Our review of A Hard Day's Night (1964) (Blu-ray) Criterion Collection, published June 25th, 2014, is also available.
The Beatles in their first full length, hilarious action-packed film
The brilliant, intense actor Harvey Keitel once said that there are certain events that forever alter a person's life. These trials or discoveries help move a person along the time line of experience from point "A" to point "B." Once the shift occurs, you can never return to the way things were before. Such an event occurred on Sunday, February 9th, 1964. It is a day that stands as a turning point for America and for popular culture and society worldwide. It was a day when the old ideas of music, of the country rock swivel of Elvis Presley, and the urban throb of Motown were forever surpassed by four mop topped blokes from Liverpool. For on this night, millions of US homes tuned in to their favorite television obsession, The Ed Sullivan Show, and witnessed the social and musical landscape change, forever. The very foundation of what a joyful noise rock and roll music could be was permanently redefined. On that cold New York evening, the Beatles set the benchmark. And A Hard Day's Night, their first motion picture, captures them at the peak of their universal power and impact. It is an engaging comedy, a winning musical production, and a testament to the magnificence and lasting presence of John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison, and Ringo Starr.
Facts of the Case
John, Paul, George, and Ringo are the Beatles, the premiere rock and roll band in Britain. They are traveling to London to perform on a television program, and we get to spend two days with them as they avoid adoring fans, answer inane reporter's questions, and attempt to thwart the watchful eye of their managers, Norm and Shake. Paul has also brought his Grandfather along hoping the change of scenery will do him good. Grandfather is a well-known troublemaker who loves to stir things up. It's not long before he has Norm mad at Shake, the television people mad at the band, and Ringo angry with everyone. As they rehearse and prepare for the show, Grandfather convinces the shy drummer that he is taken for granted and needs to experience all that life has to offer. So Ringo goes off on an afternoon of "parading the streets." When the director discovers that the all-important rhythm section of the band has gone missing, it's up to the remaining three to track him down, lest the show fail to go on.
There are certain concrete facts that one has to face if they are going to exist within the real world. They need to realize that all men are created equal. They need to comprehend that freedom and justice go hand in hand. And they have to understand the importance and place of the Beatles in the history of music and popular culture. To undercut them as a 1960s "boy band" or to question their relevance some 40 years after they first burst on to the scene is to circle your cultural high horses and join those braying ninnies in a bit of myopic mud grazing. No matter whether you love their music or find them an overrated bunch of British bums, you cannot deny that they have had a lasting impact on the way we hear music. While Little Richard and the rock pioneers that came along with him (Elvis, Chuck Berry, Jerry Lee Lewis) built the institution upon which most modern music was constructed, the Beatles were the all important alchemists. They condensed all of the divergent melodic flavors and blended them into a palatable, delicious pop confection that is as sweet and powerful as it was over four decades ago. No other band has been more influential. Period.
Still, it's easy to understand why a new generation of listeners, brought up on the passion of rap or the fusion of funk/punk/metal could look at this group of polite Liverpuddlians and sigh "sappy old pop song singing farts." In these days of self-imposed social relevance, it is hard for anyone to make a lasting impression the way that the Beatles did. Even recent "defining" moments like the murders of Tupac Shakur and Biggie Smalls, or the suicide of Kurt Cobain, cannot seem to stay influential in the rapid eye movement k-hole quick cut nature of 2002 society. The minute after a "life altering event" occurs, society tend to realign itself back to its upright, pre-15 minutes of fame status quo stupor. But this is the Beatles we are talking about. This is the group that taught the world to believe in yesterday and that all you need is love. From the R&B racket of their Cavern club days to the psychedelic surge of a magical mystery tour, every aspect of the social fabric, from radio to fashion to politics, was shaped by them. Perhaps now is the perfect time to reestablish the Fab Four as the talented torchbearers they were. And what better place to start than with A Hard Day's Night. This quick, witty, and winning piece of pop motion picture perfection is the perfect pitchman.
A Hard Day's Night is indeed a joyous comedy, one that mixes great music with snappy British wit and the genial personalities of the Beatles themselves to create a unique cinematic milestone: a rock and roll comedy that is actually fresh, funny, and filled with excitement. Credit goes to director Richard Lester for understanding the visual requirements of this project and inventing a new cinematic language of quick cuts, hand held cameras, blackouts, and rapid-fire asides as a means of expressing the jubilation and hectic mania of the time. Screenwriter Alun Owen is also to be praised for not turning the film into a Beatles Save the World action parody (they'd do that in the follow-up film, Help!) or a Jailhouse Rock-style indictment of show business. Instead, he encapsulated the band's humanity and sarcasm into a Goon Show style slice of British pomp and silliness, and hoped something magical would occur. And it did. The movie is a sly comic romp that transforms the realities of rock and roll into a fantasy farce about joy, fame, and (surprisingly) isolation.
