A Hard Day’s Night, directed by Richard Lester, is turning 50 this year. To commemorate, the Criterion Collection is releasing the film in a gorgeous digital restoration with new sound mixes overseen by George Martin at Abbey Road Studios. There will be a commentary track and deluxe special features. Also, awesomely, it is going to hit theaters again on July 4, 2014. It will play all over the country, all 50 states. Here’s the new trailer for the re-release.
The film is a goofball classic, featuring the Beatles racing around London being pursued by a screaming mob of girls. They are about to appear on a variety show, and their manager has a hell of a time keeping the boys on track. Answer your fan mail, show up for rehearsal, be good boys. But they just can’t. They keep sneaking out of the hotel room to go out dancing, or, in the case of Ringo, to try to live life as an anonymous citizen. The situation is exacerbated by Paul’s wacko grandfather, who is basically a revolutionary disguised as a harmless dotty old man, and he is devoted to causing mischief and wreaking havoc.
Richard Lester directed and it’s impossible to overstate the influence Hard Day’s Night has had on our culture. It is still being imitated today. Or, the imitations are imitating the imitations. The film’s impact has been so completely absorbed that you can’t even feel it anymore. But that’s the beauty of going back to the original: you can see it there, in clear crisp black-and-white, the genesis of so much, the genesis of everything. The film has a wacky screwball vibe, with visual jokes and slapstick elements, all of which land perfectly. There’s one scene where the grandfather, futzing around backstage at the theatre, accidentally flips a switch and he is then propelled up through the floor of the stage, smack-dab into the middle of some ridiculous opera act. It’s a gloriously silly and outrageously funny sight gag (and, of course, shows up again in one of the final moments of the film.)
At this point in their careers, The Beatles had just appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show, and we all know the mayhem that erupted as a result. They filmed Hard Day’s Night in the wake of that, and it’s that rare document that actually captures the moment in time just as something is “hitting”. Elvis Presley’s three appearances on the Ed Sullivan Show have a similar interest: Filmed over a three month period, during which time Elvis was starting to film Love Me Tender, and was causing riots at his shows in Texas and Florida and elsewhere, the Ed Sullivan appearances were mainstream America’s introduction to the greasy-haired “hillbilly cat” from the South. The regional star went international, almost overnight. And you can SEE it happening in that footage. You can FEEL the seismic shift in the culture. Such moments are rare. A Hard Day’s Night is both a visual evocation of what exploding fame feels like as well as a commentary ON the fame the Beatles had achieved. It doesn’t take itself seriously, which is one of the film’s aces in the hole. It is filled with mockery and humor, cheeky behavior, wisecracks. But it is also an act of myth-making. Seen today, the four boys look so young! So fresh-faced. Such bad teeth! And, at times, achingly beautiful, especially John. But the idolatry is undercut by humor every step of the way, which is a great look, a great feel. It’s a slam-dunk, really. Because fame is seen as so important, and it IS so important … but the best stars know they have to manage it with humor and self-deprecation.
One of my favorite sections of the film is when the lads bust out of the back door of the theatre, trample down the fire escape, and race across a nearby field, all to the accompaniment of “Can’t Buy Me Love”. Some of it is filmed from the vantage point of a helicopter, a great choice, because it makes them seem so small, first of all, which, ironically, makes them seem completely ENORMOUS. As though they are so huge that they can be seen from space. It’s also a great way to show the four guys catapulting about in space together. There’s a manic Benny Hill feeling to the sequence, and the joy of it still sparks off the screen today. It’s infectious.
George Harrison once said that fame at the level they experienced was like an “assault” on the ego. The only reason they were able to survive it at all was because they had each other. They could hole up in a hotel room and goof off and commiserate and take the edge off of what was happening out there with The Beatles (™). To compare, Elvis was out there alone. No wonder he surrounded himself with a Praetorian guard. He understood the “assault on the ego”. He handled it the best way he knew how. He had no one to commiserate with, no one who “got it”. Even other stars couldn’t “get it” because nobody was as big as he was.
There’s a nod to Elvis in the film. The butler at the hotel room, who is locked in the closet by the escaping grandfather, keeps himself occupied by reading a movie magazine with a giant photo of Elvis on the front page. It’s a reminder of that great anecdote from George Harrison. He was asked what his musical roots were. He said he had none. The only “root” he could think of was riding his bicycle down a street in Liverpool when he was a kid and hearing “Heartbreak Hotel” from out of an open window. Holy shit, is basically what I have to say to THAT.
The “Can’t Buy Me Love” section is such a beautiful and hilarious sequence of both together-ness (seen from far above, symbolic of the fame that was isolating them) and individuality. Even from the helicopter, you can tell which one is which. They seem to take great joy in one another, and really just seem to be a bunch of young Liverpool lads having a blast. There’s that great quote from John Lennon, one of the best examples of understatement I can think of: “We were four guys… just a band who made it very, very big. That’s all.”
Oh. Is “that all”?
Director Richard Lester took a goofy screwball approach, packing the film with visual gags and hijinx (I love when the boys carry John by the window of the train compartment), and filling it with inside jokes, like Ringo’s sense of inferiority. The songs are woven through, sometimes we see a straight performance, and other times, like the “Can’t Buy Me Love” section, it’s a music video. The pack of screaming girls pursuing them throughout the film seem like a wild collective beast, and during the final performance, seen on the variety show, there are some great shots from behind the band, looking out at the theatre filled with screaming girls. There’s one girl Lester keeps focusing on, a blonde girl, with tears down her face, her heart literally breaking at the sight of the four guys up onstage.
It was touching, and a powerful reminder that sniffing dismissively at teenage girls’ mania for the things they love is not only cruel but idiotic. Teenage girls are often RIGHT about things before the culture is ready to accept it. When teenage girls decide to love something, they break down police barriers to get to it. Instead of making fun of teenage girls for losing their ever-loving minds about something, perhaps critics should follow the sound of the screams and try to understand what the fuss is about. Don’t judge them. Listen to them. Because more often than not, they are onto something.
A Hard Day’s Night still feels fresh, still feels vital and fun and exciting. I’ve seen it before, of course, but never on a big screen. It’s an overwhelming experience. I saw it at the small screening room in the Criterion offices and I brought my aunt Regina as my date. In 1964, when my aunt Regina was 11, she went to go see Hard Day’s Night with her group of friends. My grandmother drove them all to the theatre. Regina remembered the screams, the mania, and how much fun it was to go see the movie, what an event it was. 50 years later, Regina sat next to me, guffawing with laughter at some of the bits, sighing with appreciation at some of the beautiful closeups, and singing along. She was not alone. The whole room felt like that.
It’s an exciting “documentary” of a moment in time, a film that captures the moment just … just … as the gigantic wave was breaking.