A Hard Day’s Night (1964)
1.66:1 (16x9 Enhanced)
Dolby Digital 5.1
Miramax Entertainment, $29.99

The idea to make a Beatles movie was hatched for the most mercenary of purposes: to quickly cash in on the young group’s shockingly fast rise in the early 1960s. But even the most jaded filmgoer’s cynicism melts away as A Hard Day’s Night unfolds in its uniquely angst-free style. Richard Lester’s effervescent pop classic is the rare film that seems to exist solely to fulfill the movies’ original, oft-forgotten purpose: to leave the audience with a genuine smile and a markedly lighter step as they head for the exits.

The very notion of making the film was initially met with skepticism by the Beatles themselves, who quite sensibly pointed to the countless, embarrassing ‘50s pop-star vehicles lying on the trash heap. But when Lester, a TV director who had made a series of distinctive shows in England featuring the comedy troupe The Goons (which included Peter Sellers and Spike Milligan), came aboard, the group’s enthusiasm was kindled.

The structure of A Hard Day’s Night is simplicity itself, presenting a chaotic day in the life of John, Paul, George and Ringo as "Beatlemania" rages all around them in pre-swinging London. Between several snappily edited musical sequences, the boys prepare for a big TV appearance as Paul’s incorrigible grandfather (played by quirky character actor Wilfrid Brambell), an outwardly "clean, old man," constantly attempts to subvert their group unity. (Armchair psychologists could have a ball interpreting Paul’s grandfather as a sinister harbinger of the divisive forces that would eventually derail the Fab Four.)

A film whose stylistic innovation is still evident in everything from music videos to the energetic style of director Steven Soderbergh, A Hard Day’s Night shattered movie conventions, much as the band would later redefine the parameters of pop music. Lester gleefully discarded the standard visual ritual of an over-the-shoulder shot, a wide shot and a close-up. Instead, the director and cinematographer Gil Taylor, BSC adopted a roving, multiple-camera technique (aided by new, versatile 10:1 zoom lenses) so that the Beatles could move about freely and not worry about technicalities like hitting marks. This fast, fresh brand of filmmaking was a perfect fit for the film’s tiny budget, tight schedule and simple black-and-white aesthetic.

In one example of the film’s many "happy accidents," Taylor hopped aboard a helicopter to film a key sequence of the Beatles escaping from TV-studio purgatory for an idyllic romp in a park. To his horror, Taylor discovered that his camera battery was running out, causing the frame rate to gradually slow down. The cinematographer stopped his lens down to compensate and, hoping for the best, avoided telling Lester the bad news when the helicopter landed. Upon seeing the rushes the next day, however, Lester hailed Taylor as a "bloody miracle man" for the pleasingly surreal effect caused by the slowed frame rate.

Miramax’s transfer of the film is solid but unspectacular, and it doesn’t improve over a previous edition from either a visual or aural perspective – a shame, considering the many crackling Beatles songs that adorn the soundtrack. However, this DVD features an exhaustive – frankly, too exhaustive – amount of supplemental material. Do we really need to hear reminiscences from the Beatles’ hairdresser, or the goofy chap who danced next to Ringo in one scene? Upon close inspection, a second disc of extras proves to be a glorified set of outtakes from the illuminating 35-minute documentary that’s on the first disc.

Lester admits that he and screenwriter Alun Owen consciously exaggerated the Beatles’ personalities for the story, because they were so close at the time that they seemed more like "four parts of a marriage." Thus, John was drawn as the cynic, Paul as the charmer, George as the cerebral one and Ringo as the shaggy, neglected drummer without whose "steady support" they’d all be lost. Former United Artists executive David Picker describes the first time the stylistically radical film was screened for a roomful of studio heads and directors (including Billy Wilder and John Sturges). At the end of the screening, Picker recalls, there was "total silence. No one knew what to make of it. Then [UA executive] Bob Benjamin said, ‘I don’t know what that was about, but I think we’re going to make a lot of money.’"

 – Chris Pizzello

<< previous || next >>

© 2003 American Cinematographer.