verite style of filming. If you're going to base your film in real life and have almost no budget, you might as well make it look like a documentary. When the Beatles dance or when they talk with reporters, Lester's camera is embedded with the band. Then, there's his revolutionary way of capturing the band performing. Of course, they're not able to really singing “I Should Have Known Better” in a cramped train cage, but there's an easy transition to the performance.

The crowning achievement of the film, though, is the “Can't Buy Me Love” sequence. Here's one of the group's best known songs and they don't perform it. The song just perfectly goes with their zany behavior, complete with silent film-inspired physical comedy. Even when Lester uses the song again during the police chase, it still fits the action nicely. (Plus, how great is the gag with the car thief?)

On Home Video: Miramax had the distribution rights to A Hard Day's Night and they released a two-disc DVD back in 2002, without the involvement of the living members of the group. The set's bonus materials include a wide range of interviews with people connected to the Beatles, even if they weren't actually a part of the film. George Martin's interview is probably the most interesting, as he goes over the making of the songs written just for the film. It was released in Canada on Blu-ray several years ago, but that's out of print now.

A new restoration is set to debut at the TCM Film Festival, curtesy of Janus Films, which may mean that a Criterion release is on the way.

A Hard Day's Night isn't just a major part of The Beatles' career, introducing them to the widest possible audience at the height of Beatlemania, but it's also a milestone in film history. Lester was a member of the young British New Wave directors, who were heavily influenced by the French New Wave. This film was one of the movement's crowning achievements and it feels like it hasn't aged a day. Pure joy in black and white, with songs by Lennon and McCartney.

You can talk about this film and others at the Film Friday Facebook page. You can check out past Film Friday columns here.

image: Amazon

 
 

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