There's a case to be made, one made by among others by the late Ian MacDonald in his definitive book Revolution in the Head, that the peak period of the Beatles's creativity, just three years, is marked by two chords. It ends with the E Major, played simultaneously on three pianos, which ends “A Day in the Life” and Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. There are certainly wonderful things in the remaining albums of the group's existence, not to mention in all four's post-Beatle careers, but the remarkable synergy that they had had was in the process of coming apart. They had a been a group, four young men living and working closely together, a four-headed gestalt entity...and they were becoming a collection of four separate individuals. And then they, as a group, were no more. And now, as I write this in July 2014, two of the four have passed away. But the world had changed, and they had helped to change it.
Go back three years, to 1964, and you have George's twelve-string Rickenbacker, backed by John on a six-string acoustic, George Martin on a piano and Paul on bass, and a chord – Fadd9, a F chord with an additional ninth note (G) – which opens the song, album and film of A Hard Day's Night with an auspicious clang. And the film hits the ground running, with the Beatles fleeing a screaming, mostly female, crowd, into London's Marylebone Station. For the next hour and a half, we spend thirty-six more than a little fictionalised hours in the company of John, Paul, George and Ringo.
Cinema drawing on popular music was nothing new, and with the birth of rock 'n' roll (helped along by “Rock Around the Clock” over the credits of The Blackboard Jungle) virtually every popular singer or band were offered the movies. Many of these draw on the conventions of the film musical, with the plots interrupted by a performance number. Elvis Presley made several, well into the Sixties. So did Cliff Richard, with Summer Holiday and The Young Ones and others. The Beatles, with their rapid rise to fame in Britain, were no different. But they didn't want to make what had become known as a “jukebox film”. With a script from Welsh Liverpudlian playwright Alun Owen, and a young director in Richard Lester, the result was a film which made such a film all but redundant. As a result, every other band wanted their own Hard Day's Night: such as the Dave Clark Five with Catch Us if You Can, John Boorman's big-screen debut.
Most originality comes from combining existing agreements in new ways. Richard Lester had worked in the high-adrenaline world of live television. He shared a love for silent-comedy-style sight gags and a surreal sense of humour, and had combined both of them in the Oscar-nominated short he had made with The Goon Show's Peter Sellers and Spike Milligan, The Running Jumping & Standing Still Film. He brought to the film techniques he had borrowed from the French New Wave, such as the use of lightweight cameras, often handheld, and taking his film out of the studios into the streets. And several sequences have influenced music videos to this day. Also, the device of the four Beatles playing fictionalised versions of their real selves – surrounded by fictional characters such as Paul's grandfather (Wilfrid Brambell, then a big star on television in the sitcom Steptoe and Son) and manager Norm and his right-hand-man Shake (Norman Rossington and John Junkin, as analogues of Brian Epstein and Mal Evans) – is a trope that more postmodern times have taken up with relish, for example Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon playing “Steve Coogan” and “Rob Brydon” in three productions so far. This is the place where the Beatles' separate personalities were first solidified in the mind of the public.
A Hard Day's Night isn't strictly a musical, as apart from the early performance of “I Should Have Known Better” in the train compartment, there are no reality-breaking performance numbers: no-one spontaneously singing and dancing in the rain, to put it another way. The songs that the Beatles had written and recorded for the film (seven of them) are either non-diegetic (such as the title song, simply played over the action) or played by the band in a stage performance. George Martin's score gained the film one of its two Oscar nominations, Owen's script gaining the other. Another key component is Gilbert Taylor's black and white camerawork. Taylor had a long and distinguished career, and had previously shot Lester's first feature It's Trad, Dad!, and was a master of black and white. Colour was not considered – the film was three months from start of principal photography to London West End and Liverpool premieres, and made for a budget less than that of the Beatles' first album, in an effort to get a Beatles film in the can before their fame would presumably wane. Black and white gives this film its timeless quality, even though it's an time capsule of a London, and a Britain, still coming out of post-war austerity (with bombed-out buildings still in evidence). It was a London, and a Britain, about to swing, and this film was one of its pivots.
