- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 4, 2004

A late-summer sleeper of 1964 when it reached American movie screens, “A Hard Day’s Night” was admirably timed to reinforce the early stages of Beatlemania, which had been swelling throughout the year. A breezy, endearing impression of the hectic professional life confronting the phenomenally popular rockers from Liverpool, the movie confirmed everything well-wishers would tend to wish for: a group portrait of easygoing, playful, quick-witted young musicians, essentially unspoiled by runaway success and celebrity.

George Martin, the musical director who had become a mentor for the quartet while supervising their recordings at the Abbey Road studio in London, alludes to this time frame as a “golden treadmill” period in his commentary for the DVD edition of “A Hard Day’s Night.” Issued last year by Miramax, which acquired rights to the film several years ago, the DVD is an invaluable supplement to the picture in its theatrical form.

A 40th-anniversary revival begins today at the American Film Institute Silver Theatre and runs for a week. The movie seemed exceptionally fresh and entertaining when new. While clearly a backstage musical comedy, “A Hard Day’s Night” updated the show-business context to rock in its second decade. (Ringo Starr, adept at non sequiturs, coined the title just in time for it to be useful, inspiring a last-minute title song by John Lennon and Paul McCartney.)

The idea of a pop music exploitation film that was cinematically deft came as a considerable novelty. As a rule, rock movies were cinematic heavy furniture, wedded to static variety-show formats (the Alan Freed paradigm) or melodramatic conventions that harnessed newcomers to creaky conveyances (almost every Elvis Presley movie).

“A Hard Day’s Night” pretended to accompany the quartet of Messrs. Starr, Lennon and McCartney and George Harrison on a typical round of appearances, culminating in a jubilant television special in London. Between numbers, the performers cheerfully outrun fans, outquip the press and tease their managers.

Director Richard Lester borrowed pictorial schemes from the cinema-verite documentaries of the period, emphasizing zoom lenses and hand-held camerawork that placed a premium on flexibility and intimacy. His approach also reflected the puckish revue comedy that had flourished in England and the United States from the late 1950s.

A transplanted Philadelphian, Mr. Lester had acquired some early TV experience in his hometown. It seemed to suffice when he began directing commercials and television shows in England, where he attracted the patronage of Peter Sellers, then a prince of madcap radio comedy with “The Goon Show.”

Mr. Sellers staked his new collaborator to the modest budget for a whimsical comedy short, “The Running, Jumping and Standing Still Film.” Mr. Sellers also made a fleeting appearance. This slapstick beau geste had enough of a vogue to be nominated for a 1960 Academy Award as best live-action short. Anyone familiar with it recognized “A Hard Day’s Night” as a sustained and accomplished variation: a running, jumping, song-playing, leaping-in-slow-motion and sometimes wistfully reflective romp tailored to the Beatles.

In the interim, Mr. Lester had directed three features that failed to catch on, but, happily, the Beatles knew and liked “Running, Jumping.” Mr. Lester had a free hand with a tight budget of $500,000 while shooting the group’s debut feature. As he notes on the DVD, the United Artists management of that generation practiced a very enlightened paternalism: Filmmakers got a certain amount of money and were expected to deliver a presentable movie by the time of the premiere.

It was essential to work fast. The investors did not want to arrive in the marketplace after a Beatles fad had passed. Production began soon after the group completed a triumphal American tour in February 1964.

Aspects of that first U.S. tour will be commemorated during the AFI Silver revival. Tonight’s 8:50 p.m. screening of “A Hard Day’s Night” will be supplemented by highlights from the Beatles’ early appearances on “The Ed Sullivan Show.” A book signing with Martin Goldsmith, author of “The Beatles Come to America,” augments both showings Wednesday, the anniversary of the group’s first American concert, held at the Washington Coliseum, which once neighbored Union Station, on Feb. 11, 1964, two days after the first Sullivan showcase.

The most informative of the DVD interview subjects are Mr. Martin, who contributes a thumbnail analysis of all 12 songs in the score for “A Hard Day’s Night,” and publicist Tony Barrow, who was on hand for the hubbub in its prime and displays an amusing disdain for the popular press.

The Martin analysis calls attention to some of the peculiarities of the year. Seven or eight songs from “A Hard Day’s Night” were eligible for Academy Award consideration, but none was nominated, not even the title number, destined to begin with one of most joyful guitar chords ever struck. (The result of Mr. Lennon experimenting with attention-getting whanging sounds, according to Mr. Martin.) The film did earn an Oscar nomination for screenwriter Alun Owen, who had accompanied the group for several weeks to soak up tour atmosphere.

“A Hard Day’s Night” suggested a fresh approach to film musicals that never caught on as a guide to rock ‘n’ roll cinema. Mr. Lester, of course, directed the group again in “Help!” which added color to the playfulness but failed to make globetrotting adventure a worthy alternative to backstage interplay. John Boorman brought similar zest to a vehicle for the Dave Clark Five, “Catch Me If You Can,” but the personalities of the Five remained less promising than those of the Four, individually or collectively.

It was still a flush period for traditional book musicals in Hollywood: “My Fair Lady” and “Mary Poppins” were the big Oscar winners of 1964, and “The Sound of Music” dominated the awards a year later. “Chim Chim Cher-ee” was chosen best song in 1964, but the record book would certainly look better if one of the Beatles’ songs had replaced the title tunes from “Hush … Hush, Sweet Charlotte” or “Where Love Has Gone” among the finalists.

Some things don’t require 40 years of hindsight to become obvious.

…1/2

TITLE: “A Hard Day’s Night”

RATING: G (Originally released in 1964, before the advent of the rating system; submitted for rating when reissued)

CREDITS: Directed by Richard Lester. Written by Alun Owen. Cinematography by Gilbert Taylor. Songs by John Lennon and Paul McCartney. Musical supervision by George Martin. Editing by John Jympson.

RUNNING TIME: 87 minutes

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

EVENT: Beatles’ 40th Anniversary Programs

WHERE: American Film Institute Silver Theatre, 8633 Colesville Road, Silver Spring

WHEN: Today through Thursday

TICKETS: $8.50 for the general public; $7.50 for AFI members, students and seniors (65 and over)

CONTENT: Revival of “A Hard Day’s Night,” augmented by special events. Friday’s 8:50 p.m. screening includes selections from the Beatles’ appearances on “The Ed Sullivan Show” in February 1964; the program will be followed by a discussion with historians Martin Lewis and Bruce Spizer and rock critic Richard Harrington. Both screenings Wednesday will be augmented by book signings featuring Martin Goldsmith, the author of “The Beatles Come to America.”

PHONE: 301/495-6720

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