Saturday, June 7, 2014

Eight Arms to Hold You: The Criterion Collection Celebrates the Fiftieth Anniversary of A Hard Day's Night

"The first rock and roll movies had little or nothing to do with rock and roll music, and everything to do with the rock and roll ethos," wrote Greil Marcus in his assessment of the genre. That ethos he describes was present in many Fifties pictures where adolescents were no longer accepting the proscribed values of the status quo. You could see it in Marlon Brando's defiance in The Wild One (1953), where when asked about what he was rebelling against, he replied, "Whaddya got?" You could recognize it in the painfully vulnerable James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause (1955), as he attempts to wake up his incognizant parents to the misunderstood youth they were alienating. The distilled essence of what would soon become rock 'n' roll was weaved into the fabric of those movies. According to Marcus, though, its power wasn't fully comprehended until Bill Haley & the Comets drove home the combined sociological screeds of The Wild One and Rebel in The Blackboard Jungle (1955), with its opening blast of "Rock Around the Clock."

After that, aspiring rock artists started lining up to see their possible future on the silver screen; and John Lennon began thinking that maybe this was a cool job. The Beatles were first turned on by The Girl Can't Help It (1956), which featured Little Richard in the opening credits singing the title song. The plot was largely superfluous, but significantly, it was about how the music business was run by the mob (giving a whole new meaning to the word hitmen). Besides grooving to Little Richard, Gene Vincent, the Platters and Eddie Cochran, youngsters also swooned as the buxom bombshell Jayne Mansfield strutting by in her tight clothes, clutching milk bottles to her heaving breasts. In 1956, having been one of those kids first stunned by Brando, Elvis Presley stepped onto the screen in the Civil War drama Love Me Tender, where two brothers fight over politics and the love of Debra Paget. His elegiac ballad, "Love Me Tender," which maybe planted the early seeds for McCartney's eventual "Yesterday." But it was his role as the violent rockabilly singer Vince Everett in 1957's Jailhouse Rock where the rock ethos fused effortlessly with the music. From there, just as the rock movie began, it seemed almost over. Except for the tabloid chic of High School Confidential (1958), which delved pruriently into a teen dope ring, it was the sanitized Frankie Avalon/Annette Funicello beach party movies and Elvis's decline in Hollywood.

When The Beatles considered doing their own film, they wanted it to be more than simply a mediocre formula flick. Having watched fellow Brit Cliff Richard traipse about like an airbrushed Presley in the glorified travelogue Summer Holiday (1963), The Beatles wanted something that might define who they were, or at least, what we might perceive them to be. The end result of their quest became the genre-defining A Hard Day's Night, being re-released in a digitally-restored Blu-ray edition by the Criterion Collection on June 24th, and the road leading there came about by some shrewd business strategies. In 1963, United Artists was aware that Capitol Records in the U.S. had been refusing to issue The Beatles' recordings. This meant that there was no provision being made for soundtrack records in case the Fab Four ever wanted to make a movie. Since United Artists were convinced of The Beatles' ultimate international success, they proposed signing the group to a three-picture deal. If The Beatles agreed, United Artists was set up to release three soundtrack albums (which the studio assumed would go through the roof even if the films flopped). Noel Rodgers, who was the A&R man for United Artists in England, and Bud Orenstein, who served in their film division, drew up a contract that would ultimately net United Artists not only a superb Beatles record, but a hit movie made for under a half million dollars. There was no way they could lose. 

director Richard Lester
After James Bond producer Harry Saltzman turned down United Artists' offer to work on A Hard Day's Night, the studio approached Walter Shenson. Shenson was an American expat, a producer at United Artists, whose claim to fame was casting Peter Sellers in the social satire, The Mouse That Roared (1959). "United Artists approached me when they apparently found out that the contract between Capitol Records and The Beatles didn't cover movie soundtracks," Shenson said. "They wanted to cash in on the Beatle craze, so the movie was just an excuse to release an album." Shenson introduced the group to another American, the 32-year-old director Richard Lester, who brought the same exuberant pop inventiveness to his films that The Beatles were bringing to pop music. Lester was from Philadelphia, a precocious kid who started grade school at the age of three. While he was a student at the University of Pennsylvania, majoring in clinical psychology, he did some part-time work as a stagehand in a local TV studio. Quickly, he developed an interest in directing, becoming successful in his new trade at CBS. Having both studied music and played in a band, Lester toured Europe where he ultimately settled in England, where he continued his work as a TV director. He began with his own comedy show, The Dick Lester Show, before developing an association with Peter Sellers. This led to the production of a series of wildly comic TV programs capped by The Goon Show in 1958. Aside from his connection to the Goons, which drew the interest of The Beatles, Lester had also directed a wildly innovative slapstick short, The Running, Jumping and Standing Still Film (1960), which was packed with the kinds of sight gags that would inspire A Hard Day's Night. "I was the right film director for them," Lester said candidly. "I chose them. They chose me. They'd seen a short film of mine [The Running, Jumping and Standing Still Film]. They knew I'd made a pop film [It's Trad Dad] before that. They knew...I would understand them musically." (The Running, Jumping and Standing Still Film is included in the Criterion Collection special edition DVD.)

