A Hard Days Night and Beatlemania: The West's Last Outbreak of Optimism Disease

 

Janus Films/Criterion Collection

A still from the 1964 Beatles film, A Hard Days Night, reissued July 2014 in a digitally remastered form.

How did an opportunistic flick featuring Britain's fad-of-the-moment band turn into the best pop movie anyone had seen up to then? Let alone "the Citizen Kane of jukebox musicals," in critic Andrew Sarris's—and no pushover, he—oft-quoted rave at the time? It helped that the fad was Beatlemania, the director was 32-year-old Richard Lester, and the movie was A Hard Day's Night. Coinciding with the July 4 release of a digitally remastered Hard Days in U.S. theaters, the Criterion Collection has just put out a lavish 50th-anniversary joint Blu-Ray/DVD edition of the film with a whole second disc's worth of extras—multiple docs and interviews, plus Lester's Oscar-nominated 1960 short The Running, Jumping And Standing Still Film—and wow, does it ever suck. Nah, kidding.

While the carousing imagination and headlong fervor of both entities involved would be hard to fault, how much the Beatles helped create the '60s and how much the '60s helped create the Beatles is one of the great chicken-and-egg questions. Half a century later—and with all due respect to Harry Potter creator J.K. Rowling, one of the few people on the planet who can converse with Paul McCartney as an equal, not to mention The Godfather, Star Wars or Michael Jackson's Thriller—the Beatles’ advent is still popular culture's ultimate Big Bang. That makes A Hard Day's Night a key artifact of what Salman Rushdie used to call the West's last big outbreak of the Optimism Disease.

With all due disrespect to boomer vanity, the phenomenon we know as "The Sixties" was a piddling thing compared to its world-historical granddaddies: the revolutionary tides that swept Europe periodically from 1789 to 1848, which began with the Bastille's fall and ended with Karl Marx's invention of communism. One relative novelty was that our Mini-Me version of revolution was launched by Elvis-and-all-that upheavals in pop culture—hell, showbiz, a realm the Fab Four never entirely dissociated themselves from even after Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band was getting them compared to T.S. Eliot—and politics had to play catch-up. It's as if the "Marseillaise" had provoked the French Revolution instead of the other way around.

At least until Vietnam-and-all-that, 1968-and-all-that, or Nixon-and-all-that turned the Weather Underground into bungling—yep, there's always a silver lining—bomb-makers,  another novelty was that the floodgates sprang open in an atmosphere of euphoria and affluence, not discontent. That's what Beatlemania crystallized. However complicated they, their music, their audience and their relationship to ye olde Zeitgeist all got down the road, at the outset they were all about joy.

Partly because people were catching on even then that the Beatles were, you know, the Beatles, it would be a considerable exaggeration to say A Hard Day's Night was conceived as just another quickie teen-culture ripoff. Far from the usual yard-goods hack who gets tasked with overseeing such things, Lester—one of the first filmmakers to see not only artistic but potentially crowd-pleasing gold in the French New Wave's cinematic innovations—was an obvious up-and-comer. Not much less vital was the contribution of screenwriter Alun Owen, a well-regarded TV playwright who probably didn't know he was making his most enduring contribution to Western civilization.  Owen may deserve the honorific "Fifth Beatle" as much as or more than the band's studio enabler, George Martin, since the shorthand personalities he devised for our boys—impudent John, winsome Paul, laconic George and bumpkin Ringo—have stayed resilient for five decades. And counting, may I add.

Janus Films/Criterion Collection

A still from the 1964 Beatles film, A Hard Days Night, reissued July 2014 in a digitally remastered form.

Plotwise, to the limited extent there is one, the movie is a simple-minded backstage musical.  On the literal run from the opening image onward, the band has to get to a Big Show, and various circumstances interfere—most famously, Ringo's Camus-for-beginners vacation from fame, an interlude that has the other Beatles in a tizzy as they try to track him down. Crammed in everywhere else you look and listen are jokes, absurdist non sequiturs, and various other kinds of upstart commedia dell'arte.  Along with—oh, yeah—a bunch of incredible songs, starting with a title tune whose effervescence hasn't faded a whit in five decades. And counting, may I once again add.

