Friday, July 04, 2014
Fifty years ago this week I went to see "A Hard Day's Night". Last night I went to see it again
It was enthralling because it showed the Beatles on a screen yay high and brought them up this close. Nothing had done that before. TV still had end of the pier production values and so we had never seen them via a medium that matched their splendour. Cinema tickets, unlike records, were affordable. That's why the release of "A Hard Day's Night" was a moment of greater impact than the release of the two albums they put out before its soundtrack. Everybody shared it.
Last night I went to a screening of a new digital version of the film at the BFI. The director Dick Lester was interviewed by Mark Lewisohn. Lester pointed out that it was only made because the music division of United Artists saw it as a way to get a best-selling soundtrack album, it was shot in black and white because they didn't think Beatlemania would last long enough to justify the investment in colour and the brass at the company thought it was good but assumed the dialogue would be dubbed to make it more intelligible to an American audience. They were told this would not be possible, not least because there simply wasn't time. There's nothing in media and entertainment that can't be ruined by more money and more time. There's no better illustration of that principle than "A Hard Day's Night".
I find its comedy a bit leaden nowadays. There's one joke in the film and it goes like this. Don't grown-ups say some strange things? Whether it's Richard Vernon's "I fought the war for you" routine or Wilfred Brambell's Irish republican pub talk, Victor Spinetti's overwrought luvviespeak or Kenneth Haigh's assumption of the voice of "yoof", the message is this is a middle-aged world in which the young people are only occasionally allowed to feature. The fans in the crowd scenes are all wearing Famous Five clothes - pleated skirts, cardigans, winter coats and clumpy shoes - as if they've been decked out for a school concert. They're children.
However I now realise that the music is even better than I thought it was at the time. I also see that Lester's great achievement was in finding a way to deliver their performances to the screen and happening upon a template which still haunts anyone who tries to point a camera at a pop group. "If I Fell" and "I'm Happy Just To Dance With You" are the original and most powerful pop videos because they depict the Beatles ostensibly rehearsing for their TV appearance. That means they're playing but also working and just enjoying being together. They exchange looks that say, right now we're the luckiest people in the world. It's that feeling that they're playing for their own delight that laid down the way that all bands would seek to behave even to this day. Lester talked about how they had an indivisible solidarity that saw them through. They're the Beatles and you're not. "I hope I managed to communicate how I felt about them," says Lester. He did.
There was such outrageous vitality in their music at the time that it didn't need overselling. The vibrancy of the 1964 sound would never be surpassed. It's amazing that they could do it. In the midst of the madness of Beatlemania they wrote and recorded thirteen absolutely brilliant songs for the film. That's seven to go on the soundtrack and another six you can put on side two. Nobody had ever done that before. Nobody's done it since.
The uncanny perfection of "If I Fell" and "I Should Have Known Better" endures after everything else has gone. It filled that luxurious cinema last night as surely as it warmed the Pioneer in Dewsbury fifty years ago this week. We sat there rapt. When the cowbell came in on the middle eight of the title song I felt the screen was about to burst with joy.