Thursday, September 10, 2009
Hot on the heels of massive success in both the UK and the States -- where the lads' ability to show up and turn the country's young women into sexually charged powder kegs really made the term "British Invasion" the most apt label to apply to them -- United Artists signed a three-picture deal with the Beatles to further capitalize on Beatlemania (and in the hopes of wooing the band's American output away from Capitol). I wonder what the general concern was among fans who must have thought of poor old Elvis when the movie deals were announced; the critics of course sharpened their talons, but at least a portion of the group's admirers must have drawn a sharp breath. After all, Elvis' move into the pictures derailed his career, trapping him in an incessant series of tame, underwritten movies that barely tied in the King's music and forced him to play a watered-down, non-threatening model youth. For the Beatles, then, this would surely signal the beginning of the end.
What audiences got instead was rock 'n' roll's first great film, indeed perhaps the greatest of all rock films, or at least the best narrative picture. The band chose director Richard Lester, whose short film with Spike Milligan and Peter Sellers, The Running Jumping & Standing Still Film, greatly impressed the lads. Lester frames the film as a documentary, drawing from the Free Cinema movement that emerged in England in the '50s. Spearheaded by legendary directors Lindsay Anderson and Tony Richardson, it built upon Italian Neo-realism as a foundation and sought to make films with neither commercial intent nor propagandistic messaging (i.e. Michael Moore). Indeed, some of their films -- Richardson's The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner and Anderson's This Sporting Life -- offer an interesting insight into the Britain in which the Beatles came of age.
Lester, though, clearly dabbles in both propaganda (he simplifies characterizations to magnify the effect and visceral connection to Beatlemania) and commercialism (it's a film starring the Beatles at the height of their popularity). But his use of documentary techniques, from dizzying editing to moments of New Wave-esque tracking shots, in the service of carefully constructed sequences makes it one of the most immediate musicals ever made. The end result, far more than a simple cash-in, is perhaps the most "fun" cinematic masterpiece you will ever see. Of course, that's all subjective -- I think that the slow-moving 2001 is more exhilarating a ride than anything Michael Bay ever made -- but in terms of pure reaction, it, like the very best musicals, combines innovation with such a carefree whimsy that you never spend a moment focusing on the technique over the feeling it creates.
A Hard Day's Night is such a freewheeling frenzy that it opens with the Beatles running for a few seconds before the credits appear, as if they're outpacing the very titles themselves. That opening montage, of the group running, hiding and disguising themselves from mobs of screaming ladies, is iconic comic brilliance, so immediately recognizable that it has been relentlessly parodied these last 45 years. Without any words (or even the sound of screams until the very end of the sequence) it conveys the hysteria of Beatles better than actual footage of the group stepping off that plane from Liverpool.
After finally ditching their throngs of fans, the group boards a train, where they look forward to a bit of relaxation. On their way to a London TV show, the band makes their way to their compartment, only to find a old man sitting in it. But it's OK, he belongs to Paul. Paul's grandfather is played by Wilfrid Brambell, better known to British audiences the foul father Alan Steptoe in Steptoe and Son (see if you can guess what show this became when it was remade in America). In a cheeky move, writer Alun Owen makes numerous references to him as a "clean old man," an inversion of Steptoe's identification as a "dirty old man." Paul's grandfather only compounds the band's annoyance, and their train trip consists of keeping an eye on him, dealing with stuffy older passengers who detest them and dealing with their overbearing manager.
Paul's grandfather proves to be the most antagonistic force in the film. Those descriptions of the "clean old man" quickly fade to the reality of a rascal who exploits his grandson's fame and manipulates the band seemingly to entertain himself. Late in the movie, he preys on Ringo's open nature to convince him to strike out on his own, just to stir a bit of trouble. Brambell is outrageous as the granddad, a gambling charlatan who rivals the lads in sexual drive. In one terrific little moment, he is dragged away from a baccarat table, and Lester briefly cuts to a much younger woman morosely waving goodbye to the disappearing codger. The band aren't natural actors -- John and Paul get by on charm and wit, but George and Ringo clearly aren't meant for the silver screen -- so Brambell buoys scenes that might have otherwise fallen flat without him. He gives the film something to hang on besides just the musical numbers, even though those are enough.
Most striking about the film, apart from its impressive technique, is its edge. Elvis' movies hurt him because they packaged him to the biggest possible audience. That meant "cleaning him up" for the parents and just relying on name recognition to get teen butts in seats. But Owen and Lester play up the Beatles' rakish, boyish charm, most of which is played out through John, the best actor of the bunch. In one sketch ripped right out of classic comedy bits, Lennon sits in a bubble bath playing with toy boats, disappears underwater, and when the manager drains the tub to find nothing, John casually walks up from behind and asks what he's doing. When that same manager announces that the station will be surging with girls when the leave the train, Lennon asks, "Please, sir, can I have one to surge me?"; later, a reporter asks him if he has any hobbies. John grabs a pad, scribbles something, and shows the woman, whose jaw drops in horror. That might be my favorite moment of the entire film, because I just couldn't believe they'd throw in such an open acknowledgment of the band's promiscuity in a film meant to break them to the conservative mainstream.
Elsewhere, the band plays up their image further; Ringo uses his malapropisms -- they inadvertently got the title from him, as well as that of the later song "Eight Days a Week" -- in the service of cheek, declaring himself to be neither a Mod nor a rocker but a "mocker." George stretches his "quiet one" persona into terrific hyperbole by frequently leaving the scene for some peace and quiet when things get stressful. In a fantastic bit, Lennon is stopped by a woman who recognizes him, but he manages to convince her that he just sort of gets that a lot, and by the end she agrees, "You don't look like him at all." John almost reminds me of an Office-era Martin Freeman in the film: cheeky, moon-faced and constantly put-upon. He betrays hints of exasperation with the demands of fame even in this giddy satire of it, but that only feeds his wit.
Far more interesting, however, is the thoroughly British injection of class commentary into the mix. The Beatles might be millionaires (or at least sold millions of records -- I don't know what kind of deal they got for themselves), but they firmly align themselves with the working class. That stuffy old man on the train, though almost surely poorer than the group, is clearly set up as an, to steal from Python, upper class twit. When a stage hand messes with Ringo's drums and tries to condescend to him, Starr dismisses his words as "bourgeois clichés." Throughout the film, the band members trade jibes directed at the pompous adults who surround them, and Harrison spews out the majority of his dialogue on-screen in one fell swoop arguing with a TV producer who tells Harrison that "the new thing is to care passionately, and be right wing."
A Hard Day's Night never outstays its welcome. Its self-deprecating humor, satire and ability to turn the limited range of its musician turned actors (not to mention surrounding them with supremely talented performers like Brambell) keep things fresh throughout. The impact of Lester's direction cannot be understated: his edited cuts set to the beat of the performance of "Can't Buy Me Love" can be seen in proper documentaries (Scorsese's The Last Waltz), the creation of the music video, and even in other comedies (it's best homage can be seen in the perfectly choreographed Queen sequence in Shaun of the Dead). So much more than a simple document of a fad, A Hard Day's Night is a breathless combination of invention and youthful joy. Even with an earlier catalog as upbeat as the Beatles', it's hard to believe how completely fun it is.