While the film was being negotiated in October 1963, Liverpool playwright Alun Owen was brought in to fashion a screenplay around a day in the life of the group. Owen came from the school of working-class kitchen-sink realism that had spawned Arnold Wesker and John Osborne. Some of his plays were adapted to television – like No Trams to Lime – a grim drama that had Shenson wondering if Owen could bring the levity required for The Beatles' first picture. But Owen successfully caught hold of the band's comic potential by following them while they toured Dublin and Belfast, observing them in the fervour of Beatlemania. Early in 1964, Owen, Walter Shenson and Richard Lester then went to Paris where The Beatles were doing the Olympia concert with Silvie Varton. At the George V Hotel, they watched the group being prisoners in their own hotel room and conducting themselves as a comic troupe under the most adverse circumstances. They knew that this would be the heart of the movie. The story could then be about The Beatles scrambling through their professional life, escaping screaming fans, signing autographs, and rehearsing for a television special.

The black & white movie opens with the definitive chang of George Harrison's guitar, popping like a starter's gun about to begin a race, which it does, as The Beatles are seen being pursued by shrieking fans through the street. As they scramble, falling and laughing, exhilarated by the attention, they roar through a train station. The title song calls forth both the intense enjoyment of the moment and the relief awaiting when they finally arrive home. The Beatles charging through the station becomes a true test, daring the crowd to catch up, leaving us to wonder what might happen if they did. As the cat-and-mouse game continues, Paul McCartney sits in the station, with his grandfather, reading a newspaper while disguised by a goatee not far removed from the one he'd grow for Sgt Pepper in 1967. In 1964, though, McCartney's disguise is part of the game. In 1967, the beard would be part of a transformation, an escape from the game set forth between the band and their fans in A Hard Day's Night. For now, the group enjoyed being Beatles and the movie celebrates the genial side of Beatlemania. But it's not all geniality. There's a cheeky side to this picture, too, that shows the band as quick-witted when they face adversity. Whether it's the press, or an elder gentleman on a train who objects to their manner, The Beatles don't back down or become patently cute. When the upper-class gentleman in the train car, who's offended by the rock music on their transistor radio, tells them that he fought the war for their sort, Ringo quips, "I bet you're sorry you won." The only dramatic tension in the picture comes from whether they'll make it to the TV show – and pull it off. Of course, they do, and in the end, they fly off in a helicopter with group photos falling to the ground below like confetti at a coronation. That's what A Hard Day's Night becomes, a celebration of The Beatles rising up in the sky, to (what John Lennon would often call) the toppermost of the poppermost. "The film, probably more than their music, took The Beatles across social barriers, won them an audience among the intelligentsia," wrote Greil Marcus. "[It] broadened their hardcore base from teenage girls to rock and roll fans of every description – if rock and roll was about fun, then this movie was rock and roll."

Wildred Brambell & John Lennon
Lester began shooting the film from March 2, 1964 until late April, with the chase scene done around Paddington and Marylebone Station on the west side of central London. Wilfred Brambell, who had played the "dirty old man" character on the popular British TV sitcom, Steptoe and Son (which would provide the template for the American version, Sanford and Son), played Paul's Irish grandfather. All through the film, a big deal is made about how "clean" he is in reference to his role on Steptoe. The teenage fans were brought in from a number of London theatre schools. When two million pre-orders for the soundtrack were made before the film even premièred, it was clear that United Artists' hunch had panned out. A Hard Day's Night brought out a new sophistication in their music. Moving from the bright optimism of "Please Please Me," "She Loves You" and "I Want to Hold Your Hand," the band starts writing love songs about ambiguity ("If I Fell," "I Should Have Known Better") incrimination ("You Can't Do That") and reflection ("Things We Said Today"). While the film happily and successfully solidified the myth of The Beatles, their music here begins to define the more complex contours of their optimism.

