It was fifty years ago. I wasn’t around for it, but as a fan of The Beatles the significance of 1964 is not lost on me; nor, I imagine, is it lost on many who are not fans. That was the year the British band officially invaded the United States, landing amidst a screaming crowd at John F. Kennedy Airport on February 7 and famously appearing on The Ed Sullivan Show on February 9. Seeking to capitalize on their success — thinking the group’s popularity was about to peak and die out — United Artists approached The Beatles and offered a movie deal, primarily because the soundtrack would be a hit and United Artists Records (who released the soundtracks of UA films) would be able to distribute music from The Beatles in the United States before Capitol Records could (“Hear the Beatles on the one, the only, the original sound track album from United Artists Records!” the original trailer says at its end). The film was made in the spring of 1964 and released on July 6.
This background stuff is endlessly fascinating to me, but I need to step back a bit: the film, the end result itself, beyond any background trivia, is a delightful, stylish, and revolutionary music film. I was thrilled when a few months ago rumors were confirmed that The Criterion Collection was working on a new dual-format edition of that film, A Hard Day’s Night (1964). What a way to celebrate the 50th Anniversary!
This frenetic film has always been a favorite, and this is the best I’ve ever seen it look and sound. It is crisp and clear from the moment the first chord strikes and George (while he, John, and Ringo are being pursued by a legion of screaming fans) trips and falls, taking out Ringo, to the film’s finale performance and the group’s final bow . . . in front of screaming of fans.
Above I mentioned why Universal wanted to do the film, but it’s more interesting and more fun to see how the creative team came together. The Beatles themselves were interested in doing a film, but they did not want to do the typical “juke-box musical” that studios were doing at the time — you know, the ones where some stupid plot is interrupted by random musical acts, filmed shabbily. Consequently, they denied the opportunity to many directors. It wasn’t until Richard Lester, whose early work is explored in this edition, was presented to them that they jumped at the chance. This is why there is such affinity among The Goon Show (which Lester had a hand in), A Hard Day’s Night, and, say, Monty Python (which notes inspiration from The Goon Show).
Another key member of the creative team was screenwriter Alun Owen. When Owen was brought on board he was simply told the film was meant to be a kind of fictional documentary about The Beatles, a kind of day-in-the-live-of. But, he says, he had no idea what The Beatles’ life was like. After a bit of research, though, travelling with the band from hotel to venue to hotel, often amidst the screaming fans, Owen came back and said The Beatles were prisoners of their own success, essentially locked up in hotels and trains and stages — but, importantly, that through it all they seemed upbeat and high spirited.
So the basic plot of the film is simple: it’s that fictional documentary, that day-in-the-life, about travelling by train to do a live show in Liverpool. In the mix, though, is a mad mixture of slap-stick humor and wonderfully established and filmed set-pieces.
After all, The Beatles are cooped up. Which brings to mind one of my favorite scenes, in which The Beatles are mingling with reporters and other dignitaries at a rather stuffy cocktail party (and they’re not even allowed a drink). They are bored with these events, bored of the questions they get asked (“Has success changed your life?” one asks George; he responds, “Yes.”). So they entertain themselves, taking full advantage of any space they find — and the space swells with life!
This edition of the film is filled with great supplemental material, though perhaps not the kind you expect. Rather than focus on The Beatles, most of the supplements are focused on Richard Lester’s career and filmmaking — a pleasant surprise to me! There may be reasons for this other than a desire to focus on the film’s production and Lester’s work (such as the potentially enormous costs for licensing something like, say, their famous appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show), but it worked great as so much of the film’s energy comes from the man behind the camera.
There is a great audio commentary from a variety of cast and crew members, recorded in 2002. Again, they don’t talk a lot about The Beatles (though it seems everyone liked working with them) but focus instead on the production, on getting things together with a small budget, and on Lester’s style. The film itself is filled with energy; this commentary track is on the same level, adding a new dimension to the fun.
Anatomy of a Style is a 17-minute conversation with Bobbie O’Steen and screenwriter Suzana Peric, in which they break down the film’s fantastic editing techniques. I particularly enjoyed their insights into the film’s first musical number, how it gradually pulls us into the scene before bursting with life — and instruments!
You Can’t Do That: The Making of A Hard Day’s Night is a 62-minute documentary, originally put together for the 30th Anniversary in 1994. It’s hosted by a poorly dressed Phil Collins (who, as a member of the screaming live audience, was an extra in the film). Roger Ebert also makes a welcome appearance, saying that A Hard Day’s Night is right up there with Singing in the Rain in his rankings of movie musicals. While no supplement is focused on the extensive restoration process the film recently underwent, this documentary plays excerpts of several scenes as they used to appear, and you can see just how wonderful the film now looks by comparison.
The 36-minute Things They Said Today is another making-of documentary. While it covers some of the same ground, this one from 2002 and includes Richard Lester and producer Walter Shenson.
There are also two supplements that are particularly focused on Richard Lester. First, The Running Jumping & Standing Still Film, an 11-minute short Lester made in 1960 with Peter Sellers and Spike Milligan (who worked with Lester on transitioning The Goon Show from radio to television). The strange film was made for only £70 and showcases the antics that will continue in A Hard Day’s Night (and Monty Python). Second, there’s Picturewise, a 27-minute video essay on Lester’s career, from before A Hard Day’s Night and beyond.
Two features a more Beatles-centric. First, In Their Own Voices is an 18-minute audio conversation, placed over film excerpts and photographs, by The Beatles, talking about how they came to make the film, why they chose Lester, their own disdain for what was passing as a musical film. They had a creative vision, and they wanted to have fun. Second, is The Beatles: The Road to A Hard Day’s Night, a 28-minute interview with Marc Lewinsohn, author of The Beatles: All These Years, Volume 1 — Tune In. This starts with the band’s inception, a simple question from John to Paul, “You want to join me band?” It continues, with interesting insights on the sacking of their original drummer, Pete Best, and the recruitment of Ringo Starr, up to 1964.
Last, the edition comes with a 78-page booklet. The booklet includes an essay from Howard Hampton on many of the topics already covered above, but with a spin (it’s a great essay). After the essay is a variety of excerpts from interviews with Richard Lester.
Yes, it’s a great film, and this is a grade-A Criterion-standard edition.