STILL 'HARD' AT WORK RICHARD LESTER'S CAMPY MOVIE PERSISTS AS INGENIOUS CREATION.
When the Beatles' classic movie ``A Hard Day's Night'' premiered in theaters 36 years ago, a number of critics fell over themselves to liken the manic comic antics of the Fab Four to a popular group from an earlier era - the Marx Brothers. Neither party found the comparison the least bit flattering.
``When people start comparing us to the Marx Brothers, that's a load of rubbish,'' John Lennon remarked at the time. ``The only similarity is that there were four of them and there are four of us.''
Groucho Marx not only hated the comparison, he despised the movie, and told its director, Richard Lester, as much (``it was an explosion of anger,'' Lester notes) when he met him. For one thing, Marx complained, he couldn't tell the Beatles apart, an ironic judgment given the pains the filmmakers went to differentiate John, Paul, George and Ringo. In fact, the film's shorthand descriptions of the Beatles - Lennon as the acerbic rebel, McCartney the handsome charmer, Harrison dry and distant, and Starr as the melancholy comic foil - have remained cemented in the public's mind to this day.
``It was a good projection of one facade of us,'' Lennon said, ``but a comic strip version of what was going on.''
If there is some commonality between the Beatles and the Marx Brothers, it's that ``A Hard Day's Night'' remains as fresh and funny after all these years as, say, ``A Night at the Opera'' or ``Duck Soup.'' Miramax, which bought the film's rights from producer Walter Shenson in 1998, will release a restored version of the film in Los Angeles and New York today, a teaser for the DVD release, due next March.
The movie's longevity would shock those United Artists executives who rushed it into production back in 1964, worried that the Beatles' popularity would peak before the film opened in theaters. Filming began on March 6; the movie premiered at the London Pavilion on July 6. In between, the Beatles also wrote and recorded the 13 original songs (all by Lennon and McCartney, including classics like ``Can't Buy Me Love'' and ``I Should Have Known Better'') that would be on the accompanying album.
Shenson (who died last month at 81) didn't think the Beatles were one- month wonders. He inserted a clause in his contract with United Artists, giving him the rights to ``A Hard Day's Night'' after 15 years. Today, when the Beatles have the No. 1 album in the United States and Great Britain (the collection of No. 1 hits, ``1'') and a best-selling book (the massive history ``The Beatles Anthology''), Shenson's decision has never looked more prescient.
The continued vitality of ``A Hard Day's Night'' has as much to do with its director, Lester, as it does the enduring legacy of the Beatles. Lester had worked with Shenson a year earlier, but what really recommended him for the job was a short film he made called ``The Running, Jumping and Standing Still Film.'' This experimental movie, starring Peter Sellers and Spike Milligan, combined jump cuts with broad, quick comedy. The Beatles were huge fans, and jumped (as it were) at the chance to work with Lester.
``A Hard Day's Night'' expands the techniques found in ``The Running, Jumping and Standing Still Film'' with its refreshing mix of surrealism, slapstick and cinema verite. Lester's use of hand-held cameras and his quick cutting style proved highly influential on subsequent generations. Steven Soderbergh (``Erin Brockovich'' and the upcoming ``Traffic'') and Danny Boyle (``Trainspotting'') both cite Lester as a major influence on their work.
Soderbergh went so far as to write a book, ``Getting Away With It: Or the Further Adventures of the Luckiest Bastard You Ever Saw,'' detailing his appreciation for Lester in a series of conversations with the director. Soderbergh composed ``Getting Away With It'' during a trying period in his career when he ``felt he had to start over again.'' Renewing his appreciation for Lester's work, Soderbergh writes, helped him to regain his footing and rejuvenate his passion for filmmaking.
Lester's love of movies and the Beatles comes through loud and clear in ``A Hard Day's Night,'' from the resounding opening guitar chord of the title track to the unbridled joy in the montage of the band running and jumping (there's not much in the way of standing still) to the strains of ``Can't Buy Me Love.'' Musical sequences like that and Lennon singing ``I Should Have Known Better'' in a train's luggage compartment led MTV to dub Lester the ``father of music video.''
Lester modestly (or astutely) declines that designation, saying he was merely trying to ``take disparate images and music and play them together.'' But he managed to accomplish that in a way that captured the spirit of the time, the charisma of the Beatles and the insanity that was beginning to envelope the band. As Lennon put it: ``It's as good as anybody who makes a film who can't act.''
Of course, Lester knew the Beatles' limitations and was a talented enough director to be able to hide them. Of the band's members, Lester rates Harrison as the best actor (Soderbergh notes that he nails every line) and McCartney the worst, if only because he loved show business and ``this was a disadvantage to him; in a way, Paul tried too hard to act.''
True enough, each Beatle has his own set piece except McCartney, whose scene with a showgirl was cut because, Lester says, ``it was a little languid.'' Ringo goes in search of anonymity, just wanting to be an ordinary bloke (a harbinger of things to come). Lennon plays submarine captain in a bathtub. And in the film's cheekiest scene, Harrison defies a marketing executive's ideas about what young people want.
``You have to love her,'' the feckless flunky tells Harrison of a teen idol. ``She's your symbol.''
``Oh, that posh bird who gets everything wrong,'' Harrison says. ``I don't think so.''
Thirty-six years later, in a time where hype is too often equated - or mistaken - for talent, Harrison's scornful refusal to buy into the foolishness sounds as sweet as any song in the film. And ``A Hard Day's Night'' endures as one of the most inventive movies of the past half century.
(1 -- cover -- color) Fell all right again
Release of restored `A Hard Day's Night' finds the Beatles' first movie as fresh and funny as it was 36 years ago.
(2) Thirty-six years after its original release, the wildly popular Beatles film ``A Hard Day's Night,'' starring George Harrison, left, John Lennon, Ringo Starr and Paul McCartney, is being rereleased in L.A. and New York, and on DVD in March - just as Beatles mania is in full swing again with a new CD and book.
(3) This scene of Paul McCartney with a showgirl was cut because, according to director Richard Lester, ``it was a little languid.''
(4) In order to give the Fab Four's members their own identities, ``A Hard Day's Night'' director Richard Lester classified John Lennon, left, as the sarcastic rebel and Ringo Starr as the gloomy comic foil.