The real modernity of A Hard Day's Night is that its subject is Beatlemania itself—simultaneously capitalized on, wittily reflected upon, and dramatized in quasi-documentary style. Elvis's movies had and would cast him as fictional characters in conventional genre stories that incidentally let him sing some, but the Beatles were playing Owen's version of "themselves"—a gimmick with some Hollywood antecedents, but not really all that many. (How many cinephiles out there get misty-eyed about real-life WW2 hero Audie Murphy playing Audie Murphy in To Hell And Back? I thought so.)

If the depiction is still uncannily vivid, that's mainly because Lester's cinema-verité photography captured the same humdrum-to-gimcrack cityscapes his fellow U.K.-based directors  were using to indict postwar Britain's  shabbiness. All of a sudden, all that drab architecture was a stage set for mass exhilaration—proving, as Robert Christgau said of Elton John, that even the bleakest and blandest eras teem with life.

Given what had been the conventions of both backstage musicals and teen flicks up to then, perhaps the movie's most remarkable omission—remarkable because so few viewers even notice it—is the absence of any romantic entanglements, the odd bit of flirtation aside. The romance here is between the Beatles and their fans, and one way the connection feels so prescient about countercultural utopianism that it's collective on both ends. Sure, Owen did a lot to delineate the band members' separate images for consumers' benefit. Yet what made them consequential as individuals was that they were part of a unit, even as what made Beatles fans  epochal in their own right was that their most private fantasies and generational self-identifications were giddily, irreversibly public.

If there's a more rhapsodic 20th-century sight than teenage girls ululating their heads off as John, Paul, George and Ringo play, I don't know what it might be. And by way of postscript, there are worse subjects than this one—a movie that helped make it possible for the likes of me to have careers mulling pop culture's wonders—to say goodbye with. "Well, that happened," as Alec Baldwin immortally said in David Mamet's State And Main, and the Prospect and I are going our separate ways. My thanks to Kit Rachlis for tossing me the gig, and to my various print-edition and website editors—Sarah Kerr, Gabriel Arana, Bob Moser, Clare Malone, Jaime Fuller and Adele Stan—for putting up with my wayward interests. Thanks, as well, to all of you, whether you stuck around week in and week out or just dropped in whenever it sounded like there might be something interesting going on.

 

 

Comments

What isn't generally known is that two years before "A Hard Day's Night" Richard Lester made another film about pop music that's almost as good: "It's Trad, Dad!" It stems from a time when "trad" -- short for "traditional," and meaning Dixieland jazz -- was a highly popular form of music in Britain, and Brits who led Dixieland bands — notably trombonist Chris Barber, trumpeter Kenny Ball and clarinetist Acker Bilk — became major stars. The “trad” fad also led directly to the acceptance of rock ’n’ roll in Britain, thanks largely to Lonnie Donegan, who played guitar and banjo in the Barber band and would occasionally perform a number with just the rhythm section, augmented by washboards and jugs, to give the horn players a chance to rest. One of those numbers, a cover of Leadbelly’s “Rock Island Line,” became a major hit in the U.K. (and enough of one in the U.S. for Stan Freberg to parody it) and started a fad for so-called “skiffle,” basically jug-band music, which since it was simple to learn inspired hundreds of British kids to form bands. Among them were three lads from Liverpool named John Lennon, Paul McCartney and George Harrison. The musical menu in It’s Trad, Dad! is an odd mixture of Dixieland (from the Dukes of Dixieland — a band of young white Americans from the wellspring, New Orleans — to Chris Barber, Kenny Ball, Acker Bilk, the Temperance Seven— who did their vocals through megaphones so they could really capture the 1920’s sound — as well as lesser names like Bob Wallis and Terry Lightfoot), American rock (Chubby Checker, Del Shannon, Gene Vincent, Gary “U.S.” Bonds — his real name was Gary Anderson and he hated that stupid stage name his record company stuck him with — and the fascinating Gene McDaniels, a Black cabaret singer with a very white-sounding voice, artfully filmed with cigarette smoke swirling around him) and British pop-rock (the Brook Brothers, the Paris Sisters, John Leyton and the film’s juvenile leads, Helen Shapiro and Craig Douglas).

