Friday, May 28, 2010

My Favorite Musical: A Hard Day's Night

Here's a post requested by correspondent Andrew of the sweetly up-beat Encore Entertainment movie blog—a haven of civility in a slathering horde dominated by horror movie blogs. Sunday, he's hosting a blog-a-thon encompassing a great many writers cracking wise on one subject or theme: for this, he asked that we pick our favorite musical. That's a tough call as I count musicals I like on one and a half hands. But this one always makes me smile. And it's a great film, too.

"A Hard Day's Night" (Richard Lester, 1964) A jangling Fadd9-chord (with a George Martin multi-note slam on his Steinway) reverberates for a few solitary moments on the sound-track before the full-tilt tilt rock song churns ahead, accompanying—maybe for the first time in movies—an action scene; The Beatles (John Lennon, Ringo Starr and George Harrison, who stumbles in the opening shot, tripping Ringo, to Lennon's delight)are trying to catch a train, running from a mob of their screaming fans.

Just a typical day in the life of
The Beatles

A reporter once asked Lennon what he thought of a particular stop on a tour: "It was a train and a room, a car and a room and a room and a room." That's what scenarist
Alun Owen found when he stayed with the four mop-tops during a stretch of concert tours: The Beatles were prisoners of their fame. They were so successful that any chance of a normal life was out of the question. If all four of them were together there was a riot and they'd have to run for their lives, call out security, work out internecine routes. Their lives were led at a runner's pace, with no finish line in sight. It was utter insanity. And if they weren't so young and going through it together, they might succumb to the madness (and who's to say they didn't?)

And that's what "
A Hard Day's Night" is—a dramatic illustration of the life of the Beatles at the height of their success—managed, cajoled, used, stymied, interrogated, trying to be the calm in the center of their own hurricane.

That it's also a musical is without dispute. The story-line is interrupted every 15 minutes or so with a new Beatles song, and since the through-line of the story is to get The Beatles-collective to a broadcast-venue on time and in one piece, there's ample opportunity for practice and rehearsal. The songs do not necessarily spring out of the material of the story, but when has that ever been a requirement?

Critic Andrew Sarris, in his book "The American Cinema," off-handedly remarked that if
The Marx Brothers were an insane tonic to a sane if corrupt world, then The cinematic Beatles were the sane tonic to an insane world, and this is true of both "Help!" and "A Hard Day's Night." The worlds of both films seem to be doing everything in their considerable power to stifle joy, through ritual, constraint, and even finding ways to bottle it up and sell it. In "Hard Day's Night," specifically, The Beatles are bright and clever and anarchically up-beat while being herded from one venue to another, caught between strict rules and screaming hysteria. Each has their own episodes of dealing with the world: Paul, the cheerily shallow cute one is burdened with the responsibility of dealing with his lecherous grandfather (Wilfred Brambell-"He's very clean"), John, the prickly clown, toys with his fame and badgers the management ("You're a swine..."), played by Norman Rossington and John Junkin, as highly fictionalized versions of Brian Epstein and roadies Neil Aspinall and Mal Evans, while George, the stonily introspective one, finds himself confronted with the marketing and exploitation of Britain's youth culture. Ringo, the diminutive ugly duckling, possessed of and hiding behind "a large hooter," and shackled to a distancing drum-kit ("They loom large in his legend," remarks George) is depressed and yearns to break free on his own, a dream which is only encouraged by Paul's scheming grandfather.

The sub-text (as it is in "Help!") is that the world is conspiring to splinter The Beatles apart, and it is only their efforts as a group—both involving the rescuing of Ringo—that keeps them together and the world at bay. That's pretty ironic, as the four's own bickering is what led the group to self-destruct and go their own ways once they were no longer forced to go together in the same direction by their hectic tour schedule. The only real idyll they have in "A Hard Day's Night" is in the antic "Can't Buy Me Love" sequence, where, in a rare moment of freedom, they caper about a play-field, which Lester films in an eclectic helter-skelter array of techniques, formal and informal: sped-up, slowed down, from the air, and hand-held.** Even that ends with an admonition ("I suppose you know this is private property!").

It all turns out right in the end, with the concert accomplished, the boys back together and taking the safest route away from a crazy chaos—up, with a reprise of the opening song that ends with a jangling guitar arpeggio...that never ends, but just fades.

It is a tantalizing, if fictional, glimpse of Beatlemania, that hysterical era when, as Harrison stated in "The Beatles Anthology," the world seemed to be given permission "to go mad." And, in the best description of their situation, goes on to pointedly say that that madness made them rich and set them up for life, and, in exchange, "we gave them our nervous systems."

The declaritive beginning of "A Hard Day's Night," with that opening chord that passes for a fanfare or clarion call in a rock environment.
If you keep watching, at @ 05:10, Lennon makes a clever visual joke in reaction to being told to behave themselves—by taking a couple of snorts from a bottle of Coke.

* Where's Paul McCartney, you ask? Paul's not running in this scene. He's found his own way to avoid the mob, disguised with a moustache...and two "beards" of sorts, the other being his grandfather (played by "Steptoe and Son's" Wilfred Brambell). Since Brambell is accompanying McCartney on the train, you couldn't expect an elderly man to run in the opening. It should be noted that Mike Myers cribbed that joke (with no changes whatsoever) for "Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery."

** At one point, all rules are broken, and the sequence becomes even more over-the-top when Paul briefly snatches the camera from the director (There's your anarchy for ya, kids!)

Todd Haynes
, briefly, does his own tribute to this sequence in the Bob Dylan-house-of-mirrors bio-fiction "I'm Not There," as Dylan's meeting with the Beatles (where they were introduced to marijuana) is represented by a distant manic scampering, interrupted by chasing, screaming fans.


Andrew: Encore Entertainment said...

Nicely done.

I'll admit I don't particularly love The Beatles, I love their music but more oftentimes when it's covered by some one else.

(Still, few musical moments are as thrilling as hearing them sing "Because" - how I love that song.)

Simon said...

I've been meaning to watch this, I have.

Yojimbo said...


As a child of the 60's, I have a deep and abiding love for The Beatles, because I still remember a world where there were no Beatles, and grew up with them, when each phase of their career was new. I've never thought of them as "old school." They ARE the school. "Because" (especially without the harpsichord/moog overlay) is a lovely, lovely song...much as is Lennon's "Julia."

Si': Like it, you will, I think.