Still digging through my old "Primer" film essays to see if there's anything worth sharing. Here's one for a screening of the restoration of A Hard Day's Night, as part of the Wisconsin Film Festival several years ago, and as introduced by Roger Ebert. At long last Help! is being reissued on DVD, in a special edition in late October. It's a fun film, with superior music of course, but the classic will always remain this one...
Here is a film of great joy that I have long loved, and the screening last night at the Orpheum Theater, hosted by Roger Ebert, who included this film in his book The Great Movies, was eye-opening and life affirming. “Life affirming” always seems extreme when applied to films. But it’s true. Here we are, a bitterly and cynically divided nation at war, and I am sitting among a great assortment of folks, a cross-section of all ages, watching a Beatles movie in which the most shocking thing that happens is an explosion of jumping, running, and goofing off in a field while “Can’t Buy Me Love” plays. We were into it, all of us. The laughter erupting through the crowd was contagious, and soon I forgot about everything outside of Richard Lester’s film. I have always been a Beatles fan; today I was a Beatles fan again, in a new way, in a more devoted but wonderful fashion.
It’s hard to write about a film after you’ve heard a critic lecture on it—suddenly nothing seems so original anymore—so I will keep it brief, and refer you to Ebert’s excellent book. A few words on the Beatles, since at least I’m qualified in that regard. The Beatles emerged—or invaded, or conquered—in 1962-1963, establishing themselves with the songs we’ve all heard ad infinitum, “Love Me Do,” “She Loves You,” “I Want to Hold Your Hand,” “All My Loving,” et cetera. One of the remarkable things about them, in those days as now, is that they wrote much of their own material. The cover songs on Please Please Me and With the Beatles are not obligatory, but exist because of the Beatles’ passion for performing the rockers of their peers (indeed, some of theirs even became definitive because of their raucous enthusiasm, like “Twist and Shout”). The Moptop image of the Beatles, long-haired, wisecracking at the press conferences, Marx Brothers-esque, was established and cemented by Richard Lester’s film, the Beatles’ first. The band was never really like this. They were clever, yes, and developed their own insular and dry sense of humor—but as a survival tactic, bonding together while the rest of the world became mad and chased them through the streets and from hotel to hotel. This collective personality they created impressed. And they wrote their own stuff! Most of today’s popular artists still can’t make that claim, which is amazing. The Beatles’ originals chopped up and reassembled the works of their great influences, like Chuck Berry, Elvis Presley, and Smokey Robinson. They were Motown and they were rock and roll. They were safe-looking, thanks to the suits Brian Epstein made them wear, and somewhat androgynous, as Roger Ebert pointed out last night, but they were also overtly sexual in the beckoning and pleading nature of their lyrics. They became a phenomenon on the Ed Sullivan Show, and by 1964 “Beatlemania” was at its height.
Then came Richard Lester’s film. The Beatles loved rock and roll movies, and were anxious to make one, although at the time the genre was a sorry one. They were also anxious to act and become film personalities. The script, by Alun Owen, portrayed the Beatles as cartoon characters (which is why a cartoon series shortly followed). They are not three dimensional beings, but one-liner-delivering Hirschfeld sketches. They were, in fact, the Marx Brothers. The film, very cleverly staged by Lester and full of memorable devices, indulged the public’s perception of the Beatles, and they spent the rest of their lives breaking free of it, as they stopped touring (ostensibly because no one could hear them playing anyway), grew out beards, took LSD, travelled to India to study under the Maharishi, fought and sued each other and finally split apart. In the Beatles legend, which everyone knows, there is not one Beatles, this Hard Day’s Night Beatles, but several, including the Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band Beatles (an alternate persona actually treated as separate characters in the wonderful animated film Yellow Submarine) and the Bearded Venerable Rock-and-Roller Beatles that played the rooftop concert in Let it Be (1970). So we know this film is an illusion. But it is such an enticing one, and entrancing one, that we can’t help but get drawn in, loving every bit of it. No other rock band was able to pull off this feat with their own movie—in fact, the subgenre of fun-loving rock band’s fictional film was pretty much killed off in the 70’s, thanks to films like, well, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (1978), starring the Bee Gees, and Can’t Stop the Music (1980), starring the Village People. KISS even made one (KISS Meets the Phantom of the Park, 1978, for television). Too much cheese, not enough taste, and in the 80’s a film with a rock band was typically a concert movie, thanks to the artistic and popular success of Jonathan Demme’s Stop Making Sense (1984), with Talking Heads. Only in the late 90’s, with bubblegum teen pop acts making a comeback, did the lowest form of the genre threaten to revive itself; mercifully, the Spice Girls’ Spice World (1997), Mariah Carey’s Glitter (2001), and Britney Spears’ Crossroads (2002), all underperformed or flopped. There’s no one like the Beatles, in film and in music.
Of course, the band’s follow-up, Help! (1965), is not considered a masterpiece (although it is very good, and seemed to spawn The Monkees TV series). And their third film, the TV movie Magical Mystery Tour (1967), is rightly regarded as terrible. Yellow Submarine was superb, but barely featured the band, who did not even provide voice-overs for their characters (instead, it went to actors who emphasized the somewhat false Liverpudliness of the Hard Day’s Night personas, indelible as they were). The last Beatles film, to fill out their contract before the break-up, was Let it Be, a documentary that managed to catch that break-up arriving earlier than the band expected. Cinematically, the Beatles were fallible. Musically, they were impeccable. Here, momentarily, in A Hard Day’s Night, everything comes together, like a Kubrickian alignment of celestial bodies.
As you sit in a theater packed full with people staring transfixed at the black and white images, tapping their feet to the songs, you think for a moment of what a powerful and rare thing the Beatles had. You could feel the cynicism wash off everyone, roll down their legs and along the floor, spilling out the exit. We were all children. I think Buddhism aims at this. The Beatles had the magical effect before they even went to Rishikesh.
Midway in the film, John Lennon is in the bathtub, playing with a toy sub and doing a bad German accent, while George is shaving his road manager’s reflection with shaving cream on the mirror. The boy next to me, perhaps eight years old, tugged at his mom’s sleeve and said, “I love this part!” Seconds later he was laughing so hard he started to cough and lose his breath. At that moment, all of us in the theater were no different, save that we had better breath control. If we are going to address the transforming power of the movies, we must start here.