What makes this film not only interesting but a minor comic masterpiece is the cheeky tone maintained throughout by director Lester and writer Milton Subotsky (who also produced): the film opens with a narrator who says it’s about a boy and a girl (as arrows on screen point to Douglas and Shapiro, respectively) and a mayor (Felix Felton) of a small British town which shall remain nameless (it’s so nameless that we see the “You are now entering … ” sign but the name of the town has been whited out) whose attempt to have a quiet cup of coffee (poured out of a teapot after the counterman at the coffee house pulls a series of levers that make intriguing noises but actually accomplish nothing) is suddenly spoiled by a group of teenagers who crash the coffeehouse and turn on the jukebox and the TV waiting to hear their favorite trad artists. The boy and the girl hit upon a plan: they’ll go to the Big City (obviously London, though again unnamed) and bring back a disc jockey who will put on a jazz TV show and break the ban the mayor has imposed on the music. (In one grimly funny scene, the mayor is using the city seal to smash to bits LP’s by trad artists — eerily anticipating the record-burnings staged by fundamentalist Christians in the U.S. against Lester’s later stars, the Beatles — and when his aide hands him a Lawrence Welk album, the mayor keeps it and says, “Not that one.”) They’re standing against a wall wondering how on earth they’re going to get to the Big City when the narrator offers to help, and suddenly one jump-cut later they’re in the Big City making the rounds of the TV studios and jazz clubs. They finally get to a D.J. after making contact with Acker Bilk at the fancy club where he performs — when they’re wondering how they can get into a club like that, the narrator obliges them with tickets and evening outfits and then, after they dash off, the narrator says, “You might at least have thanked me for the clothes” (see what I told you about this being a beta version of Lester’s Beatles movies?), and the comedy bits get even loonier, notably the efforts of the mayor and his aides to keep the bus with the jazz musicians in it from reaching the town — which they plot on a relief map in a scene staged deliberately to parody all those super-serious dramas the British were making then about their battles during World War II.

Some of the musical numbers were filmed in the U.S. by a second unit directed by Peter Case, and these are clearly less imaginative than the ones Lester filmed in Britain — the American numbers have the same dull head-on treatment as was common in pop musicals of the day, while Lester’s numbers feature overhead angles, instrument’s-eye views, proto-psychedelic effects (in one scene he zooms into the megaphone of the Temperance Seven’s singer and then starts spinning the camera until his mouth turns into a paisley pattern) and the kinds of split-screen effects that became common and, eventually, an oppressive cliché of their own in later 1960’s music films. The combination of the cheeky comedy of Subotsky’s script and the audacity of Lester’s visual imagination make "It’s Trad, Dad!" a far better and funnier film than most of the teen musicals of the period (what a shame Lester never made a movie with Elvis!), and had it been a bigger hit — especially in the U.S. — it wouldn’t have been such a surprise when "A Hard Day’s Night" came out and turned out to be a comic masterpiece, hailed as such even by movie critics who otherwise didn’t especially like the Beatles.

It’s clear just why producer Walter Shenson thought Lester would be a good director for the Beatles: the same combination of good pop music and whacky comedy that makes "It’s Trad, Dad!" interesting is what made "A Hard Day’s Night" and (to a lesser extent) "Help!" so much fun — though the Beatles’ films were even stronger, at least partly because in them the great musicians and the whacky comedians were the same people!

The Paris Sisters were from San Francisco.

You had it right the first time. The movie does suck. (I'm 56.)

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