Wednesday, August 6, 2014

On the Big Screen :: A Night at the Movies :: Richard Lester's A Hard Day's Night (1964)

I get The Beatles. I just don't GET The Beatles. Don't get me wrong. I don't dislike them. Again, I totally get it. As musicians, they're top notch; their music, hideously infectious. As a social phenomenon, they have few peers. But as cultural touchstones, they've always left me kinda cold. However, as a die-hard, pompadour'd, fried peanut-butter 'n' 'nanner sammich bogarting Presleyterian, I can totally empathize with this kinda psychosis and understand what it's like to be worshipping at the table unable to explain exactly why you're there, with such ferocity, and tenacity, to those who are not.

Looking back, Richard Lester's A Hard Day's Night (1964) is kind of a watermark for me in that everything about The Beatles that came before the movie -- from Liverpool, to Hamburg, to The Ed Sullivan Show -- I find fascinating to the eye and righteous to the ear as my feet stomp and tap along. But everything after that, well, you kinda lost me.

I had never seen A Hard Day's Night before -- or any Fab Four movie, for that matter. (Unless you wanna count Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band but, yeah, no. No. No. No. No.) Thus, when it was announced there would be a weekend screening at the Grand, my burgh's beautifully restored show palace, which usually only serves as a second-run showcase, I decided to get my butt into the theater in a show of support for future revival screenings of this nature. Also, I cannot deny my own curiosity to immerse myself in a phenomenon that had, somehow, failed to take root.

Glad I did, too, as the film proved just as insidiously infectious as their music. Lester, whose career began making TV commercials, brings an intimate, small screen approach to his subject matter, using a faux documentary angle to showcase a 24-hour cycle in the life of our quartet; the main thrust of which is keeping tabs, reining in, and herding the ever errant group toward the rehearsals and eventual broadcast of some ersatz musical variety show. And as our boys run amok, it easily brings to mind the absurdist anarchy of the Marx Brothers and the slapstick of Max Sennett. There's also touches of Busby Berkeley and the French New Wave both visually and in the execution of the vignettes. All of these disparate ingredients make for one tasty stew.

Apparently, United Artists gave Lester and screenwriter, Alun Owen, a free hand to do whatever they felt like. Truth told, the studio was much more interested in a legal loophole that allowed them to do an end-run on Capitol Records and release a soundtrack album, hoping to cash-in on Beatlemania before it sputtered out. And so, they just needed something, anything, to release into theaters. That they wound up with a box-office and critical smash is just one of those serendipitous amalgamations of circumstances that by all rights should have ended in disaster. Only it didn't.

As actors, John, Paul, George and Ringo do just fine. John and Ringo shine the most, especially Ringo. George might've come off better if I could've understood more of what he'd said. (I usually have pretty good luck with accents but I was totally befuddled on this front.) Each was given their own personal interlude, except for Paul, who was too busy dealing with the added comedy relief of his "grandfather". Props to Wilfrid Brambell, who acquits himself quite well as the devious old coot, who enhanced the plot instead of laming things up. And while it wasn't the hardest I'd laughed at the cinema this last weekend ( -- no, that involved a sentient tree and a talking raccoon), when he pops up through the stage floor during the final concert made me giggle pretty good. Also, kudos to Victor Spinetti as the overwrought, gloom 'n' doom director in charge of the upcoming televised performance.

While the chaos pops and thunders around them, most of their own making, but not all, I found it interesting how the movie really calms down during the musical interludes. I like how the whole band visibly relaxes in front of the camera when they take up their instruments and just melt into their songs (or into the background at the club scene); kind of like the eye of a storm, a refuge, against the hurricane of Beatlemania.

I've stated before about the apparent birth defect that finds me preferring the Tottenham Stomp over the Mersey Beat, and the Dave Clark Five over the Beatles. Doing the math, maybe it was because my folks were too old and my siblings too young when the Beatles invaded. Perhaps things might've been different without this lack of exposure. I know my mother's Elvis records and my father's Venture's LPs had a huge influence on me and the only relevant album we had was Chet Atkins Picks on The Beatles (-- which, for the record, was kinda awesome), so, there ya go. 

Speaking of math, I had to double-check mine when I sussed out this screening also marked A Hard Day's Night 50th Anniversary. That's right. 50th. This, doesn't seem possible. Then again, Star Wars is almost ready for it's 40th. GAH! Anyhoo...

Personally, I also think A Hard Day's Night marked a turning point for the Beatles, as well. I wouldn't call it the beginning of the end but the cracks were already there and starting to show. (Don't believe me? Just ask Pete Best.) And as things moved forward and the 1960s progressed, the line between counter-cultural messiahs and insufferable twats blurred to the point where I could no longer make a distinction. And while A Hard Day's Night did little to remedy this notion, it certainly didn't make it any worse. On the contrary, it reinforced what I loved about the group all along: the music, and a certain moment in history when that music changed the world. Even I get that.

A Hard Days Night (1964) Proscenium Films :: Walter Shenson Films :: United Artists / EP: David V. Picker / P: Walter Shenson / AP: Denis O'Dell / D: Richard Lester / W: Alun Owen / C: Gilbert Taylor / E: John Jympson / M: The Beatles / S: John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison, Ringo Starr, Wilfrid Brambell, Victor Spinetti

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