The mega Criterion Collection dual-format (Blu-Ray/DVD) box of Richard Lester's groundbreaking A Hard Day's Night starring The Beatles might be one of Criterion's best releases in their entire history of issuing first-rate cinema for the home market. The picture and sound are the best you're EVER going to see on a home format. The accompanying 82-page (82 pages !!!) booklet (which includes a decent essay and a terrific Richard Lester interview) devotes one full page to the picture restoration (supervised on 4K by Criterion with Lester's approval) and an additional full page to the sound (the mono, as per usual is my favourite, but the new 5.1 track is worth a listen as it's pretty amazing and mastered by Apple Records techs).
The extra features are so amazing, it's kind of ridiculous. A few items from the ho-hum Miramax/Alliance/E-One Collector's Edition transfer don't find their way here, but they're not missed in the least. In addition to what has been ported over and what Criterion has added to the mix is phenomenal.
My favourite feature of all is David Cairns' Picturewise, a half-hour visual essay focusing on the great Richard Lester and his work and influences on A Hard Day's Night and numerous other films that followed, including the stylish and somewhat overlooked The Knack. In many ways, this might prove to be the most concise, yet valuable visual essay commissioned and presented on a Criterion disc to date. Other pedagogically valuable materials include Richard Lester's 11-minute Academy Award-nominated The Running Jumping & Standing Still Film from 1959, a mad, anarchic piece featuring Lester's Goon Show cohorts Peter Sellers, Spike Milligan, Graham Stark and Bruce Lacey. Given the verbal gifts of the Goons, the film is especially interesting as it's completely wordless. Story editor Bobbie O'Steen and music editor Suzana Peric serve Anatomy of Style, a terrific 17-minute piece which offers intimate analysis of five key scenes from the film and my only complaint is that I'd have LOVED a feature-length version of this - it's that valuable in terms of practically approaching screen-specific cinematic storytelling.
The commentary track was assembled by Martin Lewis, a music and Beatles historian who cut together a raft of 2002 interviews with Director of Photography Gilbert Taylor, numerous supporting actors, a variety of editors and other production personnel. It's quite a collision course of voices, but always informative and entertaining. The 40-minute Martin Lewis-produced short Things They Said Today is a fine carry-over from the earlier DVD release and features interviews with Richard Lester and others.
The wonderful one-hour 1994 documentary hosted by Phil Collins, You Can't Do That: The Making of A Hard Day's Night, made to celebrate the film's 30th anniversary, is classic TV-doc material and shines with the inclusion of the movie's biggest fans (including Mickey Dolenz) and the late Roger Ebert (as well the famous "You Can't Do That" outtake. Other items focusing specifically on The Beatles includes In Their Own Voices, a clever 18-minute amalgam of audio interviews with the Lads from Liverpool over footage from the movie and a half-hour doc about their early years, The Beatles: The Road to A Hard Day's Night. You'll also find a whole whack of trailers for the film if that sort of thing interest you.
This Criterion Dual Format box is a true gem in every respect, but of course, the prize treat is the restored, director-approved transfer of the movie itself. Without further delay, here then is my review of the movie proper:
Dir. Richard Lester
Starring: John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison, Ringo Starr, Wilfrid Brambell, Norman Rossington, Anna Quayle, Victor Spinetti
Review By Greg Klymkiw
This is one great picture. I first saw A Hard Day's Night at the age of five. It is now almost half a century later and I have seen it innumerable times and in several formats – more times on a big screen in 35mm than I can remember, on 16mm with my own Bell and Howell Auto-load projector, Beta, VHS, laser disc, DVD and now Blu-Ray. It is a movie that never gets stale. Each time I see it, it seems like I’m seeing it for the first time and in this sense, it is truly timeless on a personal level. On every other level, it's just plain timeless. As a movie and in the larger scheme of things, it’s a gleefully entertaining movie - a mad, freewheeling portrait of the greatest rock and roll band of all time and surely one of the most influential motion pictures during the latter half of cinema’s relatively short history.
As well, it is one of the truly important works to come out of a period often referred to as the British New Wave where the silver screens lit-up with a new way of telling stories on both a stylistic and content level. A series of comedies and dramas from a combination of foreign expat directors living in the United Kingdom as well as indigenous talent were the order of the day. These pictures delivered cutting edge satire, anarchic laughs, kitchen sink realism, grim and/or humorous looks at working and middle class society and more often than not, focusing upon the hopes and dreams (both dashed and realized) of young adults.
There were, for example, the "angry young man" pictures featuring the likes of Richard Burton, Richard Harris, Albert Finney and Tom Courtenay - grimy little affairs that were depressingly cool. And then, there were the comedies - the best of which came from a director who contributed a great deal to changing the face of how movies could be made.
