A HARD DAY'S NIGHT
Review by Michael Jacobson
Stars: John Lennon, Paul
McCartney, George Harrison, Ringo Starr, Wilfrid Brambell
Director: Richard Lester
Audio: PCM Mono, PCM Stereo, DTS HD 5.1
Video: Anamorphic Widescreen 1.75:1
Features: See Review
Length: 87 Minutes
Release Date: June 24, 2014
“Don't take that tone with me, young man. I fought the War for your sort.”
“I bet you're sorry you won.”
Fifty years ago this year, Beatlemania was sweeping the world. The Fab Four had finally taken over America, appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show, and were getting ready to make their big screen debut.
They may not have been actors, and were the first to admit as such, and may not have known what they wanted for their first motion picture, but the lads definitely knew what they DIDN'T want; namely, one of those assembly line “juke box” films that showcased rock and roll artists doing a number here and there while actors carried on a hoaky plot around them. Plus, I'm sure by 1964 the boys had seen a few films from their hero, Elvis Presley...'nuff said.
So A Hard Day's Night ended up as a revolutionary breath of fresh air...of course, it showed the Beatles at their musical best (this film and the subsequent album marked the first and only time all tracks were composed solely by Lennon/McCartney), but worked in spite of their limitations as actors, by essentially playing up on their real life personalities.
There was John, the giddy rebel with the fast wit, Paul, the sweet and kindly one, George, the quiet but direct one, and Ringo, who was...just Ringo. All four had great humor and charm, and it was more than buoyant enough to carry the picture.
The plot involves a day in the life of the group...with one stroke of Harrison's guitar on a jangly chord, the chase is on, as the band tries to make a train ahead of their screaming fans. Once there, we are introduced to Paul's grandfather (Brambell), a cheeky old troublemaker with an eye for mischief himself.
It's a big day for the group, as they are scheduled to do a big live television appearance. But they would rather play than work, slipping out for a fun romp in a nearby field and getting into a few solo adventures along the way, all the while trying to corral the grandfather, the one man who may give John a run for his money at the title of Chief Troublemaker!
It's a movie with high energy and great music, and lots of laughs. But more than that, it was a landmark in many ways. Director Richard Lester, because of this film, has been called the father of MTV (he later remarked he wanted a blood test). But his editing style and the way he used the Beatles' music truly pioneered an art form. A good example is when the lads are playing cards with the grandfather in the luggage car of the train. “I Should Have Known Better” starts up. No problem. It's background music while they do what they do on screen. But then there's a cut where all band members have their instruments and are actually performing the song in the car. They didn't start out that way. Logistically, it makes no sense, but it felt right...and felt fun. Videos have been doing it ever since.
Speaking of music, there's that song, the classic title track, the beautiful “If I Fell” and “And I Love Her”, the rollicking “Can't Buy Me Love”, plus ones to showcase George (“I'm Happy Just to Dance with You” and Ringo (“I Wanna Be Your Man”). Something I've never been able to explain, however...a few of these songs are slowed down by about a semitone from the way they sound on record...if anyone knows why this was done, please let me know?
No matter...great music is great music, and great films are great films. There may have been a hundred different ways this first Beatles movie could have gone wrong, but it went right in just as many different ways. With fun, music, energy, and mostly, the irresistible personalities of the group, this movie was destined for the time capsule. It preserved the world's greatest band at the height of the excitement they generated around the world, and perhaps even more, a time when that excitement was still fun for the boys.
I've seen multiple editions of this movie on home video over the years, and if you have any still lying around...toss 'em. This Criterion disc delivers everything you would hope for in terms of high definition black and white glory. This is as clean and balanced a print as I've ever come across; the restoration is remarkable. Contrast levels are strong throughout, and not a detail is left out of place.
I've tried to come up with a single recommendation amongst the three audio tracks (mono, stereo, 5.1). It's a hard choice. The songs in the movie all seem to have originated with the U. S. mono versions (their mono mixes were definitely superior), but are then opened up for the multi-channel offerings. I can't pick one, but if I had to pick two, I'd say go with original mono (sounds terrific) or the 5.1 (a nice newer mix that is tasteful).
The music sounds strong and offers most of the dynamic range...the dialogue is almost always center-channeled and sounds slightly thin here and there, mostly owing to the age of the source materials. One of the disc's accompanying documentaries says that United Artists wanted to post-dub the Beatles because their accents were hard to understand...fortunately, if that's an issue for you, the subtitles correct it nicely.
There is a delightful commentary featuring cast and crew members...none of the Beatles take part, but it's still a lively and entertaining discussion of the film. If you want to hear the Beatles, there is a video collage put to audio interviews from the group discussing the film called “In Their Own Words”.
The classic 1994 “You Can't Do That” documentary on the making of the movie is included, as well as a newer piece from 2002 “Things They Said Today”, featuring interviews with Richard Lester and music producer George Martin. There are also two short looks at the works and legacy of Lester, as well as his legendary Goons short movie “The Running Jumping & Standing Still Film”, which earned an Oscar nomination in the day.
Lastly, author Mark Lewisohn appears to discuss how the Beatles got to where they were by the making of this movie (and if you're a fan of the group, I highly recommend his new book, by the way). Finally, there are two re-release trailers and a hefty booklet featuring essays, interviews, pictures and more!
A Hard Day's Night does a fun and brilliant job at capturing a bit of lightning in a bottle, when a small group from Liverpool was in the process of taking over the world and never letting it go again. If you love the Beatles, you will love this extraordinary release from Criterion...and if you don't love the Beatles, pick up this disc and see what you've been missing.