Monday, 13 April 2009

A Hard Day's Night (1964)

Many of the favourite films in this blog are based around memorable cinema experiences: in this particular case, the 14th of April 2001, at the Electric Cinema in Portobello Road - itself a historic old cinema of some repute (where the infamous John Reginald Christie once worked as projectionist) - which appropriately felt like going back in time to an innovative, electrifying age.

I mention this because as a rule films following pop groups are not usually the sort of art form that I would openly embrace: usually the plot is fairly superfluous (and this film is no exception), a means by which to thread together the various songs performed by the artists - but these particular songs, and the artists, are a cut above the rest.

The Beatles were, and still are, a cultural phenomenon. This film helps to demonstrate just how they made such a vivid impact on the era of the 1960's. Though personally never having any great admiration for their Liverpudlian Jack-the-Lad manner, what shines through in the case of A Hard Day's Night is a freshness and excitement that heralded the birth of a new era, in what was arguably the 20th century's greatest decade. This is much more than just a film one of their concerts (at the former Scala Theatre in Regent Street), but also provides an invaluable snapshot of them if not at their peak, then certainly at a time when their music and their impact was at its most vibrant and innovative, before superfame started to get the better of them.

Significantly - unlike for instance, the films of Elvis Presley - the Beatles make very little pretence at playing anything other than themselves (and quite adequately at that.) Each of "The Fab Four" is given a particular character quirk, of which the most endearing figure ultimately, is the much maligned Ringo Starr, who is seen (in the film) usually getting into trouble and requiring the other three to get him out of it. The title itself was from one of Ringo's many verbal platitudes, coming on the back of a heavy gig the previous day (that had extended into the evening): "...that was a hard day's night."

For the choice of director, the Beatles leant towards their fondness for The Goon Show (whose comedy records were also produced by George Martin), working with a fellow Goon collaborator, Richard Lester. Combined with Alun Owen's semi-observational screenplay, Dick Lester exploited the Beatles' sense of mischief and self-mockery by creating a semi-Goon show environment where the world is as we know it, but with slight eccentricities. He also brought on board some trusted comedy colleagues, seasoned campaigners such as John Junkin, Norman Rossington, Victor Spinetti, and most notably Wilfred Brambell (from Steptoe and Son) as Paul McCartney's (fictional) Irish grandfather. As such, Lester was able to play upon "Beatlemania" (the film's original working title) in a surreal satirical context.

A prime example is the hit song "Can't Buy Me Love", intended as a moment when The Beatles escape from all the fuss and bother of rehearsal - conceived by Lester as a semi-silent movie pastiche - which was quickly imitated by other pop groups, to such an extent, that in more recent years MTV declared Richard Lester to be the father of the pop video.

The subsequent career paths of Paul, George, Ringo, and especially John, have been well charted, but whatever became of Dick Lester? His career may have peaked with this film, for which he had the great good fortune to be involved, but nonetheless, his multi-faceted cinema verite techniques (aided by Gilbert Taylor's precision black-and-white cinematography) burst off the screen vividly even today - although you feel the sense of the tricks quickly losing their freshness, like a bubble just waiting to pop (excuse the pun).

Like the 1960's themselves, his was a fashion that came and went, and maybe became a little too Goonish and surreal for his own good. He went on to make some more than respectable films in later years, such as the all-star Three Musketeers, and did a creditable job in patching together Superman II after Richard Donner had been fired. But back in 1964, his idiosyncratic direction combined with the Beatles' huge following, made for a potent mixture.

Subsequent innumerable pop films (including the Beatles' own follow-up HELP! in 1965) have tried hard to emulate A Hard Day's Night (the Spice Girls' recent Spiceworld in 2000 used practically the same blueprint), but haven't been able to capture the Zeitgeist that made Dick Lester's original film so prevalent. It is a film very much of its time, and a formative one at that.

Watching it on the big screen at the Electric that afternoon, I felt the same sense of excitement and freshness for young people of the 1960's as when I first experienced the Star Wars saga in the 1970's. And there's a connection here too: both films featured music recorded at the Abbey Road Studios.

I Should Have Known Better

title song

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100 Favourite Films

100 Favourite Films