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DVD SAVANT

A Hard Day's Night


A Hard Day's Night
Miramax
1964 / B&W / 1:66 anamorphic 16:9 / 87 - 108 min. / Collector's Series / Street Date September 24, 2002 / $29.99
Starring John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison, Ringo Starr, Wilfrid Brambell, Norman Rossington, John Junkin, Victor Spinetti, Anna Quayle
Cinematography Gilbert Taylor
Art Direction Ray Simm
Film Editor John Jympson
Original Music John Lennon, George Martin, Paul McCartney
Written by Alun Owen
Produced by Walter Shenson
Directed by Richard Lester

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

I'm not so sure people under 50 can appreciate how hard and fast The Beatles hit America in early 1964. Even for a kid scarcely 12 years old, they were a breath of fresh air, a chance for a while to forget assassinations and nuclear standoffs, and revel in four British 'lads' who seemed to hold the copyright on fun and happiness. We only saw the images of the four smiling and making clever jokes in their mop top haircuts and unique suits. Their songs were rich with melody and the 'new sound' we were all told was coming from England. They just plain could do no wrong. Naturally, for Gods such as these, movie stardom couldn't be far off. Why they were so brilliantly steered toward the movie director Richard Lester, is one of those happy movie mysteries.

Synopsis:

A couple of days in the lives of the Fab four, as they avoid teeming mobs of teenaged girls, attend parties, give reporters a hard time, and amuse each other in hotels and on trains. Paul's crotchety grandfather (Wilfred Brambell) gets in constant trouble trying to make petty side deals; Ringo becomes melancholy and wanders off just as rehearsals for their big television performance get underway. The Telly director is coming unglued - will they make it back to the studio by airtime?

My family was on vacation at Lake Tahoe when my sister and I were dropped off at the local theater and crammed into a crowded auditorium to see A Hard Day's Night. I didn't even know there was a movie, and had only seen the Beatles once, during their appearance on the Ed Sullivan show that happened to fall on the night of my birthday.

The Beatles took our heads off, as if an airplane propeller had got loose in the hall, and soon we were screaming and cheering and clapping with everyone else. Did we hear any dialogue? I doubt it - the actors spoke in clipped phrases, and swallowed their words. But they sounded too cool to be real. When we got back home we were buying the records and singing right along like everybody else.  1

There have been lots of movie vehicles for popular recording stars, and for every Jailhouse Rock there are four major embarrassments, like Roy Orbison's The Fastest Guitar Alive. But there's nothing like A Hard Day's Night: an unlikely black & white show with the look of a verité documentary - and the beginnings of an anarchic cutting style that captured perfectly the Beatles' impish sense of humor and effusive spontaneity. Richard Lester further stretched this approach for his followup comedy The Knack ... and How to Get It, but in this picture we were hit simultaneously by the Beatles and a stunning new visual style.

The controlled spin given the Beatles' image is remarkable. The movie sagely keeps the boys away from most contact with their hordes of female fans. The makers sense that the Beatles have to relate to their fan base as if they were vaguely 'available' - the film doesn't break hearts by giving each a girlfriend that the average star-crazed fan would either resent or feel inferior to. The tearful, hysterical girls who pour out their hearts screaming at the ending performance are surely something that the Beatles couldn't deal with individually, so the only recourse was to be remote Gods of music. Hollywood flattened and scrubbed Elvis into a boring self-parody, but with intuitive marketing savvy (no committee, no focus group) the Beatles' renown was instantaneously amplified tenfold. United Artists got an incredible bargain, but the Beatles became superstars bigger than anything in Hollywood.

The great success of A Hard Day's Night is the way its style appears to allow the 'true' personalities of the Beatles to come through. It's as scripted as any other show, but places the four non-actors in such familiar situations, they have little trouble convincing us that they might as well not be acting.

All of the roadies, reporters, and television personnel are wildlife naturally found in the Beatles' habitat. The very amusing Wilfrid Brambell gets equal attention, and luckily isn't too distracting. His character gives the boys someone to bounce off of and argue with. Grandfather's sour, caustic attitude also provides a baseline that insures that the Beatles' constant snippy remarks don't come off as cynical. Savant's favorite character is the neurotic fashion exec (Kenneth Haigh) that tries to use George as a resource for 'what the kids think'. He's great because he shows how the Beatles transcended pop trends, mainly by ignoring them. George does his best to honestly answer the man's questions while keeping his sense of humor, and is soon shown the door.

