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EMPIRE ESSAY: A Hard Day's Night Review

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A 'typical' day in the life of the Beatles, including many of their famous songs.

★★★★

Now before you get antzy, this is a comedy — albeit a comedy with music. Think about it. What transformed The Beatles into the Fab Four? The music got the girls screaming and had academics making comparisons with Mahler, but it was their quick wit that made them the loveable Mop Tops. John Lennon asking those in the audience to rattle their jewellery at the Royal Command Performance charmed the Establishment. A Hard Day's Night seduced the parents.

Even before the watershed conquest of America, the screenwriter (playwright Alun Owen) had accompanied the Fabs on a flying visit to Paris to witness the insanity of Beatlemania first hand. Although, whether his day-in-the-life format predated the Maysles brothers' strategy for US Beatles' documentary Yeah Yeah Yeah remains open to conjecture.

What's indisputable, however, was that the band was dead against the idea of making an Elvis-Cliff style musical and had already nixed Brian Epstein's enthusiasm for The Yellow Teddy Bears, as they wouldn't have been allowed to write their own songs. Indeed, it was the music that persuaded United Artists to back the movie in the first place — as not only would they make a quick killing while the group's sure-to-be short-lived popularity lasted, but they would also secure exclusive rights to a new "soundtrack" album.

Ultimately, this was to be the only LP solely composed by Lennon and McCartney and remained at No. 1 in the UK for 23 weeks.
Ironically, the director that producer Walter Shenson attached to the project had a history of those pop musicals the Fabs so detested. But, Dick Lester's use of camera in It's Trad, D.ad (1961) and the fact he had steered the Goons through their transition from radio to television won the Beatles over. Indeed, Lester's genius for physical comedy, that had informed Spike Milligan's The Running, Jumping And Standing Still Film (1959), would resurface in the manic playing-field shenanigans accompanying Can't Buy Me Love.

More importantly, Lester was something of a movie magpie. Just as John and Paul drew on R&B, rock'n'roll and showtune ballads for inspiration, so Lester borrowed liberally from Buster Keaton, Cinema Verite, documentary style Free Cinema, Fellini and the nouvelle vague for his unconventional approach to narrative and image-making. In the process, he became the godfather of MTV, as he sought ways of breaking from the lip sync and strum approach to filming pop. Even when he had no option, as in the final TV show sequence, he managed to use angle, lighting and rapid editing to fashion an anti-performance style,later followed by Ready, Steady, Go and Top Of The Pops.

His attempt to jettison traditional narrative altogether was less successful, however, as Ringo's runner and the Mack Sennettesque search for him definitely constitute a storyline. Moreover, it induces the only slackening in the breakneck pace, even though it did give Ringo a moment in the spotlight, similar to George's dismissal of the "grotty" trend-spotting media and John's mistaken identity encounter with Anna Quayle. Sadly, Paul's backstage showdown with a Shakespearean luvvie was cut.

Similarly, Wilfrid Brambell, as Paul's Irish grandfather, was given a few Steptoe-like set-pieces to cash in on his TV celebrity. But there was nothing sitcom about the rest of the film's humour. Whether scripted or ad-libbed, it managed to showcase the irreverent charm that had made the Mops the media's darlings, while also proving that, despite the fame, they were still just four likely lads from Liverpool.

Based on their now legendary performance at Kennedy Airport (which took place just weeks before shooting began), the press conference sequence is particularly revealing of their rapid-fire repartee. John later dismissed comparisons with the Marx Brothers. But there are definite similarities between their caustic combinations of sarcasm, puns, irony, insult and nonsensical deadpan, with the reporters almost becoming a collective Margaret Dumont (the stuffy comedy foil for the Marx brothers).

But Lester was keen to demonstrate both his and the group's catholic comedy influences. There's mild surrealism in the way the Fabs suddenly appear outside the train to taunt the snooty commuter and in John's unexplained disappearance from an emptying bath-tub. A hint of Chaplinesque pathos (or at least Norman Wisdom sentimentality) informs Ringo's riverside meanderings, while slapstick dominates the anarchic "playtime" sequence, which Lester makes all the more hilarious by his use of helicopter shots, unexpected angles and variegated film speeds.

With global takings of $11 million on a £200,000 outlay, A Hard Day's Night changed the visual presentation of pop forever. Moreover, it gave the Beatles a taste for movies. Following the singularly undistinguished Help!, John co-starred in Lester's How I Won The War. Ringo teamed with Peter Sellers for The Magic Christian. George formed HandMade and saved Monty Python's Life Of Brian. And Paul made Give My Regards To Broad Street — and they don't come much funnier than that.

Fab film.

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