It's a good thing that, as natural performers, the Beatles wore their personalities on their Carnaby Street mod coat sleeves. Subplots were fashioned around each one's distinct persona. John was an acerbic, dry wordsmith, so he was given the majority of the verbal jabs and jests. George was the quiet, droll Beatle, and his scene with the TV executive/pop culture guru is a hilarious highlight in the film. Paul, always cast as the good-natured, romantic soul, happily looks after his poor grandfather as he performs another beautiful tune. And then there's Ringo. Considered the most gifted acting presence in the band, he has the main narrative sequence, an extended subplot where his dissatisfaction leads to a mini-road trip around London. His is a truly marvelous, affecting performance. But in retrospect, each of the Beatles is natural, engaging, and frightfully funny in the film. It's no wonder they went on to explore the world of motion pictures more thoroughly, both as individuals and as a group. Those who come to A Hard Day's Night expecting an in-depth study of the Fab Four's real daily life should buy one of the many books about the band to get the real story. Here, we get a rock and roll fairy tale, where the lads answer every piece of fan mail before going to bed, and every song is a boisterous hit in waiting.
The one thing the film accurately captures is the absolute pandemonium the Beatles created, not just in Britain, but in America as well. The mob scenes and concert craziness are actually underplayed, since no one would really believe the kind of mass frenzy the group created. John Lennon once said that, from the time they took the stage to the moment they left, the band could NEVER hear what they were playing: the screaming and cheering was THAT loud. A Hard Day's Night freezes that moment of mass hysteria for all the future to witness. It also catches the band at one of its first creative zeniths (they would have several more). All of the songs in the film are classic bits of Beatle pop, the template for literally hundreds of tunes and countless bands to follow. While not inventors of the verse/chorus/break style of songwriting, they indeed were its masters. And unlike the pointed accusation hurled at pop stars of today, the Beatles were inventive, marvelous musicians, and the film captures the magic and mystery of how four men, with little or no overdubs, could create such a special sound. As a testament to the powers of the Beatles as musicians, composers, and performers, A Hard Day's Night is indeed difficult to undermine.
No one could have predicted that a simple black and white film featuring four likeable Liverpool musicians would become a historic time capsule of a legend in the making and a much praised cinematic treasure. So it's amazing the quality of print, image, and transfer we get with the DVD treatment of A Hard Day's Night. Some may argue with Miramax's decision to create a widescreen image for the film by opening up the matte, but any harmful impact on the image is non-existent. It will only perturb those OAR purists. What is confusing is the less than perfect quality of the transfer. Something Weird Video can take a paltry exploitation romp and turn it into a monochrome masterpiece. It's hard to believe that Miramax could not do the same with this film. It sometimes looks washed out (especially during the concert sequences) and there are not the usual sharp contrasts between blacks and whites one would expect. There are also visible age defects. None of this renders the picture awful, or even average. This is still the best this near forty-year-old film has looked. But the Beatles are one of only a minor handful of true musical and cultural visionaries and myths. You'd think they would warrant a painstaking restoration, not just a cleaned up version of existing transfers.
However, the main bone of contention for many fans of the film, and audio purists, will be the puzzling decision on the part of Miramax to overhaul the musical portion of the film and remaster it in Dolby Digital 5.1. When the Beatles recorded these songs, it was either in simple two-channel stereo or single channel mono. To inflate these basic recordings into full blown separated digital sound seems misguided, since the rest of the film remains mono. While it's really not that bad, the jump between mono and 5.1 can be a little strident. Most of the time, this new mix works. The train car workout on "I Should Have Known Better" and the classic "Can't Buy Me Love" ring with a vibrancy and clarity that is non-existent in the original versions. However, on a few occasions, the songs sound unfinished. You can hear all the performances in place, but they are not mixed down and combined into the Beatle magic we're used to and expect. This is especially true during the concert sequence, where "She Loves You" and "All My Loving" sound hollow. And during the quieter numbers ("And I Love Her," "If I Fell"), the obvious surround gaps between instruments becomes eerie. It's like listening to the ghosts of the group performing.
