Posted by Pablo Kjolseth on June 1, 2014
If you missed A Hard Day’s Night (Richard Lester, 1964) when it screened at the recent TCM Film Fest, you’ll get another shot tomorrow when it airs as part of an evening celebrating the British Invasion. A Hard Day’s Night marks the Fab Four‘s debut in front of the cameras for a feature film and is credited with breaking away from the previous template for musical pictures of a boy-meets-girl story interspersed with musical numbers. This is not to say our four boys don’t meet girls, as there are throngs of screaming women, many random encounters, and George Harrison would even meet his future wife, Pattie Boyd, on the shoot (she’s one of the women the Beatles run past in the train – and was also responsible for grooming his hair during the film shoot). But what really fuels the film is an anarchic energy inspired by The Goon Show radio program of the ’50s that also influenced the lads in Monty Python. To be more specific: one of the people talking into the microphone for the Goon Show was Peter Sellers, before he was a film star, and Sellers would later co-direct with Lester The Running Jumping & Standing Still Film (1960), which was an 11 minute short that the Beatles quite liked and which led to Lester being hired for A Hard Day’s Night (and a year later also Help!).
The camera crew and production team were assembled quickly by financiers at United Artists studio who didn’t think the Beatles would have staying power. As far as the money-people were concerned, these four mop heads might be a flash-in-the-pan and so they wanted to make the film in under a month and then have it rushed out the door to take advantage of whatever this Beatlemania craze was while it was still burning hot. John Lennon, talking to Richard Lester in 1963, had just gotten back from Sweden and was asked by the director how it was. John’s response made it into A Hard Day’s Night and would inform the first half of the film: “It was a car, and a room, and a room, and a car, and a cheese sandwich.” Which is to say, life was a blur. The title itself was credited to a malapropism by Ringo Starr during an interview when he was clearly a bit confused as to whether it was day or night, his daze due to an all-night recording session.
Some of the studio financiers thought Lester was peddling “useless, amateurism” but, hey, if that’s what these four kids who are still in their early 20′s wanted, okay, why not? The results ended up being far from useless as critics applauded the film for its use of cinéma vérité and playful surrealism. Associate Producer Denis O’Dell was approached by the studio and initially didn’t want to get involved with “a pop picture” – but when his children found out their dad had a chance to work with the Beatles they convinced him to get behind it. (O’Dell would go on to work with Lester on nine more films.) Screenwriter Alun Owen shadowed the musicians to get a sense of their banter, and this helped shape archetypes (ie: Paul as “the cute one,” etc.). These archetypes would later prove to be quite enduring, no matter how often the Beatles tried to shake things up.
Given an original budget of 200,000 pounds, which at the time was 303,000 in U.S. dollars, proof that Beatlemania was not just a passing phase came with the box office grosses. A Hard Day’s Night snagged $12 million. The movie did more than cash in on the popularity of four rising stars, it added gas to a blaze that was about to get a lot brighter. Lester’s style allows the form to follow the content by creating a dynamic push-and-pull that shifts between cramped interiors and free open spaces while simultaneously accentuating the differences between youth and the stodgy authority figures that surround them. The film lets the Beatles turn on their charm while also letting the camera lovingly capture those famous haircuts in a variety of creative ways. It wasn’t just youth that was being peddled here, it was available youth. The four young musicians had to sign a contract clause for A Hard Day’s Night that prevented them from courting women during the shoot so as to not disappoint screaming fans and their respective fantasies. What actually happened behind-the-scenes must not have been too important (Harrison Boyd being a case in point), but what mattered here was that the perception of them being available be kept alive.
The filmmakers know they’re peddling youth, they have fun with it, and they also make fun of it – a self-awareness that can be witnessed in one particular scene where an ad executive tries to sell George Harrison on endorsing an idea by another trendsetting youth, only to be mocked by the Beatle who would later be known for spirituality and mysticism. It’s a meta-moment, and not much has changed when you think of the companies out there like Collab that are monetizing that hard-to-reach millennial demographic by hooking up companies like Coke with up-and-coming youngsters who make popular Vine videos. Actually, that’s not entirely true – there is one big change in how companies marketing themselves to the youth go about their business today, and it has to do with time. A Hard Day’s Night was meant, in part, to convey the blur and speed that comes with being a pop sensation. But life has only gotten faster, for everyone, famous or not, and one has to wonder if the teenagers of today, at least the ones who love the short-attention span theater of six-minute Vine videos, would have the patience for the 89-minute running time of A Hard Day’s Night.
Even if you miss A Hard Day’s Night on TCM this week, in the month to come there’s a good chance you’ll hear about this title more than once. That’s because everyone wants to get in on the 50th anniversary celebration of this film, and that includes The Criterion Collection, which is releasing a Blu-ray on June 24th, and Janus Films, who will be releasing the new digital restoration by Criterion in 4K resolution at various cities nationwide over the July 4th weekend. (The film’s original world-premiere took place on July 6th at the London Pavilion in 1964.) Both will have their advantages because the former will come with a slew of extras (including the aforementioned The Running Jumping & Standing Still Film), while the latter is sure to prove an eye-opening revelation for fans who can be assured that a big screen viewing of this new cleaned-up version from the original camera negative will afford you a chance to see quite clearly what all the fuss was about.
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