Wednesday, July 16, 2014

It Came From The Cineplex: A Hard Day's Night

Wha...? Is this a movie review from the past? Did I travel back in time to when I started my blog in the early 1960s? Am I having a stroke and randomly banging on the keys?

Nope, none of those things. 2014 marks the 50th Anniversary of The Beatles' first film A Hard Day's Night, and my local cinemaplex is showing a new print of the film. So since it's currently playing in theaters, I say it's far game for a review, no matter how old it is!

A Hard Day's Night was written by Alun Owen and directed by Richard Lester (director of Superman II and Superman III). Lester also directed the Beatles' second film outing, Help!

Needless to say I missed the film when it came out in 1964, so when I saw it was being rereleased I thought I'd better jump on the chance to see it. I probably won't be around to catch the 100th Anniversary.

I was sure I'd seen this movie before, but after watching it I realized that not one second of it was familiar to me. Either I didn't see it after all, or I did and somehow forgot 100% of it. Maybe I'm thinking of Help.

There'd been many "music exploitation" films before, but they generally consisted of setting a camera in front of a band and recording one of their concerts. The Beatles and director Richard Lester were determined to do something different in this film, seemingly giving the fans a behind the scenes look at the lads. 

It was great seeing the Fab Four at the height of their popularity on the big screen. This was the young, fun Beatles, before all the LSD and the maharishi and the Yoko and the "bigger than god" bushwah that came later.

In a way it was kind of like time travel, sitting in a theater watching a black and white movie from 1964. I almost felt like I should have worn a suit and hat to the theater. And the music! It's been a long time since I'd listened to The Beatles, and I forgot just how good their songs are. Far, far, FAR better than 99% of the dreck that passes for music today. I know, I know, get off my lawn.

The Plot:
The Beatles run from a mob of fans and jump onto a train. They arrive at their hotel, and feeling restless, go out on the town while dodging their manager who's trying to keep them inside before a TV appearance. And they sing a lot. That's pretty much it!


• The film was every bit as scripted as Citizen Kane, yet it has a freewheeling, meandering "day in the life" style that makes it seem like a documentary. This was no doubt helped by the fact that the lads were pretty much playing themselves, with only a touch of exaggeration. 

• When United Artist studio execs saw the finished film, they worried that American audiences wouldn't be able to understand the lads' Liverpudlian accents and wanted to dub their voices. Paul McCartney famously quipped, "Look, if we can understand a f*cking cowboy talking Texan, they can understand us talking Liverpool!"

Jesus, their accents were part of their charm. Why would you ever want to dub over them? They're not that hard to understand. Just more proof that studio executives have always been clueless.

• In the film, Paul McCartney's grandfather is played by Wilfrid Brambell, who starred as Albert Steptoe in the British sitcom Steptoe And Son. Steptoe was the inspiration for the 1970s U.S. sitcom Sanford And Son. And That's One To Grow On!

Throughout the film characters keep commenting about Grandpa McCartney and how "clean" he is. This is a riff on Brambell's Steptoe character, who's constantly described as a dirty old man.

• For the record, the songs included in the film are:

A Hard Day's Night (natch!) 
I Should Have Known Better
I Wanna Be Your Man
Don't Bother Me
All My Loving
If I Fell 
Can't Buy Me Love
And I Love Her
I'm Happy Just To Dance With You 
Ringo's Theme
Tell Me Why
She Loves You
• Some have complained that the film's original mono soundtrack has been replaced by one in stereo. It didn't bother me; I'm not an audiophile and didn't notice the change. If you're a purist and want to hear the original soundtrack, it's available on the Criterion Edition blu-ray.

What's that? The restored version of this film is freely available for home viewing? And I paid to see it in a theater? Why, yes. Yes I did. I know I can buy it on Amazon, but I wanted to see it on the big screen once in my life.

• At one point Paul's grandfather complains that he tagged along with the band for a change of scenery, but so far all he's seen is "a train and a room and a car and a room and a room and a room." 

This line was actually spoken by one of the Beatles to screenwriter Alun Owen, who spent several weeks with them in order to generate plot ideas. Apparently the band was struggling with the burden of their fame and were tired of having to hide in hotels from their hordes of screaming fans.

• During the press scene, a reporter asks Ringo if he's a mod or a rocker, and he replies, "Uh, no, I'm a mocker." This and most of the other questions and answers in this scene came from actual Beatles interviews.

• The working title of the film was just The Beatles, which was then changed to Beatlemania. Ringo Starr, who was famous for uttering malapropisms, is credited with coining the eventual title, when, after a lengthy concert said, "Phew, it's been a hard day's night."

• In the film, the director of The Beatles' TV show is played by actor Victor Spinetti, who wears a truly horrendous hairy-looking sweater. I'm wondering if that sweater was part of the film's humor; surely no one ever wore anything like that, even in the 1960s. 

Just look at it! It's making me itch just looking at the hideous thing!

• Most films are shot out of order, but A Hard Day's Night was filmed pretty much sequentially.

• The movie was made for just $500,000, which was pretty low even in 1964. That'd be a little less than $4 million today.

• Extreme nitpicking time: As a graphic designer, the "scoreboard" backdrop in the finale drove me nuts. It looks for all the world like it says "8EATLES." So I fixed it for them.

• I always knew that The Monkees and their eponymous TV series were "inspired" by The Beatles and A Hard Day's Night, but until I saw the film I had no idea just how closely they copied them. The freeform plots, the non-sequitor dialogue, the innovative camera work, the music video segments, the zany romps accompanied by the band's songs-- The Monkees copied it all. With precision!

The Monkees even copied the A Hard Day's Night end credits, which feature closeups of the boy with various expressions!

• Proof that merchandising cash-grabs are nothing new: there was actually a novelization of the movie, if you can imagine such a thing. The movie has such a thin, wandering, stream of consciousness plot that I can't imagine how anyone could turn it into a book. I wonder if the novel included all the song lyrics as well?

A Hard Day's Night is a fun romp through an imaginary day in the life of The Beatles, and a welcome reminder of just how good they were. I give it a B+.

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