Overall, A Hard Day's Night is the greatest national advertisement England ever exported. Contrasted with the violence and divisiveness here in the States, that island looked like Utopia. The police were sweet and thoughtful. Everyone was into rock music (sure they were...) and Youth seemed to rule all. In the lowly seventh grade, we had an exchange student from the U.K. who became an instant campus celebrity. The girls all tried to imitate her accent.  2

Before A Hard Day's Night, there was hardly a chance to see what the Beatles looked like - an occasional newsreel, the Ed Sullivan appearance. The show differentiated them into categories: the cute one, the cool one, the quiet one, the funny one. With modification, the public images of the four stayed the same throughout their careers. The later grief of the Beatles revolved around their need to personally evolve in a world that secretly resented any change in their pantheon.

But what a great fantasy it was. Seeing the show now, the four look like kids, teenagers, tots, not the experienced veterans of Hamburg's music clubs. The haircuts seem conservative. The four are remarkable in that they all lived up to our dreams - none has disgraced himself or betrayed the worship of the fans. Of the two we've lost, John was one of the tragedies of the century, and George made as graceful and admirable an exit as a public person can. The young men of A Hard Day's Night bring back the memories of our own hopes and dreams, and represent an unbroken through line of idealism and positive values.


Miramax'es DVD of A Hard Day's Night is a Beatle fan's dream. Savant liked the film transfer. Some scenes in the film are on the grainy side, and the disc looked as I remembered it. The remixed audio has always bugged me. Whenever a song starts, the mono location audioscape is interrupted with stereo so pure and clean, it's as if we've switched to a different movie. Sync is identical, but the track doesn't seem to fit the picture. Although I'm fairly sure I prefer this track, it would have been nice if the mono original had been included.

Sharing disc one with the feature is a new short called Things They Said Today, a nicely assembled compendium of interviews, stills and clips. No Beatles music is heard. Helpful little arrows identify marginal actors and personalities in the clips. Richard Lester has the best quote: "They told me I was the father of MTV. I wrote back and demanded a blood test." The docu is unattributed. Don't try for a career in DVD, folks, as there's no future in corporate creativity.

The first thing one sees on disc 2 is a long list of interviews from associates, crew members and every Hard Day's Night actor the disc producer could find. The interviews are nicely shot & directed talking head coverage that last anywhere between 5 and ten minutes each. Stills, newsreels and clips are used, but again no music. Paying for the Beatles' catalog was obviously a budgetary no-no, and even when George Martin critiques the movie's songbook one tune at a time, no underscore is heard. There must be 90 minutes of interview material here, some of it repeated from the docu on disc one. George Martin and Beatles pal Klaus Voorman are fascinating to watch full-length, but after a while, menu-ing through some of the others will become a chore for all but the most rabid fan.  3

Also included are a number of DVD-Rom features, which Savant could not access. There are said to be two screenplay drafts there, a 'scrapbook' and 'round-table discussions' that sound potentially interesting.


On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, A Hard Day's Night rates:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: see above
Packaging: Folding card and plastic case in sleeve.
Reviewed: September 27, 2002


Footnotes:

1. The original UA soundtrack album for A Hard Day's Night alternated between the rock songs and George Martin's instrumental versions, which Savant misses on the reissued CD of the British album. Martin's tracks were beautiful, and it's great to hear his This Boy again.
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2. Actually, the teenage girls were fickle. Access to the Beatles was only to be had through their album covers, and with few movies to see, they became more remote. Like everyone else, the 13-14 year old teens instead learned to respect the Beatles' music, while turning their adolescent attention to the television substitutes, The Monkees. Teenyboppers couldn't worship in a vacuum, and one could see The Monkees every week, with one's friends.
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3. Allowing the personalities their full allotment of interview time is not without merit. In the docu, actress Anna Quayle (memorable from her performance as the perfidious Frau Hoffner in Casino Royale) is only given a couple of tiny bites, and here we get a much better purchase on her.
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DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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