COLUMN BY MICHAEL CHRISTOPHER
Many artists have tried, but few have been able to pull off what The Beatles did while riding the wave of unbridled pandemonium: They made a film, and it was actually good.
From Britney Spears to Justin Bieber, the cinematic junk, “Crossroads” and “Never Say Never,” respectively, flavor of the month acts have attempted to make the transition to movie houses and have failed dramatically.
Just one month after they exploded onto the music scene in the United States with their “The Ed Sullivan Show” appearance, John (Lennon), Paul (McCartney), George (Harrison), and Ringo (Starr) began working on a project that would bring their revolutionary talent to the big screen. “A Hard Day’s Night,” in which the bandmates play cheeky comic versions of themselves, captured the astonishing moment when they officially became the singular, irreverent idols of their generation and changed music forever. The film celebrates its fifth decade this summer, and has gotten a major upgrade on DVD and Blu-ray with a Criterion Collection release.
In early 1964, The Beatles were at their peak. They’d been working together for six years, had been a recording act on a major label for 18 months, and were the first “rock band” — a collective with equal, individual personalities. In the U.K., their first single, “Love Me Do,” had hit the Top 20. Their second, “Please Please Me,” had reached No. 1, and by the end of 1963, they had had three more No. 1 singles and two No. 1 albums.
Following scattered releases in the U.S., they cracked the American market with “I Want to Hold Your Hand.” Released at the end of 1963, the single went to the top spot on the American charts, fueled by media reports of mobs of screaming British fans following the band everywhere they went.
The same hysteria greeted the band upon its arrival in New York City Feb. 7, 1964, and was only enhanced by the group’s charming, witty press conferences. Newspapers and television were full of reports of “Beatlemania” and “the British Invasion,” further bolstered when 73 million people tuned in to watch the band on “The Ed Sullivan Show” two days later, smashing the previous record for the largest TV audience.
In the meantime, back in the U.K., “The Beatles movie” was in development. United Artists brought producer Walter Shenson on board to make a film with the band. Shenson had previously hired Richard Lester to direct the film, “The Mouse on the Moon” the year prior, and when he mentioned his new project to Lester, the director, “jumped on the chair in the Hilton Coffee Shop and said, ‘My God, can I direct it?’”
When the Beatles returned to England in late February 1964, they quickly went about recording the first batch of songs for the film. Settling in at EMI Studios in Abbey Road, London, they cut “Can’t Buy Me Love,” “And I Love Her,” “I Should Have Known Better,” “Tell Me Why,” “If I Fell” and “I’m Happy Just to Dance with You” in only three days. They needed to work quickly, as principal photography was set to begin the following Monday.
Filming began on a train, and it was soon obvious that Lester was the perfect director for the project. Easily guiding the band through its performances, Lester relied on improvisation rather than rehearsal, creating a freshness that was clear on-screen. “Before we started, we knew that it would be unlikely that they could: Learn, remember, or deliver a long speech with any accuracy. So the structure of the script had to be a series of one-liners,” Lester later noted. “This enabled me, in many of the scenes, to turn a camera on them and say a line to them, and they would say it back to me.”
Shooting with multiple cameras to capture every angle and letting the energy of the band drive the film, the director mixed techniques from narrative films, documentaries, the French New Wave, and live television to create something that felt, and was, spontaneous.
“I have seen directors who write down a list of scenes for the day and then sit back in a chair while everything is filmed according to plan,” Lester has said. “I can’t do that. I know that good films can be made this way, but it’s not for me. I have to react on the spot. There was very little structure that was planned, except that we knew that we had to punctuate the film with a certain number of songs.”
And when filming was nearly over, there was still one song to write and record — the title track. Except that the film had yet to be titled.
“During a lunch-break conversation, John Lennon mentioned to me that Ringo misused the English language,” said Shenson. “When I asked for an example, he said, ‘Ringo called an all-night recording session a hard day’s night.’ John laughed, but I said, ‘My God, that would make a marvelous title.’”
Title in hand, John and Paul went back to the studio and wrote one of their most memorable songs to order.
Shot, edited, and mixed in only four months, the film premiered in July 1964, at the London Pavilion Theater, with Princess Margaret and Lord Snowdon in attendance. Four days later, the film had its Liverpool premiere, where the band greeted more than 200,000 hometown fans.
The Beatles were now the most famous band in history. A musical and cultural revolution had begun, and it was through “A Hard Day’s Night” that audiences all over the world came to feel that they knew the Fab Four personally.
Fifty years later, Criterion, which is tops in the care and effort it puts into its video distributions, has released the film in a new 4K digital restoration, approved by 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.
Standout features include audio commentary from cast and crew, and three documentaries. “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 Shenson, including an outtake performance by the band and “Things They Said Today,” a 2002 documentary about the film, featuring Lester, longtime Beatles producer George Martin, screenwriter Alun Owen, and cinematographer Gilbert Taylor.
To contact music columnist Michael Christopher, send an email to email@example.com. Also, check out his blog at our sister publication www.delcotimes.com