Saturday, September 21, 2013

A Hard Day's Night (1964)

Director: Richard Lester                                 Writer: Alun Owen
Music: The Beatles                                       Cinematography: Gilbert Taylor
Starring: The Beatles, Wilfrid Brambell, Norman Rossington and John Junkin

It’s probably not surprising that a pop group like The Beatles would have a very spotty film record, as movies were simply a sideline to their primary profession. It’s equally understandable then that their two most successful films were those that focused primarily on their music: their last, Let It Be, and their first, A Hard Day’s Night. This film catches the mop tops at the height of Beatlemania and in many ways is an extraordinary record of one of the most popular and influential music groups of the twentieth century. For me, the film seems to move from the ridiculous to the sublime. The script is little more than stream of consciousness gags and wordplay that, some fifty years later, doesn’t strike me as all that amusing. But the music is still feels as fresh and inventive as when it was first released.

The story is a day in the life of The Beatles, traveling on a train, giving interviews, playing a concert, and dodging the throngs of fans that await them at every venue. Actor Norman Rossington stands in for the group’s real-life manager Brian Epstein, and John Junkin as Shake fills in for roadie Mal Evans. To my mind that would have been enough, and story lines following each of the lads from Liverpool seem as if they could have had real potential. But the script calls for veteran character actor Wilfrid Brambell to play Paul McCartney’s grandfather, and the bulk of the script involves him getting in and out of trouble. When the film focuses on the musicians, however, it comes alive. The real set piece is “Can’t Buy Me Love,” the antics of the four boys being copied by everybody from The Monkees to The Wonders in That Thing You Do.

The real genius behind the film is director Richard Lester who brings a certain surreal comedic eye to the film that isn’t overused and provides it with a real sense of authorship. Lester had primarily done TV work prior to this, but after the film was able to do a number of highly successful films. The black and white style is perfect for the period and many of the images from the film are iconic. None of The Beatles except for Ringo manage to have anything like personalities in the film. They’re essentially interchangeable and while Paul benefits in terms of screen time for having Brambell as his grandfather it does little for the story. In terms of rock and roll films A Hard Day’s Night was something of a breakthrough, more of a film for fans of the music than the typical soap operas that were concocted for Elvis. Ultimately, it’s a slice of early sixties history that is great to have on film, the documentation of a phenomenon that shook the world and continues to reverberate to this day.

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