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

Fifty years ago this week I went to see "A Hard Day's Night" at the Pioneer cinema in Dewsbury. This was situated on the top floor of the Coop and was reachable via a very slow lift behind a metal grille. In those days nobody took any notice of a film's starting time. You might turn up halfway through, watch until the end and then stay to watch it from the beginning. I watched "A Hard Day's Night" three times that day. It was enthralling.

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.


  1. Lovely - brought back the Majestic Gravesend and the British Home Stores record dept where I bought its shiny newness. "There's nothing in media and entertainment that can't be ruined by more money and more time

  2. What a great picture of them that is. I'd not seen it before.

  3. Three are disadvantages to being old, but one main advantage. That is being around to experience The Beatles as they happened and grew and developed in real time, and not as the kind of PowerPoint history you describe in the Womack piece. They are always even better than we can say, but this is lovely and accurate writing whose view I share and completely identify with. In 1965 Brian Epstein told a reporter that they were the best group in the world ever, for eternity, there would never be anyone like them again. Children in 2000 would still be listening to them. We loved them but his prescience and total faith is remarkable. 2000 and counting. Eternity is surely correct.

  4. What a fantastic piece of writing. I tip my hat to you sir.

    Sadly, we were too late to get tickets to the Dick Lester evening, but have booked tickets for a screening next week. Even though we have seen the film many times, the opportunity of experiencing it on the big screen feels like a right treat.

  5. I've long considered A Hard Days Night to be their finest album. Side two is an absolute killer. Makes my hair stand on end even now, forty odd years later. Thanks David, for giving me a reason on this cold, wintry Australian night to fire up the turntable.

  6. Perfect - that is the essence and energy of The Beatles. Still working its magic 50 years after the film. We were at a Glastonbury party Saturday night, two hours in, the TV went off, the guitars came out and what were the biggest crowd-rousers? Tunes from The Beatles songbook.

    Another example, 50 years on from the film's release, my youngest (14) did his first gig playing bass with his band on Tuesday - A Hard Day's Night was their opening pitch. Although, I don't think any of them know there's a film of the same name - they've simply tuned into to the song's youthful fizz

  7. "I suppose you realise this is private property?"
    "Sorry we hurt your field, mister."
    Still has resonance, even for today's radioactive, cigar-smoking kids, picnicking on Saturn.

  8. And a delightful cameo by Derek Guyler as the desk sergeant. Oh yes.

  9. The New Yorker view:

  10. David - this piece is bang on the money. Superb. I had never thought about the power of the film in that it finally brought the fans up close to their heroes, gigantic on the big screen. The film and its soundtrack remains joyous, brilliant and an important slice of the 60's. I've always thought that filming it in black and white worked really well and much prefer this to the colourful 'Help' which had more time and money spent on it, but less impact or durability.

  11. I watched the film at the BFI last night and I would like to add to my earlier comment.
    There are so many good things to say about this restored version. For me, the script still made me laugh out loud, and the boys humour shines through like a beacon. Also, London is an unmentioned star, as the four lads from Liverpool appear to make a seamless transition from Scousers to metropolitan men-about-town (despite one clunky reference to "southerners").
    But what really hits you hard is the music. The sound of the songs is now astonishing. Suddenly you can clearly hear Macca's bass, George's guitar fills, John's big Gibson acoustic and Ringo's drums as they were recorded. It takes your breath away.
    The only shortcoming was that it was impossible to buy the new poster at the BFI, this despite it being framed on every wall in the building. Hopefully the BFI, or someone else, will rectify this so I can enjoy it hanging on my wall.