Richard Lester’s A Hard Day’s Night is one of the most exuberant and entertaining movies ever made. Catching The Beatles phenomenon like getting lightning in a bottle, the film feels just as alive and inventive as it must have when it premiered fifty years ago. John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Ringo Starr appear as themselves in a very loosely plotted story of the events that lead up to a fictionalized television performance. Breezy and filled with great songs and jokes, anyone who dislikes this film probably has terrible taste. My review of the Criterion Collection edition (which includes both the DVD and Blu-ray versions of the film) follows after the jump.
Kicking off with John, George and Ringo on the run from teenage fans as the title track kicks off, the energy and joy of the film is made apparent immediately, with the group attempting to get on a train before they’re mobbed. All the while, Paul is in disguise with his grandfather (Wilfrid Brambell), who it’s revealed is nothing but a troublemaker. The band is able to get on the train and are heading to London to appear on a television show, but they don’t take anything all that seriously as they muck about on the train, plays cards and play a song (“If I Fell”).
Eventually they end up at their hotel, where the Grandfather takes Ringo’s invitation to a casino to enjoy a night on the town, while the boys decide to go out dancing. The grandfather keeps getting into trouble, and eventually sends Ringo off for an afternoon by himself, which leads to problems with the cops. But the band will play their show and then move on to the next thing.
The plot of A Hard Day’s Night is negligible. It’s more about the scenes, like when George is cornered by a marketing executive who wants his opinion on the youth market but doesn’t seem to trust George’s opinions, or when the boys have to answer questions from reporters (“We’re just good friends”), or the sequence where the boys run around in a field and jump in what is often cited as the first music videos in the “Can’t Buy Me Love” sequence. All these sequences are famous for a reason, and it’s because they’re great and capture the naive but playful insouciance of The Beatles at the time.
Ultimately, if you like The Beatles, it’s impossible not to get caught up in the infectious rhythms of the film, which is the cinematic equivalent of a caffeine rush. It’s all energy, and with a running time of a little under ninety minutes, it never runs out of steam. Watching it is like taking a happy pill, it’s all pleasure, and you can see how the film help shaped much of the MTV vocabulary almost twenty years before that channel debuted.
But viewed with a half century of distance, it becomes an even more valuable photograph of a moment in time when The Beatles were the greatest band in existence, and the world was crazy for them. It all plays out in a safe way (there’s no malice or real sex to the crazed fans, and the most “dangerous” element of the film or the group is that the quartet like to smoke), while the boys show the personalities they’d come to be defined by. John’s sarcasm, Ringo’s self-depreciation, George’s more reserved nature, and Paul as the anchor (and nicest of the lot). It’s all there, and it’s all perfectly there.
The Criterion Collection presents the film on Blu-ray and offers all of the content from that disc on two DVDs. The film is presented in widescreen (1.78:1), and in the original monaural track alongside a 2.0 stereo and new 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio transfer. The film has never looked better, and the documentary-esque footage pops on screen. It looks like the film hasn’t age a minute in the last fifty years. Also, this one is fun to play loud in any of the mixes (the 5.1 is strong, but so is the mono track, there was a lot of tender loving care put into the transfer). The film comes with a commentary from the 2002 release which features actors John Junkin, David Janson and Jeremy Lloyd, cinematographer Gilbert Taylor, associate producer Denis O’Dell, second assistant director Barrie Melrose, assistant editors Pamela Tomling and Roy Benson and more. As the talent involved on the track are mostly lesser players, it’s not the best track, but when you’re dealing with a film like this, at least the effort was made (also, it’s cool to hear Gil Taylor).
“In Their Own Voices” (18 min.) gets audio interview excerpts from The Beatles, and lets them talk about the making of the film, and how they felt about it, which offers behind the scenes footage, stills and clips from the movie as background. It’s fascinating, and likely the best supplement that could made now. “Anatomy of a Style” (17 min.) story editor Bobbie O’Steen and music editor Suzana Peric look at how director Richard Lester directed the musical numbers in the film, and what his shot selections and approach do for the viewer. It’s an excellent analysis of the technique.
This is followed by a 1994 documentary about the film and its phenomenon titled “You Can’t Do That: The Making of A Hard Day’s Night” (62 min.), which is hosted by Phil Collins, who appears briefly in the film as a concert-goer. They get Lester and the film’s producer and some of the actors and people like Roger Ebert to talk about the film, and some of the comments are actually interesting. “Things They Said Today” (36 min.) is from 2002 and talks to Lester, music producer George Martin and other members of the cast and crew in a piece that covers much of the same territory. Unfortunately, there gets to be a little bit of overlap, but nothing too bad.
“The Running Jumping & Standing Still Film” (11 min.), the Oscar-nominated short that Lester directed that starred Peter Sellers and Spike Milligan, is also included, as is an appreciation of Lester called “Picturewise” (27 min.), which is narrated by Rita Tushingham and is an excellent overview of the director’s work. “The Beatles: The Road to A Hard Day’s Night” (28 min.) is an interview with Beatles scholar Mark Lewisohn, and he puts their career into context as the boys developed their style in both Germany and England. Rounding out the set are two re-release trailers, one from 2000, and the other from this year.