But the most questionable aspect of this DVD is the extras. First, not a single Beatle appears here, not in recent or archival material. Their absence sticks out like a blistered finger. There is also an entire community of scholarly and fan-oriented information on and about the band. Their albums. Their music. Their legacy. NONE of that is here. (A smattering is included in the DVD-ROM content.) Miramax must be assuming that EVERYONE who would buy this title is already a fan and doesn't need to know much about the group or its history. Too bad, as what better way would there be to introduce this title and the band to a new generation of fans than with a comprehensive overview or video essay. The original MPI version of this DVD (now very much out of print) had newsreels and even some archival material showing the foundation of the film's comedic ideals and the groups rise to fame. None of that is here. Richard Lester is still alive and his humorous interview insights are a definite bonus. So why not let him record a full-length commentary, giving fans and film lovers the definitive story on creating the movie and working with the Beatles? It would be interesting to know how much improvisation, how many takes, and how much coaxing was required to get the genial engaging performances out of a band of young musicians.
What we do get here, instead, are various Q&A walks down foggy memory
lane by a couple of important players in the Beatles career and canon (namely
director Lester and long time music producer Sir George Martin) and far too many
ancillary film production extras. People who had ONE scene in the movie or
tailored their suits are given untold minutes to wax anecdotal about working in
and around the boys, but hardly any real insight results. We learn that, for the
most part, the Beatles were
The American Movie Classics cable channel occasionally shows a very good documentary called The Making of A Hard Day's Night that offers interesting details about the film's creation. But it's obvious that, with the title already available from MPI as a separate DVD, Miramax wasn't going to spend the extra money and buy it for incorporation here. And unfortunately, A Hard Day's Night: Collectors Edition smacks a little of that frugality. So few entities deserve celebration like the Beatles do, and yet cinema of marginal importance, like action packed effects workouts and gross out teen comedies, find more informative and in-depth treatments on their DVD presentation than this seminal work. While it is true that the group is incredibly protective of its product and legacy, isn't the main reason behind any new release to promote to and enlighten a new generation or a forgetful public of the importance and impact a group like the Beatles and a film like A Hard Day's Night had? It was the blueprint for Beatlemania, and the benchmark for future meshing of musician to movie. While the material offered here is abundant and very interesting, it is also insular. If they had only ventured outside the world of the film, to explore the Beatles as a phenomenon, this would have been much more than a DVD.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
It's hard to imagine the Beatles having that much cultural influence or importance today. Ten or twenty years ago, maybe But like the reign of Elvis, which ebbed and declined around 1985, the fading Fab Four have seen the world spin wildly past them as music and society remove itself almost completely from their flower power '60s poptones. These are days of hardcore hip-hop and pre-fabricated and packaged musical entities. In reality, in the war for the memories of the American public, the Monkees have proven longer lasting and more influential with their limited musicianship, maximum merchandised manufactured presence. The raw talent of the Beatles means very little today. Even within their own realm, they seem to always be behind the technological times. They were late to the CD market, their discography awash in legal hassles and flawed alternative versions that all had to be cleaned up and sorted through. Their sole official Internet presence is a site dedicated to the 2001 release of the CD compilation "1." And now we have this less than complete, halfhearted release of A Hard Day's Night. A glossy, super slick bit of self-promotion, it's less funny or poignant than it used to be. What once was endearing is now cloy, viewed in these last, twilight days of our fallen idols. The Beatles used to be the greatest band in the history of music. Now they are the answer to a trivia question on a game show. And the film and DVD of A Hard Day's Night does nothing to improve this fact.
So, how does one judge A Hard Day's Night: Collector's Edition? Do they fret over the superfluous and derivative extras, or the weird vaporous Dolby Digital mix of a few pop classics? Do they wonder why a DVD package that is meant to introduce the Beatles to a new generation is sorely lacking in historical or social perspective? Do they look to past versions of the title, and resign themselves to mortgage the homestead yet again for an eBay inflated MPI disc? Honestly? No. Perhaps what we all should do is realize that no amount of horns and hoopla, scholarly dissection or fluffy pat interviews, could actually capture the magic, the wonder, and the lasting influence that was The Beatles. Nor could it resell a phenomenon to anyone who wasn't there to see and experience it themselves. Whether they like it or not, naysayers simply cannot deny the historical importance of the group. And at least we have this energetic and poetic film, one that forever freezes the four at the very moment when they was universally fab, when rock and roll music changed forever. Just like back in 1964 when a short performance of four songs marked the cultural shift from "A" to "B," A Hard Day's Night extols and explains what made the Beatles musical legends. It is a wonderful, funny, and frantic motion picture.
A Hard Day's Night is acquitted of any and all charges and is declared by the Court the definitive rock and roll musical. The Court further cements the Beatles importance in world history, and fines Miramax $3,200 for failing to create a landmark DVD presentation that this film and the Beatles legacy deserved.
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