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Our review of A Hard Day's Night: Collector's Edition, published October 8th, 2002, is also available.
There was a time before The Beatles were The Beatles. Before they were legends. Before they changed the world. There was a time when the hysteria that surrounded the band was seen as a fad. Two albums and a steady stream of hit singles had rocketed the foursome to the top of British charts, and their appearances on the Ed Sullivan Show were about to make them a smash in America, too. But no one knew how long their success would last. Shortly before the band's U.S. television debut, United Artists negotiated a deal to make a Beatles movie as a way to get the rights to a soundtrack album. No one expected much from the film. It took a savvy producer, an inspired choice of screenwriter and director, and the multitalented Beatles to turn what could have been another disposable pop star vehicle into a movie milestone. A Hard Day's Night hit theaters at the same time The Beatles became The Beatles, and it ushered in a new era of music and filmmaking.
Facts of the Case
A Hard Day's Night follows John, Paul, George, and Ringo on a typical day, running from fans and being shuttled from one place to another, all while preparing for a major TV appearance and babysitting Paul's troublemaker grandfather (Wilford Brambell).
Would A Hard Day's Night be as revered today if The Beatles had faded away in the mid-'60s? Or is the band's charismatic and funny performance in the film proof that the Fab Four had too much talent to be anything but superstars? It certainly would have been a different movie had it come earlier or later in their careers. As long as they got a soundtrack, United Artists didn't much care about the film. They handed control to producer Walter Shenson, a smart guy who wooed The Beatles and convinced them to work with director Richard Lester—an American expat who'd made a name for himself working with Peter Sellers and Spike Milligan on The Goon Show.
Lester's loose style and flair for visual comedy made him the perfect choice for the irreverent Beatles. TV writer Alun Owen's lyrical use of Liverpool slang made him the perfect choice to write the screenplay. The film's limited budget and tight timeline forced Lester to shoot quickly, and in black and white. There wasn't time to worry the details or add layers of studio sheen. There was barely time for editor John Jympson and Lester to cut it together. A different combination of stars and filmmakers might have crumbled under the limitations. Lester and The Beatles flourished.
A Hard Day's Night is inspired by the Beatles' crazy schedule and crazier fans. They play exaggerated (and sanitized) versions of themselves. The film starts with the Beatles running towards the camera, chased by legions of fans, and doesn't let up until they finish the big concert and hop onto a helicopter that lifts them up into the heavens. The movie in between doesn't have a plot so much as a bunch of memorable moments. There are comedy bits with the foursome, their flustered manager (Norman Rossington), and Brambell's mischievous "king mixer"—verbal and slapstick gags that highlight the Beatles' natural comic chops. There are surreal moments, courtesy of Lester. And there's music. Lots of music. Where early rock 'n' roll movies were staged like musicals, A Hard Day's Night is more organic. The back half of the film has the band preparing for, and playing, a big TV concert—the perfect excuse to pack in songs. Elsewhere, Lester takes advantage of the film's malleable reality to stage what are essentially music videos. (MTV later gave the director an honorary award as the "father of the music video"; he jokingly asked for a blood test.) The musical centerpiece of the film is "Can't Buy Me Love"—their big single at the time—a cathartic moment as the Beatles break free from their handlers and haranguers to cavort in a field.
At a taut 87 minutes, A Hard Day's Night has exactly the right amount of everything. No joke, scene, or song lasts longer than it should, before moving on to something else. A lot of that momentum comes from Dick Lester, who used handheld cameras to create intimacy and immediacy, and from Jympson, who compliments Lester's direction with edits that sell the jokes and respect the music. It's hard now to see the film as the revolution it was in 1964. No one had seen anything like it or The Beatles—and little did they know it was only the beginning.
Following a long and winding road of home video rights, A Hard Day's Night returns to Criterion, who put it out a laserdisc in the late '80s, for this mostly definitive dual format release. Until now, the only Blu-ray option for the film was a Canadian disc—an upgraded version of Miramax's 2002 "collector's edition" DVD set. Although that Blu-ray brought over that DVD's copious extras, it also retained the so-so transfer and faked 5.1 audio (more on that in a minute). For this new Richard Lester-approved transfer, Criterion scanned the film at 4K and restored it to remove specks and scratches. The 1.75:1 1080p transfer is a stunner, coaxing nuance and detail out of a rough-and-ready low budget production. A Hard Day's Night is never going to look perfectly clean—and it shouldn't—but it's hard to imagine it looking much better. Previous versions of the film were stuck in muddy middle tones. This new transfer runs from deep black to bright white, creating greater clarity in the image in general (and Victor Spinetti's fab mohair sweater in particular).
A Hard Day's Night looks great, but some might argue the most important upgrade is to the audio. Miramax tried to create a 5.1 mix out of the mono soundtrack (the only mix they had the rights to use), and it was a mess. The fake surround mix added nothing to the film, and the lack of a true mono option drove purists nuts. This new release features two main audio options in addition to stereo: a lossless remastered version of the original mono track, and a new, true 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio mix produced by Giles Martin at Apple.
The mono track is every bit as crisp and dynamic as the mono album remasters that came out in 2009, and should satisfy those who want to watch the film the same way audiences did in '64 (including the return of details removed in previous restorations, like the noise of George knocking over his amp during "If I Fell"). The 5.1 surround mix isn't necessarily better, but it provides a new way to experience the movie and the music. There's not as much instrument separation as the surround mixes for the Help! and Yellow Submarine Blu-rays, but that's fine with me. I prefer this approach. The mix maintains the integrity of the songs as the Beatles meant for them to be heard, while expanding the soundscape for greater impact. From the opening chord of the title song, the 5.1 audio hits hard, prioritizing the music while offering subtle separation of background effects and screaming teens. Dialogue scenes don't have as much going on, but at least there's no jarring transition into the songs. There's no wrong choice between the new surround mix and the remastered mono track. They both sound better than ever.
