Starring: The Beatles, Norman Rossington, John Junkin
Director: Richard Lester
As Roger Ebert has pointed out, there’s a case to be made that the Sixties really began with A Hard Day’s Night (1964). Not only did this smart, funny docudrama cement the Beatles’ personas in the public eye, it also struck a note of liberation that set the tone for the rest of the decade.
Seamlessly blending fiction with real footage (those are real crowds they’re running away from at the beginning, and real reporters they’re teasing later on), the film presents a day in the life (actually more like two days and two nights) of the Fab Four as they head down from Liverpool to London for a press junket and live TV performance. It captures them at the height of Beatlemania, prisoners of their own success – hounded by screaming fans, hemmed in by the chattering classes who want a piece of the action. Scene after scene takes place in close confinement. Paul’s grandfather, who’s along for the ride, sums up their life on the road thus: “So far I’ve been in a train and a room and a car and a room and a room and a room”. Until, in a famous scene, the boys go hurtling down a fire escape to freedom and the camera takes flight high into the air, mimicking their exultation (one of the film’s many happy accidents; the director of photography Gilbert Taylor hitched a ride on a helicopter that just happened to be there while they were shooting).
It’s a scene that still stirs the blood, and you can imagine how a young audience at the time would have seen in the Beatles’ need to break free a mirror of their own sense of frustration, their own longing for a life less joyless and regimented.
But a good number of them would also have been equally enthused by the movie’s technical novelty. Aesthetically, A Hard Day’s Night has one foot in the French New Wave and one foot in English sitcom. The production filmed wherever possible on location, in a vérité style, using lightweight Arriflex cameras (in the behind-the-scenes footage included in the extras you can see just how small and portable these were). The director Richard Lester shoots from angles that make you feel as if you’re peeking at the Beatles over someone’s shoulder. Everything seems spontaneous, informal.
At the same time, you have Wilfrid Brambell of Steptoe and Son playing Paul’s rascally fictional grandfather. There’s a subplot to do with his various schemes (he forges the boys’ signatures on publicity photos), his love of gambling and loose women and his attempts to brew discord among the band members (you wonder what international audiences made of the running gag about him being “very clean”, a reference to Harry H. Corbett’s famous catchphrase: “You dirty old man!”).
In keeping with the fact that John, Paul, George and Ringo had no experience as actors, Alun Owen’s script is all easy-to-remember one-liners and short, pithy exchanges, which Lester spliced together into intricate rat-tat-tat sequences. But it’s also firmly rooted in the Beatles’ personalities, incorporating fictionalized versions of their own experiences – an example being their encounter with a starchy, bowler-hatted businessman in First Class (“I fought the war for you lot!” he complains, and Ringo shoots back, “I bet you’re sorry you won!”). It’s a testament to Owen’s skill that many viewers simply assume that much of the film was improvised, whereas there are in fact only a handful of ad libs (all by John). (Owen was a prolific TV playwright throughout the ’60s and ’70s; if it’s anywhere near as good as this, it would be fascinating to see some of his work issued on DVD.)
And then, in the midst of all this whirl, there are the Beatles themselves. Your eye particularly goes to Paul. From the moment when you first catch sight of him at the train station in a false beard and tash, his star appeal is almost startling; he can crack you up with a look, or bring a lump to your throat by singing “And I Love Her” – he seems part angel, part Artful Dodger. And yet he’s not greedy for your attention. One of the nicest things about the film is how generous it is. Some of the funniest lines go to the marvellous duo of Norman Rossington and John Junkin as the manager and gofer who have to put up with the boys’ cheek.
The HD transfer on this Blu-ray is beautiful, with great depth of field and sleek, glossy blacks. And, just like Paul’s grandfather, it’s very clean. The early scene in the First Class carriage, for example, now looks amazing; you can almost feel the texture of the upholstery and it’s the next best thing to sitting there with the famous quartet while they trade put-downs. The disc comes with an audio commentary with Gilbert Taylor, Lionel Blair, John Junkin and a whole plethora of the cast and crew, plus about three hours of other extras. There’s an 18-minute interview with the Beatles, recorded at the time, audio-only but accompanied by some nice behind the scenes footage. They talk about how the film was shot almost in sequence, and the trouble they had getting up early and learning their lines. You Can’t Do That is a very decent hour-long documentary made for the 30th anniversary of the film and narrated by Phil Collins (who was one of the screaming extras in the concert scene). It explains how United Artists financed the movie in order to get a Beatles soundtrack album, only to wind up getting much more, and it features excellent interview footage with Lester, Owen and Roger Ebert, the heavyweight critic who has been most vocal in praise of A Hard Day’s Night (“While I was watching that movie, my hair started to grow,” he remarks).
Things They Said Today is a 36-minute featurette that goes into more detail about United Artists’ three-picture deal with the Fab Four; it serves up some funny anecdotes and vivid behind-the-scenes footage. One of the things you learn is that they had only three weeks to edit the film for a tight cinema release. Another is that the movie introduced the word “grotty” into the English dictionary. Picturewise is 27-minute overview of Richard Lester’s career, explaining how his technique of shooting quickly using multiple cameras was forged in live TV. In addition, there’s a 17-minute piece on the handling of the musical numbers, and a 27-minute look back at the Beatles’ rise to fame and fortune.