Richard Lester, the gifted American-born expatriate in London, was this very director and A Hard Day’s Night is unquestionably his masterpiece. Conceived just before the “Beatlemania” craze really exploded on an international level, Lester was probably the best man for the job of creating the sort of work that would have the greatest impact. Having directed and produced several British TV comedy programs featuring the iconoclastic Goons (including the likes of Peter Sellers, Kevin Connor and Spike Milligan) and with an Oscar nominated short film and a hit feature The Mouse on the Moon under his belt, Lester not only wore the shoes of director ever-so-comfortably on The Beatles' big-screen debut, he dove into the job with the mad passion of a Welles or an Eisenstein. This was not going to be just any rock and roll musical – it was going to be THE rock and roll musical – and as such, it informed filmmaking technique and style in ways we still experience in cinema even now.
Lester’s approach was to capture the slender tale in a documentary style with black and white photography; handheld cameras galore with freewheeling movement, but always gorgeously composed, all stunningly shot by the great Gilbert Taylor of Dr. Strangelove and Repulsion fame. Even more insanely, all sequences aboard moving trains were shot on, uh, moving trains! The approach to editing via John – Frenzy, Zulu, A Fish Called Wanda – Jympson's exquisite shearing would have made Sergei Eisenstein both dizzy and sick with envy.
The usual approach to rock movies at this time was to assemble a gaggle of performers and have them deliver a series of tunes in the dullest, most conservative fashion or worse yet, to plunk the likes of Elvis into (mostly) silly vehicles that were far below the dignity levels such performers demanded. Lester, on the other hand, wanted to propel us with lots of humour (sheer silliness mixed with sharply tuned wit), a dizzying camera and cool cuts that drew attention to their sheer virtuosity as well as performing the task of always moving us forward.
What this approach needed was a script like no other. Securing the services of the Welsh-born and Liverpool-raised actor, comedian, playwright and screenwriter Alun Owen. He proved to be a godsend to both Lester and the Beatles by crafting a simple narrative involving a day and a half in the life of the mop-topped Liverpudlians wherein they repeatedly shirk their responsibilities as rock stars and just have tons of fun – much to the consternation of their road manager (Norman Rossington), the bemusement of his assistant (John Junkin), the exasperation of a harried live TV director (Victor Spinetti) and to the delight of Paul McCartney’s (fictional) Grandfather (Wilfrid Brambell) who exploits his proximity to the rock stars to show himself a grand old time.
Amidst all this frivolity, Owen concocts several brilliant character-elements and plot-plots that tie both absurdly and realistically into the personae of the Beatles themselves. The one that infuses the movie with considerable conflict, but also knee-slapping laughs is when Ringo goes missing on a soul search.
Ringo on a soul search?
Ladies and gentlemen, I reiterate and give you - ONE GREAT SCRIPT!
Eventually, all are reunited for a totally kick-ass show in front of thousands of screaming, swooning kids and WOW! Can it get more simple and pure than this? Thankfully no! It’s just what the doctor ordered for this picture. Even more impressive is Owen’s brilliant dialogue and the endless opportunities to have the boys duck in and out of cabs, run from screaming teenyboppers and find as many different means of escape from both their fans and responsibilities – crashing through service doors, cascading down fire escapes and partying up a storm against the backdrop of the swinging-est London imaginable.
Not surprisingly, given the auteurist tendency to downplay the importance of screenwriters that aren’t the auteurs themselves, Richard Lester has uncharitably stated that much of Owen’s script was jettisoned in favour of letting the Beatles ad-lib. Enough statements from many others refute this assertion to support what really seems to be the truth of the matter – Owen spent a considerable amount of time with The Beatles on their journeys before setting narrative and dialogue to paper and went out of his way to create words perfectly suited to John, Paul, George and Ringo so that they’d be comfortable playing them and, on rare occasions have a solid springboard to ad-lib (which according to most reports is no more than 10 to 15% anyway).
And then there is the music! The title track “A Hard Day’s Night” (taken from one of Ringo’s delightful malapropisms), “Can’t Buy Me Love”, “Tell Me Why”, “She Loves You (Yeah, Yeah, Yeah)”, “I Should Have Known Better” and then some are featured in stunning concert footage and/or within the narrative body of the film, and most notably are not unlike music videos before the notion of music videos even existed. This latter point is especially important to add some illumination. Lester, always the consummate filmmaker didn’t throw images and cuts at us willy-nilly, but actually adhered to the conventions of filmmaking (establishing shots, mediums, reverses, close-ups, etc.) by making it seem like he did anything but.
It’s brilliantly, beautifully orchestrated cinematic anarchy in all the purity and simplicity that great pictures are ultimately endowed with, allowing, of course for differing levels and perspectives to grow and to flow naturally and organically out of the mise-en-scene. Most extraordinarily, even though it's a movie set in a different time and shot 50 years ago, it feels as free and original and fresh as if it had been shot, as that great Beatles tune reminds us: Yesterday!
THE FILM CORNER RATING (of the film and Criterion edition): ***** 5-Stars
The Criterion Collection Dual-Format Box set of A Hard Day's Night is now available for thine eternal edification.