A Hard Day's Night will always be the ideal entry point for latter-day Beatlemaniacs, for there we have the Beatles at the height of Beatlemania, at their most "in sync," and in good anarchic humor, aided, abetted, and captured by director Richard Lester. It's more than a movie; it's a key artifact (minus must or muss) of a cultural phenomenon.
Few precursors to the era of music videos are more obviously influential than A Hard Day's Night, which opens with an indelible chase sequence set to the Fab Four's title tune and working through a train station, fleets of cars, and phone booths. Though hyperbolized with visual gags, the energy is real, with girls (and boys), en masse, trying to get a piece of their favorite mop-topped boy band, circa 1964. John (Lennon), Paul (McCartney), George (Harrison), and Ringo (Starr) have a train to catch, a hotel suite to occupy, and a live TV appearance to make, if they can all get into the studio on time and unmolested. That's the whole plot, which amounts to more than most contemporaneous pop band appearances: the Beatles had held out for more than just shooting a couple of musical numbers for someone else's movie, and with the good sense to hire Lester (because he had worked with the Goons on the short film "The Running Jumping & Standing Still Film"), they got a funny, funhouse-mirror, surreal pseudo-documentary of the state of the Beatle union. In their laconic Liverpudlian dialect, the boys comfortably—and therefore charismatically—express their personalities and indulge in irresistible zany antics.
To it all, Lester brings a keen understanding of the Beatles' appeal and how to amplify it in a variety of ways and with a great deal of filmmaking energy. The merrily anarchic spirit reaches its apotheosis in the "Can't Buy Me Love" sequence, in which the band joyously escapes its responsibilities—via a fire escape, natch—and takes a courtyard for madcap calisthenics. Lester's use of aerial photography, handheld camera, and editing ideally complement the music and the lads' physical performance to encapsulate the excitement that won over youth around the globe. A more intimate example of the same effect comes in the close quarters of a baggage car, where the band performs the harmonica-infused gentle rocker "I Should Have Known Better" for a small (and lucky) group of admirers. And, of course, the film climaxes with the TV performance, unavoidably conjuring for American viewers the epochal Ed Sullivan Show appearances.
Along the way, Lester, working from a very canny script by Alun Owen, leaps ahead of its time by depicting and reflecting on the nature of sudden, blinding stardom, the absurdities of fame as the Beatles are recognized and indulged everywhere they go. The lads wear it well, keeping their humor, to a fault, infuriating their manager (Norman Rossington) and TV director (Victor Spinetti) by--probably wisely, certainly wise-assly--refusing to take anything seriously. One sly scene depicts an attempt to co-opt George as a docile mannequin for fashion; another restages the Beatles' infamously goofy press conferences as a "Meet and Greet" made unbearable by repeated questions (a runner winks at gay questions by Paul repeating, "No, actually, we're just good friends") and made bearable by mind games (Reporter: "Are you a mod or a rocker?" Ringo: "No, I'm a mocker"). We love them all the more for their irrepressible "boys will be boys" misbehavior.
A Hard Day's Night is also clever enough to play off of the generation gap so associated with incipient Beatlemania: aside from the contrast of responsible elders constantly trying to keep leashes on the boys, we get Paul's supposed grandfather (Wilfrid Brambell of the BBC sitcom Steptoe and Son), who turns out to be far less respectable than the youth he blithely exploits. Boys will be boys, indeed. As the film celebrates it's fiftieth anniversary, it remains the exemplar of its kind, a black-and-white dream of rock and roll music, celebrity, and living life to its fullest.
Criterion banishes A Hard Day's Night's spotty history on home video with a near-definitive special edition Blu-ray + DVD combo pack. Picture quality is, as the Liverpudlians might say, "gear." Sourced from the new 4K remaster, the image here is clean and clear, gloriously (black-and-white) film-like but totally lacking in blemishes, dust, or dirt. Contrast is excellent, and framing is thankfully correct. In the audio department, Criterion offers original lossless mono and lossless stereo, as well as an amped-up DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 option that adds fullness and separation to the songs. The mono track is as good as they come, and the choice for purists, of course. That said, the surround track produced by Apple is both tastefully done and, I dare say, preferable for fullest enjoyment of the music in your home theater.
The bonus features collect many (though not all) of the extras previously release with this title on home video, as well as several new proprietary or specially acquired Criterion bonuses. First up is a fascinating 2002 audio commentary with 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; et al.
Next is "In Their Own Voices" (18:02, HD), with vintage 1964 audio interviews with the Beatles, accompanied by behind-the scenes stills and footage.
The 1994 documentary "'You Can’t Do That': The Making of A Hard Day’s Night" (1:02:10, HD), produced by the film's producer Walter Shenson, is hosted by Phil Collins (an extra in A Hard Day's Night!) and includes interviews with critic Roger Ebert, Peter Noone (lead singer of Herman's Hermits), Roger McGuinn (founding member of The Byrds), cast member Victor Spinetti, wardrobe designer Julie Harris, screenwriter Alun Owen, and Debbie Gendler (New Jersey Fan Club President), et al. The doc also includes a rare outttake performance.
The 2002 documentary "Things They Said Today" (36:17, HD) gathers interviews with Lester, Shenson, music producer George Martin, Owen, publicist Tony Barrow, UA VP Production & Marketing David Picker, and cinematographer Gilbert Taylor
The brand-new video essay "Picturewise" (27:13, HD) looks at Lester's style and production approach, with a new audio interview with Lester incorporated.
"The Running Jumping & Standing-Still Film" (11:11, HD) is Lester’s Oscar-nominated 1960 short, with Peter Sellers and Leo McKern amongst the cast.
The new video essay "Anatomy of a Style" (17:07, HD) finds story editor and screenwriter Bobbie O'Steen and music editor Suzana Peric discussing the innovative editing and framing of the film's music sequences.
"The Beatles: The Road to A Hard Day's Night" (27:14, HD) is a terrific new interview with author Mark Lewisohn recapping the relevant portions of his recently published tome The Beatles: All These Years, Volume 1 -- Tune In, covering the Beatles' origins leading up to the filming of A Hard Day's Night.
Rounding out the bonuses are the "2000 Re-Release Trailer" (2:00, HD) and the "Re-Release Trailer" (1:39, HD), and of course, Criterion includes a very nice illustrated booklet with credits, tech specs, stills, essay by critic Howard Hampton, and excerpts from a 1970 interview with Lester.
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