There seems to be debate on Beatles and A/V forums about the "correct" picture and audio presentation. A Hard Day's Night has been shown in a variety of aspect ratios—some of which show more image than this set's 1.75:1 ratio. Some may prefer the 1.66:1 or 1.37:1 ratios of previous releases, but I respect Criterion's decision to use what they and Lester determined to be the original theatrical ratio. Another point of contention are the songs that play slower in the film than they do on the album—the result of the TV studio performances being shot at 25 frames per second to sync up with the flicker of the control room monitors. No attempt has been made to "fix" the issue by speeding up these scenes. If you want to watch a tweaked version of the movie, I hear there are several fan edits. Criterion has done an excellent job delivering the film as it appeared in theaters 50 years ago. Take it or leave it.
A Hard Day's Night has seen many home video releases with lots of different extras. The Criterion Blu-ray doesn't include every previous bonus feature, but what's included is a broad collection of extras new and old that tell the story of the film, the people who made it, and The Beatles.
• Audio Commentary—Assembled from audio recorded by Martin Lewis in 2002 for the DVD-ROM features on the Miramax DVD, this ensemble commentary gives voice to a host of unsung contributors—including John Junkin, who played road manager "Shake"; actors David Janson, Anna Quayle, Lionel Blair, and Jeremy Lloyd; cinematographer Gilbert Taylor; associate producer Denis O'Dell; second assistant director Barrie Melrose; assistant editors Pamela Finch and Roy Benson; hairdresser Betty Glasow; camera operator Paul Wilson; sound editor Gordon Daniel; and dialogue editor Jim Rod. Their recollections and insights add another layer to the set's comprehensive history of the film.
• "In Their Own Voices" (18:02)—Archival audio from 1964 interviews with The Beatles, talking about their experiences making A Hard Day's Night, with photos, behind the scenes footage, and clips from the film.
• "Anatomy of a Style" (17:07)—Story editor/screenwriter Bobbie O'Steen and music editor Suzana Peric walk viewers through five of the film's big music sequences: the opening titles, "I Should Have Known Better," "Can't Buy Me Love," "And I Love Her," and "She Loves You."
• You Can't Do That: The Making of A Hard Day's Night (62:04)—Hosted by Phil Collins, this 1994 documentary is an entertaining overview of the production and its legacy. The documentary, produced for the film's 30th anniversary, features interviews with many key players (sadly none of them Beatles), with special focus on producer Walter Shenson. It also includes a performance of "You Can't Do That"—shot during the concert sequence but deleted from the final cut.
• Things They Said Today (36:17)—This documentary was produced in 2002 for the Miramax DVD. There's some overlap with the information in You Can't Do That, but there's just as much new in this collection of cast and crew interviews—featuring Lester, Junkin, George Martin, publicist Tony Barrow, and United Artist VP David Picker—including stories about a crewmember who lost half the first day's negatives when screaming fans mistook him for one of the Beatles, and a cameraman whose back teeth were vibrated loose by screaming fans while filming the concert.
• The Running Jumping & Standing Still Film (11:10)—This 1959 short film—directed by Richard Lester and starring Spike Milligan, Peter Sellers, and Leo McKern (a.k.a. "Clang" from Help!)—is a brilliant bit of surreal visual comedy that was nominated for a "Best Short Film" Academy Award. Its style and humor prefigures Lester's approach to A Hard Day's Night, and is partly responsible for The Beatles wanting to work with him.
• "Richard Lester: Picturewise" (27:13)—Narrated by actor Rita Tushingham, this featurette examines Lester's influences and career—from live TV and the Goons, to his film work with The Beatles and beyond.
• "The Beatles: The Road to A Hard Day's Night" (27:41)—Rounding out The Beatles story is this 2014 interview with music historian Mark Lewisohn, detailing the band's early years—from Liverpool to Hamburg to the big screen.
• The 2000 Re-release Trailer (2:00) and 2014 Re-release Trailer (1:39) are mostly interesting as a way to compare the transfers and marketing approaches for the Miramax and Criterion re-releases.
• The set also comes with a hefty 80-page booklet packed with behind-the-scenes photos, folded in with an essay by Howard Hampton and a lengthy excerpt from a 1970 interview with Lester, conducted by J. Philip DiFranco for a 1977 book about the film.
• The dual-format set also includes 2 DVDs, containing the remastered film and all of the extras.
It's an impressive collection of bonus features. The only disappointment is the missing "deleted scene" mentioned in Criterion's press release. The You Can't Do That documentary includes the deleted song from the end concert, but it would have been nice to have it as a standalone extra. (It would be even nicer to have the deleted scene between Paul and a young actress, shot but not used in the final film—but that would require a time machine to go back and stop them from destroying the footage. Not even Criterion is that good.)
More than half a century since they launched into superstardom, it's hard to see The Beatles as anything but rock royalty. In 1964, however, their future wasn't so certain. According to the template established by earlier pop musicians, the Fab Four were destined to have a few hit records then fade away. That didn't happen, of course, but the uncertainty gave them the freedom to make a daring debut film that captured their exuberance and wry humor. A Hard Day's Night may have inspired countless imitators, but it remains one of a kind. No one but Richard Lester could have directed it, no one but The Beatles could have starred in it, and no one but Criterion could have put together such a stunning hi-def package. The film looks amazing, sounds even better, and comes with a carefully curated treasure trove of bonus features that unpack the riches of this deceptively dense hoot of a film.
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