A Hard Day's Night is the first (and only) Beatles album featuring all Lennon and McCartney originals –and they were mostly written before having read the screenplay. It was the first album recorded on four-track machines allowing for more intricate dubbing and mixing. "A Hard Day's Night" provided the title of the movie and was based on one of Ringo's many malapropisms (making him the Yogi Berra of the band). McCartney told reporters in the U.S. while promoting the picture, "because it sounded a funny phrase at the time but the idea came of saying that it had been a hard day's night and we'd been working all day and you get back to a girl and everything's fine." The conflicting temperaments of Lennon and McCartney fused beautifully in this song. Where Lennon describes the struggle of working hard all day, McCartney responds to the hope of getting back home. Richard Lester liked the title of the song being the title of the movie since it captured the mad pace of the group in the eye of the hurricane. "I Should Have Known Better" is a brief throwback to the spirit of "From Me to You," including the winsome harmonica opening and a sprightly Lennon vocal. After the opening credits featuring the title song, "I Should Have Known Better" is the first song performed in the picture while The Beatles are playing cards in the train baggage car. "If I Fell" is a lovely, yet pensive ballad, written by Lennon in mid-February, a song he rightfully considered a precursor to "In My Life" (even sharing the same chord sequences). "If I Fell" is about an affair where the singer is asking the girl that he desires whether she'll love him more – if he leaves his wife. With that in mind, "If I Fell" provided a affecting moment in Alan Parker's hard-hitting film Shoot the Moon (1982), where Albert Finney and Diane Keaton play a middle-class married couple coming apart after the husband has an affair with a younger woman. When he leaves her, Keaton sits mournfully in a bathtub singing "If I Fell" to herself, smoking a joint, as her voice cracks on the most painful, significant lyrics. Those lyrics refer back to the sentiments of "I Want to Hold Your Hand," where the mysteries of romance seemed so enticing. Now the singer discovers that holding hands isn't quite enough to define the intricacy of romance. The song gets performed to Ringo while the band was rehearsing in the TV studio for their special.

Apparently, Lester couldn't figure any other place in the film to put the song. "I'm Happy Just to Dance With You," an infectious Latin-flavoured tune about seducing a woman onto the dance floor, was written for George to sing. Harrison brings his characteristic rueful shyness to his performance, as Lennon and McCartney's harmonies cheer him on. "And I Love Her" is a strikingly affirmative number composed by McCartney as an exercise to see if he could write a love serenade that began in mid-sentence. It's a song that demonstrates how much he learned about balladry by performing "Till There Was You." "Tell Me Why" returns The Beatles to the girl group origins of "Chains" and "Boys," illustrating how far they'd come in creating their own versions of those tracks. By Lennon's standards, "Tell Me Why" is an impersonal song, but it's such an apt demonstration of the group's total command of harmony that you can be easily fooled into thinking that it's about something that actually matters. "Can't Buy Me Love" was included in the movie for one of the most memorable scenes, where the group escapes the controlled environment of the studio, to frolic on the playing fields of Isleworth behind the Odeon Hammersmith. "I'll Cry Instead" is a country-flavoured song about romantic loss which carries the same vindictive quality as "You Can't Do That." It was originally considered for The Beatles' breakout sequence in the film, but it was relegated to the soundtrack album because of its dour tone. When the film was remastered for video in 1986, the song was used in a pre-credit montage created by Walter Shenson.

A Hard Day's Night premièred at the London Pavilion Cinema on July 6, 1964, while the single and soundtrack album were released on July 10th. The film opened on 100 screens in the U.S. in August where it made $5.6 million. It became the match to light the fire of The Beatles' world tour in 1964, and would be instrumental in convincing folkies like Roger McGuinn and David Crosby to exchange their acoustic axes for electric ones, and then form The Byrds. "I guess the thing which struck me was that they were using a lot of folk music chord changes," Byrds co-founder Roger McGuinn recalled. "They were using passing chords up until that point, so in a way they were subtly combining folk and rock. This is what inspired me and gave me the idea [to play electric rock & roll music]." Chris Hillman, who would later join The Byrds, remembers McGuinn turning up at the Troubadour with a 12-string acoustic Gibson guitar and playing "I Want to Hold Your Hand." Byrd David Crosby would say that their band "was an attempt at democracy or a kind of family" which they learned from The Fab Four. The Byrds would, of course, eventually rival The Beatles in becoming a bickering family.

The critics were exuberant in their praise of the picture. Rather than cater to the popularity of the group, the movie was appraised as a movie. "...A Hard Day's Night has turned out to be the Citizen Kane of jukebox musicals," wrote Andrew Sarris in The Village Voice. "[T]he brilliant crystallization of such diverse cultural particles as the pop movie, rock and roll, cinema-verite, the nouvelle vague, free cinema, the affectedly hand-held camera, frenzied camera, frenzied cutting, the cult of the sexless subadolescent, the semi-documentary, and studied spontaneity." The Daily Express meanwhile called it "delightfully loony" and compared The Beatles to the Marx Brothers. Bosley Crowther in the New York Times thought the film "tickle[d] the intellect and electrifie[d] the nerves." Roger Ebert would later echo Sarris's comparison to Citizen Kane. Of course, A Hard Day's Night gave us an idealized view of The Beatles, but there was a shady tinge to the reality of their massive success celebrated in the picture. To provide distraction between scenes, they kept their energy up with amphetamines and scotch. There were also many young females, used as extras, who were steered into The Beatles' trailers for quick bouts of shagging before going back before the camera. One extra, who had no interest in a quickie, was a 19-year-old model named Pattie Boyd. Lester had recalled using her in a commercial he'd directed, so he invited her to be one of the smitten girls on the train meeting the band. She would eventually go out with George Harrison after he gave her an autograph with seven kisses on the photo. They would eventually marry in 1966.