The fact that the film could be made so quickly is a tribute to the editor, John Jympson, whose input to the film – such as layering the beginning of a song over the end of the previous scene – was equally innovative. On screen, Wilfrid Brambell steals every scene not nailed down, and Rossington and Junkin make key contributions. Further down the cast are TV comedy veteran Deryck Guyler as a policeman, Lionel Blair as...himself, effectively (a choreographer in the TV studio). Amongst the uncredited bit parts can be found John Bluthal, Susan Hampshire, Derek Nimmo, Carol White. Animator Bob Godfrey is a man in a pub. Phil Collins is one of the teenagers in the audience for the concert sequence and George Harrison's future wife Pattie Boyd is one of the schoolgirls on the train.
Each of the four Beatles is given scenes to themselves, even the two “junior” Beatles, George and Ringo (who was actually the oldest). George gets a funny scene where he meets an impresario (Kenneth Haigh, uncredited) who clearly has no clue as to what the young people are into, but who certainly wants to exploit it. And Ringo has a sequence, scored to the instrumental track of “This Boy”, where he walks out temporarily and encounters a young boy (David Janson, billed as “David Jaxon”) playing truant, bringing genuine pathos, always present in the film but not always easy to spot under the hilarity, to the surface. That was the first thing Alun Owen spotted when he met the Beatles and began to write the script: the four had money, girls throwing themselves at them and all the adulation they could possibly want...but at the price of no privacy and a lifestyle which led them from hotel room to car to recording studio to car to hotel room and so on.
Yet, A Hard Day's Night remains an exhilarating experience, and as fresh today as it seemed fifty years ago. While the teenagers already knew about the Beatles, this film was the point where many adults caught on, especially given an enthusiastic reception from the critics. It wasn't something that could easily be recaptured, and it wasn't in Help!, made again by Lester, this time in colour, with an increase in the humour to the point of silliness. You have to imagine how wide an appeal the Beatles had. It wasn't just teenagers who loved them, children did too (“Yellow Submarine”, a Paul-penned, Ringo-sung number one single from Revolver) rapidly became a nursery-school favourite, as I can attest first-hand. Serious music critics and classical musicians loved them. It didn't last, of course: with trips to India, drugs and mysticism, and greater in-studio experimentation, they slowly lost parts of their vast audience. But watch A Hard Day's Night again, and you see them at their peak.
Second Sight have released A Hard Day's Night as a single-disc Blu-ray and a two-disc DVD. This is a review of the former. There is a US edition from Criterion, and many of the extras have been licensed by Second Sight from that disc. Affiliate links above refer to the Blu-ray, for those for the DVD, go here.
The film has, as it always has had, a U certificate. In 1964, to gain that certificate, it had to lose the phrase - and sensitive readers turn away now - "Get knotted". That would seem never to have been reinstated: apparently in the seventh ten-minute reel, it may have been in the scene where Paul's grandfather is apprehended by the police, as you can see Brambell's lips moving but not hear what he is saying. Nowadays, the BBFC were more concerned by a brief gag where John sniffs a Coke bottle, but that's a reference that would go over the heads of youngsters. So a U it remains, though the disc package is raised to PG by the extras, perhaps because of a few "bloodys" in the commentary.
A Hard Day's Night was shot open-matte and previous disc releases of A Hard Day's Night have been in ratios of 1.33:1 and 1.66:1, though contemporary documentation indicates ratios of 1.75:1 and 1.85:1. This Blu-ray transfer is in the ratio of 1.75:1, the beneficiary of a 4K restoration approved by Richard Lester, and very pleasing it is too, with solid blacks, the greyscale and contrast so vital to monochrome spot on, and the grain natural and filmlike.
