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Film | The Music Video That Changed History?

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Recognise the song this chord’s from?

It is, of course, the opening to “A Hard Day’s Night” by the wunderkinds of British pop, The Beatles. But it was also the opening to the band’s first feature film of the same name.

Released in 1964, A Hard Day’s Night was the first of four feature films featuring the Beatles and their music, and the one that launched them into the mainstream. It was followed a year later by Help!, then Magical Mystery Tour (for television) and the psychedelic animated Yellow Submarine.

Synopsis

AHDN is a parody of the Beatlemania fever that was gushing out of every teenage girl in the UK. At the eye of the hurricane are John, Paul, George and Ringo enjoying the ride.

ahdn_autograph

The fab four are heading by train to a studio in London for a live television recording. Everywhere they go, they’re met by a frenzy of screaming female fans who then proceed to chase after them. If it’s not the fans, it’s management or tv producers. The four look for any opportunity to get away and, well, just be boys. Of course, it all drives their minders balmy and the camp TV producer to despair.

Also along for the ride is Paul’s grandfather (played by the legendary Wilfrid Brambell of Steptoe & Son fame). He’s even more of a rascal — chatting up the women, going to casinos and even getting nicked. More about him later.

Not a lot more happens in the film. There’s the scenes in the hotel rooms reading fan letters and eating pretty sandwiches, George being wooed by fashion advertisers, the group playing around in costumes, Ringo feeling left out, girls chasing after them and, at the end, performing on set in front of girls screaming out their names or otherwise wistfully entranced.

Throughout it all, the four don’t take it very seriously at all. Their rebellion against this whole mad fever is equally playful and cynical. It’s a cheeky “up yours” to the establishment — fuddy duddies, simpering journalists and clueless fashion execs alike. (Harrison put the word “grotty” into the English language when he told the fashionistas that the shirts they wanted him to model were “grotty” or “grotesque”.)

ahdn_lennon_martini

These boys are keeping it real, reminding everyone that they are still Liverpool boys. They’re still Jenny from the block. Parody is the key word here folks.

Was it anything new?

Yes and no. When AHDN was released alongside its soundtrack in 1964, the concept of using film to promote musicians and/or albums was nothing new. In the UK, then teen heart throb Cliff Richard (and the Shadows) starred in 1963’s Summer Holiday, with a complementary album of the same name.

» Cliff wants you to put on your dancin’ shoes: clip from Summer Holiday

And, of course, let’s not forget the King across the Atlantic, Elvis Presley, who started out with Love Me Tender (1956), Jailhouse Rock (1957) and King Creole (1958).

While these films did great at the box office, they were pretty much panned by critics for being sappy. Where teen starts like Cliff took on a squeeky clean image (partly to distance themselves from the whole rock-juvenile deliquency thing), The Beatles somehow managed both — clean and delinquent, just not criminally.

A Hard Day’s Night had great ingredients for a hit — a good comedic story, four personalities, and an awesome writer/director team.

From The Goons to The Beatles

When the band was contracted to make a film, they chose Richard Lester to direct. Lester had done work for Peter Sellers translating the comedian’s radio show, The Goons, to television. The show was a hit and Lester went on to work with Sellers and Spike Milligan on the Goon-ishly silly The Running, Jumping and Standing Still Show (1959). The Beatles, especially Lennon, were fans.

Here’s Part One:

Watch the second part if you want.

Is it just me or is there something about people being chased across a pasture that is particularly British? Benny Hill anyone? But that’s another blog post, for another time.

» A 1997 interview with the prodigious Lester

If Lester brought to the film the kind of anarchic, slapstick, silly humour that perfectly matched The Beatles, then writer Alun Owen put the comedy down in words with a Liverpudlian bent. The writing is so good, it’s like they were coming up with it themselves.

Together Lester and Owen distilled great, simple characters from these four personalities. John, the sharp, witty, anti-authority cynic. Paul the eternally smiling ladies man. George, diligent and no nonsense. And the naif, Ringo, struggling with these big personalities to get some of the light.

ahdn_lennon

Did the movie edify their public personas from thereon?

The Cast

But when you watch the movie, you don’t get the sense of it being scripted and you feel that each of the fab four fully embraced their roles. George most of all, according to Lester — “he was spot on”.

Certainly, their own humour and wit made a huge contribution. But, nothing in their performance exceeds the music. The movie launched songs that included “Can’t Buy Me Love”, “I Should’ve Known Better”, “If I Fell”, “And I Love Her” and, of course, “A Hard Day’s Night” (the title, legend has it, was from Ringo).

screen-capture-24

But, for me, the real star and talent of this movie is Wilfrid Brambell. Those familiar with the UK series Steptoe & Son will recognise Brambell as the “dirty old man” who’s a constant source of embarrassment to his father. Think an elderly version of Johnny Rotten.

ahdn_bramble

In AHDN, Brambell is as clean as fresh linen, which is why they refer to him as “a clean old man” throughout. Thankfully, no amount of hygiene changes Bramble’s mischeviousness. He’s just a dapper , and equally loveable, version of Steptoe.

Off-screen, the fey and gay Brambell had an impeccable air of style and decorum.

The Legacy

I could go on about the great set and production, costumes and photography. Or the fine tailoring that went into the now iconic suits. But, I’ll leave you to enjoy it. It’s all great 60s design.

It’s quite possible that AHDN saved the musical film. The genre went on to push the careers of musicians in decades to come. Most immediate were the American Beatles’ clones — The Monkeys.

But think about Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars, Pink Floyd’s The Wall, not to mention Spice World for the Spice Girls. Can you think of others?

Tho, MTV and the music video really won the day as the medium to carry music on the screen.

The DVD

There is a great DVD collector’s edition of A Hard Day’s Night that is worth checking out.

The special features includes interviews with Lester and George Martin, as well as their then publicist, other actors and even the tailor.

Of particular note is the interview with Klauss Voormann, an artist the quatro met and spent time with while performing in Hamburg, Germany. He was a close friend of John’s and is responsible for the cover art on the Revolver album. His interview provides some insights into the whole Beatle phenomenon from someone who was outside the eye of the storm. [Check out his website which also sells some prints.]

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Written by Darren Smith

27 April 2009 at 11:21 pm

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