Early in 2007, I happened to catch a number of fake movie trailers appearing on YouTube. If there was a concept to these faux coming attractions, it was to deliberately misrepresent the original movie, perhaps as a way to satirize the manner in which trailers provide false hooks to steer us to the picture. So Stanley Kubrick's familial horror film The Shining (1980) was re-cut to suggest a father/son reconciliation drama directed by Cameron Crowe. Martin Scorsese's feverish Mean Streets (1973) was crossed hilariously with Sesame Street. There were quite a number of other films represented, but one in particular caught my eye. It was for a movie titled A Hard Day's Night of the Living Dead. The trailer begins typically as a teaser announcing the legendary Beatles in their landmark debut A Hard Day's Night. As well, we soon start to recognize the usual swarm of fans about to greet them. Moments later, however, the tone dramatically changes. As the opening scenes of A Hard Day's Night unfold in the train station, the band is being pursued not by eager and happy fans, but by the zombies from Zack Snyder's remake of George Romero's Dawn of the Dead (2004). As The Beatles laugh and cajole their way through alleys and cars, the screams of the undead, bloodthirsty for flesh, continue to bear down on them. The cutting between both pictures is so seamless that the zombies seem to be moving in rhythm to the music.

The original 1978 Dawn of the Dead was a blood-spattered EC comic-strip satire of consumerism gone mad, but the re-make is a post 9/11 apocalyptic calamity where every facet of societal decorum breaks down. Nightmares have replaced dreams. Over the opening credits, we hear Johnny Cash singing about a man taking names, the Grim Reaper cataloguing death on every corner of the planet. If the screaming throngs of A Hard Day's Night were once participants in The Beatles' utopian dream, the zombies of Dawn of the Dead are former participants in the grind of life. Their hunger isn't driven by the delight brought on by The Beatles' music, it's brought on by the instinctual drive to consume. In A Hard Day's Night of the Living Dead, the band is oblivious to the danger of becoming zombies themselves. They don't even recognize that they're being blindly fed upon by their followers, who don't follow because of their shared ideals, but because the cadavers need to feed on the living beings in front of them. What's missing from A Hard Day's Night is an awareness of that danger – something A Hard Day's Night of the Living Dead cleverly gets at. If The Beatles truly fought becoming a tool of mindless consumerism, wouldn't their fame be evidence of still potentially being its tool? If fans continued to impulsively scream at the mere sight of The Beatles, and buy every record whatever its quality, would the excitement of consuming it truly bring the satisfaction that the music promised? A Hard Day's Night had no intention of raising these prickly questions, but in short time, those issues, would soon come to define the group's fate and the cultural revolution they launched.  

**The Criterion Collection disc includes a new 4K digital restoration, approved by director Richard Lester, with three audio options—a monaural soundtrack as well as newly created stereo and 5.1 surround mixes supervised by sound producer Giles Martin at Abbey Road Studios—presented in uncompressed monaural, uncompressed stereo, and DTS-HD Master Audio on the Blu-ray. Audio commentary featuring cast and crew (dual-format only). In Their Own Voices, a new piece combining 1964 interviews with the Beatles with behind-the-scenes footage and photos. You Can’t Do That”: The Making of A Hard Day’s Night, a 1994 documentary by producer Walter Shenson including an outtake performance by the Beatles. Things They Said Today, a 2002 documentary about the film featuring Lester, music producer George Martin, screenwriter Alun Owen, and cinematographer Gilbert Taylor (dual-format only). Picturewise, a new piece about Lester’s early work, featuring a new audio interview with the director (dual-format only) The Running Jumping & Standing Still Film (1960), Lester’s Oscar-nominated short (dual-format only). Anatomy of a Style, a new piece on Lester’s methods (dual-format only). New interview with author Mark Lewisohn (dual-format only). An essay by critic Howard Hampton and excerpts from a 1970 interview with Lester.

– Kevin Courrier is a freelance writer/broadcaster, film critic and author (Dangerous Kitchen: The Subversive World of ZappaRandy Newman's American Dreams33 1/3 Captain Beefheart's Trout Mask ReplicaArtificial Paradise: The Dark Side of The Beatles Utopian Dream). Courrier teaches part-time film courses to seniors through the LIFE Institute at Ryerson University in Toronto and other venues. His forthcoming book is Reflections in the Hall of Mirrors: American Movies and the Politics of Idealism.

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