The film was originally released in mono, as almost all films in 1964 was. That original soundtrack is on this disc in LPCM 1.0. Also on the disc are remixes in LPCM Surround (2.0) and DTS-HD MA 5.1. I'm enough of a purist to want the original track on the disc, and so it is, but the remixes are senstively done, with the surrounds mostly used for the music and ambience. The subwoofer on the 5.1 track, which is mixed louder than the other two, helps out Paul's bass and Ringo's drums.
The commentary is a crowded affair, featuring the voices of, in order of introduction, Barry Melrose (second assistant director and location manager), Dennis O'Dell (associate producer), Betty Glasgow (hair stylist), Paul Wilson (camera operator), Gilbert Taylor, Roy Benson (second assistant editor), Pamela Finch (first assistant editor), Gordon Daniel (sound editor), Jim Rodd (dialogue editor), John Junkin, Jeremy Lloyd (actor), Lionel Blair, Anna Quayle (who played the role of Millie), David Janson and Terry Hooper (the croupier in the casino scene). Given so many participants, and no moderator, it's remarkable that this commentary doesn't go out of control. It was evidently filmed in 2013 as Taylor died on 23 August of that year, aged ninety-nine, but his memory is clearly sharp. Given so many of the crew, there's a fair amount of technical information: here, for example, you will learn that the sequences in the television studio were shot at 25fps, to avoid rolling bars on the video monitors, and that the final concert was shot live with six cameras. It's a very worthwhile commentary, and everyone is enthusiastic about this film they contributed so nearly five decades earlier.
“In Their Own Voices” (18:03) is effectively an audio commentary by the Beatles, or at least archive recordings over extracts from the film and behind-the-scenes footage. Given that, of those still alive, Paul, Ringo and Richard Lester are the most notable non-participants in this disc's extras, it's good to have this here, especially the input from the departed two, John and George.
“You Can't Do That!: The Making of A Hard Day's Night” (62:12) is a documentary about the making of the film, produced for the thirtieth anniversary in 1994 and therefore in standard definition and 4:3. Phil Collins is our host, and he helpfully identifies himself in the film. This is a solid run-through of the film from inception to premiere, and benefits from interviews with those who haven't participated twenty years later (such as Lester) and those who are no longer with us (particularly producer Walter Shenson, like Lester an expatriate American in England). We also get to see a deleted scene, a concert performance of “You Can't Do That”, and a French trailer for the film, which tells us that the film was known to Francophones as 4 Four Boys in the Wind (4 garçons dans le vent - no doubt it sounds better in French).
“Things They Said Today” (36:25) is a more recent (2002) documentary, though some of the interview footage (Lester's for example), is reproduced from the earlier documentary. As well as Lester, we hear from George Martin, Alun Owen and, briefly, Gilbert Taylor.
Lester takes centre stage in “Picturewise” (27:16), though the voice you mostly hear is that of Rita Tushingham. She starred in his next film, The Knack, a major hit in its day, and a Cannes Palme d'Or winner, though it is less often shown nowadays as in its treatment of its female characters (despite being based on a play written by a woman, Ann Jellicoe) it displays the sensibilities of another time, with rape jokes being more of a sensitive issue now than then. This featurette, which includes audio contributions from Lester, covers his career before A Hard Day's Night and afterwards to the end of his career, illustrated by high-definition clips.
“Anatomy of a Style” (17:08) is a more technical discussion, with screenwriter Bobbie O'Steen and music editor Suzana Peric discuss the different filmmaking techniques used in the musical sequences, and the way they were put together.
There is by a now a whole library's worth of books about The Beatles, and Mark Lewisohn has written several of them. That includes 2013's Tune In, the near-thousand-page first volume of a three-part biography of the band, The Beatles- All These Years So if anyone is an authority on the Fab Four, it is him. “The Beatles: The Road to A Hard Day's Night” (27:44) he takes us through a history of the band up to the point where they made the film. As he considers the band to begin in 1958 (when John was eighteen, Paul fifteen and George fourteen), A Hard Day's Night is actually close to the halfway point of their thirteen-year career.
The disc concludes with a fiftieth-anniversary trailer (1:38), which shows off the new 5.1 soundtrack.