January 2, 2015

A Hard Day’s Night

A Hard Day’s Night (85 minutes) 1964 – starring John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison, Ringo Starr, Wilfrid Brambell, Norman Rossington, John Junkins, Victor Spinetti, Anna Quayle, and Eleanor Bron. Directed by Richard Lester. Now showing in select theaters, released through Miramax Films.

In the very first scene of “A Hard Day’s Night,” John, George and Ringo are running towards the camera, being chased by a legion of screaming teens. George and Ringo get foot-tied in their strides and both tumble hard to the ground. John glances back to see their fall and breaks into a cheery, spontaneous laugh. The rough accident seems completely unscripted, and John’s reaction to it sets the tone throughout the rest of the film. The camaraderie signaled through John’s laugh instantly showed a bond the boys had cemented, an unusual unified friendship that telegraphed to the world that they weren’t merely manufactured by a record company. These guys genuinely cared for each other. However scripted the rest of the film seemed to be, the audience carried the underlying subtext that these friends weren’t just acting as friends. And that was the endearing quality they have retained ever since.

Re-released in gloriously restored black and white, the landmark musical “A Hard Day’s Night” packs all the magical personality it once projected to audiences three and a half decades ago. The Beatles had just returned to England after conquering America, when they began filming in March 1964. The mania for everything moptop was so feverish, that crowds of fans turned up on set locations and were incorporated in scenes from the film. A shot where the Beatles ride in a limo surrounded by shrieking girls was taken off-the-cuff as the boys were headed home after work one day and later inserted in the film’s opening train segment. Director Richard Lester captured the frenzy of those opening scenes in such a rapid-fire, documentary manner, allowing for the unexpected, that the continuity girl was completely caught off-guard. She wrote in her script notes: “First shot. Beatles wearing their own clothes. I was in the toilet. Director was the (camera) operator. If this is the way the film is to go on, I’m resigning now.”

This guerilla, spontaneous approach truly gives the film its zest and character. The standout moments using this technique are seen when the Beatles run about in an open field (during the “Can’t Buy Me Love” liberating montage) and as Ringo walks along a river during the ‘lonely guy’ segment. Lester’s use of swish pans, fast cutting, smooth tracking shots, and parallel imagery (most notably during the boys’ singing “I Should’ve Known Better” in the train’s storage compartment) preceded, and laid the groundwork for, the techniques used in modern day music videos. His decision to use slow fades during the Beatles’ studio performances bring the beauty and immediacy of their musical charisma to wonderful scrutiny throughout the picture. Photographer Robert Freeman’s design, during the end credits, using fabulous portraits of the lads smoothly dissolving from one image to the next, made for a final stamp of originality to the overall viewing experience.

Liverpudlian Alun Owen was brought in to meet the group for a few days, and he then fashioned his script into a story about the hectic schedule of a popular band. The empathy one felt for the boys is subtly triggered by the fact that they are seen being harshly shuttled about, grabbed at by cloying teens, and isolated in their hotel suites. While Owen scripted many of the quips they toss off, all four Beatles, particularly George, ad-libbed with their own brand of humorous one-liners.

The plot of the movie just concerns the boys prepping and playing for a television studio program. Subplots are merely vignettes, focusing on their interaction with others. Primarily, they take the ‘stuffing’ out of stuffy authority figures. Whether it’s an arrogant train businessman, a stern groundskeeper, indiscriminate policemen, or a pompous television director, the Beatles fancy themselves the underdogs making fun of all the pretensions. By this time, the foursome were making far more money than any of these ‘authority’ figures, but this juxtaposition only serves to highlight their strong amenable charisma and ability to sway opinion so easily to their favor onscreen.

Many of their antics were quite subversive when looked at in relation to the times they were living in. John especially seemed to delight in ambiguity. His sexual orientation is subtly teased when it’s insinuated he’s a sissy in an actor’s dressing room and when he leans into a petulant train traveler and tells the man, “Give us a kiss.” But he also overtly conveys his hetero proclivities as he air-gropes the bosoms of passing female dancers and responds to one handler’s statement “the place is surging with girls” with the plea, “Please, sir, can I have one to surge me?” When their manager suggests that Paul’s grandfather (played by the skeletal Wilfrid Brambell) is lost and must be in some sort of orgy, all four moptops gleefully respond enthusiastically about going to participate in the orgy. According to author Andrew Yule, the Beatles had sex very much on the brain during the shoot, as they watched 8mm porno films and sequestered several female extras to their trailers for “a series of ‘quickies.”

The music in the film has been lovingly restored to full digital sound, and those tunes sung in the ‘studio’ portions, such as “If I Fell” and “Tell Me Why,” resonate in dynamic perfection. Even though they’re lip-synching, the spark emanating between the quartet members and off the screen is engagingly palpable. There are fleeting moments where John is not aware of the camera on him, and we see him smiling over something Paul has said. With all the acrimony that placed a rift in their relationship later on, it is great to see them during a period of mutual admiration.

Only a third-act Keystone Kops vignette tends to be the film’s only misfire, causing the pace to plod aimlessly. But soon, the final concert performance blasts out from the speakers and the innocent magic of the Fab Four bring you back into their embrace and send you humming nostalgically out into a radically-altered present.

© 2000 Ned Truslow

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