DAILY FILM DOSE: A Daily Film Appreciation and Review Blog: A Hard Day's Night

Friday 2 October 2009

A Hard Day's Night

A Hard Day’s Night (1964) Dir. Richard Lester
Starring: John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison, Ringo Starr, Wilfrid Brambell, Norman Rossington, John Junkin and Victor Spinetti


By Greg Klymkiw

This is one astounding picture. I first saw "A Hard Day's Night" at the age of five. It is now 45 years later and I have seen it innumerable times and in several formats – more times on a big screen in 35mm than I can remember, on 16mm with my own Bell and Howell Auto-load projector, Beta, VHS, laser disc, DVD and now Blu-Ray. It is a movie that never gets stale. Each time I see it, it seems like I’m seeing it for the first time and in this sense, it is truly timeless on a personal level. As a movie and in the larger scheme of things, it’s a gleefully entertaining movie - a mad, freewheeling portrait of the greatest rock and roll band of all time and surely one of the most influential motion pictures during the latter half of cinema’s relatively short history.

As well, it is one of the truly important works to come out of a period often referred to as the British New Wave where the silver screens lit-up with a new way of telling stories on both a stylistic and content level. A series of comedies and dramas from a combination of foreign expat directors living in the United Kingdom as well as indigenous talent were the order of the day. These pictures delivered cutting edge satire, anarchic laughs, kitchen sink realism, grim and/or humorous looks at working and middle class society and more often than not, focusing upon the hopes and dreams (both dashed and realized) of young adults. There were, for example, the "angry young man" pictures featuring the likes of Richard Burton, Richard Harris, Albert Finney and Tom Courtenay - grimy little affairs that were depressingly cool. And then, there were the comedies - the best of which came from a director who contributed a great deal to changing the face of how movies could be made.

Richard Lester, the gifted American-born expatriate in London, was this very director and “A Hard Day’s Night” is unquestionably his masterpiece. Conceived just before the “Beatlemania” craze really exploded on an international level, Lester was probably the best man for the job of creating the sort of work that would have the greatest impact. Having directed and produced several British TV comedy programs featuring the iconoclastic Goons (including the likes of Peter Sellers, Kevin Connor and Spike Milligan) and with an Oscar nominated short film and a hit feature “The Mouse on the Moon” under his belt, Lester not only wore the shoes of director ever-so-comfortably on The Beatles' big-screen debut, he dove into the job with the mad passion of a Welles or an Eisenstein. This was not going to be just any rock and roll musical – it was going to be THE rock and roll musical – and as such, it informed filmmaking technique and style in ways we still experience in cinema even now.

Lester’s approach was to capture the slender tale in a documentary style with black and white photography; handheld cameras galore (all stunningly shot by the great Gilbert Taylor of “Dr. Strangelove” and “Repulsion” fame) and an approach to editing (with the exquisite shearing of John – “Frenzy”, “Zulu” and “A Fish Called Wanda” – Jympson) that would have made Eisenstein both dizzy and sick with envy.

The usual approach to rock movies at this time was to assemble a gaggle of performers and have them deliver a series of tunes in the dullest, most conservative fashion or worse yet, to plunk the likes of Elvis into (mostly) silly vehicles that were far below the dignity levels such performers demanded. Lester, on the other hand, wanted to propel us with lots of humour (sheer silliness mixed with sharply tuned wit), a dizzying camera and cool cuts that drew attention to their sheer virtuosity as well as performing the task of always moving us forward.

What this approach needed was a script like no other. Securing the services of the Welsh-born and Liverpool-raised actor, comedian, playwright and screenwriter Alun Owen. He proved to be a godsend to both Lester and the Beatles by crafting a simple narrative involving a day and a half in the life of the mop-topped Liverpudlians wherein they repeatedly shirk their responsibilities as rock stars and just have tons of fun – much to the consternation of their road manager (Norman Rossington), the bemusement of his assistant (John Junkin), the exasperation of a harried live TV director (Victor Spinetti) and to the delight of Paul McCartney’s (fictional) Grandfather (Wilfrid Brambell) who exploits his proximity to the rock stars to also show himself a grand old time. Amidst the frivolity, Ringo goes missing on a soul search until finally all are reunited for one totally kick-ass show in front of thousands of screaming, swooning kids.

Wow! Can it get more simple and pure than this? Thankfully no! It’s just what the doctor ordered for this picture. Even more impressive is Owen’s brilliant dialogue and the endless opportunities to have the boys duck in and out of cabs, run from screaming teenyboppers and find as many different means of escape from both their fans and responsibilities – crashing through service doors, cascading down fire escapes and partying up a storm against the backdrop of the swinging-est London imaginable..

Not surprisingly, given the auteurist tendency to downplay the importance of screenwriters that aren’t the auteurs themselves, Richard Lester has uncharitably stated that much of Owen’s script was jettisoned in favour of letting the Beatles ad-lib. Enough statements from many others refute this assertion to support what really seems to be the truth of the matter – Owen spent a considerable amount of time with The Beatles on their journeys before setting narrative and dialogue to paper and went out of his way to create words perfectly suited to John, Paul, George and Ringo so that they’d be comfortable playing them and, on rare occasions have a solid springboard to ad-lib (which according to most reports is no more than 10 to 15% anyway).

And then there is the music – the title track “A Hard Day’s Night” (taken from one of Ringo’s delightful malapropisms), “Can’t Buy Me Love”, “Tell Me Why”, “She Loves You (Yeah, Yeah, Yeah)”, “I Should Have Known Better” and then some – all used in stunning concert footage and/or within the narrative body of the film – not unlike music videos before the notion of music videos even existed. This latter point is especially important to add some illumination. Lester, always the consummate filmmaker didn’t throw images and cuts at us willy-nilly, but actually adhered to the conventions of filmmaking (establishing shots, mediums, reverses, close-ups, etc.) by making it seem like he did anything but.

It’s brilliantly, beautifully orchestrated cinematic anarchy.

Most of all, it’s great filmmaking – pure and simple and in all the purity and simplicity that great pictures are ultimately endowed with, in order to allow for differing levels and perspectives to grow and to flow naturally and organically out of the mise-en-scene.

And even though it is a movie set in a different time and shot 45 years ago, it feels as free and original and fresh as if it had been shot… yesterday!

“A Hard Day’s Night” is available on a Collector’s Edition Blu-Ray via Alliance Films (Universal Home Entertainment, Canada). The new Blu-Ray release will disappoint most home videophiles since the source material seems no different that what appeared on the previous DVD and laserdisc releases. That said, Blu-Ray makes anything and everything look great and “A Hard Day’s Night” is no exception. This recent Blu-Ray release also contains a decent clutch of extra materials, which are surprisingly worth watching (since most of them on most releases, I find, are not). Until a complete re-mastering (or better one) comes along, this will most certainly do.


Unknown said...

He's very clean.

Kieran Roy said...

I figured today might be a guest column.

Greg Klymkiw said...

Ah yes, but WHAT a guest column!
Birth of child.
A Hard Day's Night, indeed...makes one feel...okay!