John Lennon, Paul McCartney, Ringo Starr and George Harrison in Richard Lester's 1964 film "A Hard Day's Night." (Credit: Janus Films / Bruce and Martha Karsh)

The Beatles' 'A Hard Day's Night' returns to theaters

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A half-century after its release, The Beatles' first feature film, "A Hard Day's Night," remains a cultural landmark. Even those who haven't seen the movie know it as a flashpoint for Beatlemania, the start of a major youthquake and a defining moment for an entire generation.

But how's the actual movie? Is it, you know, good?

Discussions of "A Hard Day's Night" usually focus on its charismatic stars, not its cinematic strengths. A nationwide rerelease this Friday, however, aims to change that. (It's playing Friday to July 17 at Manhattan's Film Forum and Saturday at the Westhampton Beach Performing Arts Center and will be in other theaters later.) Almost exactly 50 years after its London premiere on July 6, 1964, it will arrive in theaters digitally restored and with a soundtrack remastered by Giles Martin, son of The Beatles' longtime producer George Martin. The company behind the restoration, The Criterion Collection, which released the film on Blu-ray and DVD last week, is hoping that audiences will be pulled in by the Fab Four's enduring popularity but leave with a new appreciation of The Beatles' classic.

"It's vastly underrated as a piece of cinema," says Criterion president Peter Becker. "They rushed this thing together in a matter of weeks, and it's a masterpiece."

Criterion, a home video company founded in 1984, has long been in the masterpiece business. Among its titles are landmark works like Ingmar Bergman's "The Seventh Seal" and Francois Truffaut's "The 400 Blows." The Beatles film, however, wasn't intended as a work of art. Released by United Artists in the wake of the band's momentous concerts on "The Ed Sullivan Show" in February 1964, and shot in just under seven weeks, the movie was a calculated attempt to capitalize on a potentially fleeting fad.

The film's producer, Walter Shenson, tapped Richard Lester as a director. Lester, American-born but based in England, was known for directing Peter Sellers' comedy troupe, the Goons, on television. He had also made one "youth" film, "It's Trad, Dad!" (known in the United States as "Ring-A-Ding Rhythm"), which featured early rock icons like Gene Vincent and Chubby Checker. Lester's relatively young age (32) and musical ability (he jammed on piano with The Beatles during a weekend in Paris) also were selling points.

THE 'IDEAL DIRECTOR'

"Lester was the absolutely ideal director at the time to make a Beatles movie," says Neil Sinyard, an emeritus professor of film studies at the University of Hull in England and the author of a biography on Lester. "They didn't want one of these well-behaved pop musicals with a side romance, an Elvis Presley-type thing."

Lester and screenwriter Alun Owen conceived of the movie as a Beatles'-eye view of the world, inspired by John Lennon's description of a Swedish tour as a blur of cars and hotel rooms. The film's story, such as it was, would follow The Beatles as they traveled to an important television appearance, stopping here and there to flirt with girls, run from cops, deal with Paul McCartney's mischievous (fictitious) grandfather (Wilfrid Brambell) and occasionally burst into song.

But the director also envisioned something deeper, as he explained in a 1970 interview published in J. Philip Di Franco's book "The Beatles in Richard Lester's 'A Hard Day's Night'" (1978). "The general aim of the film was to present what was apparently becoming a social phenomenon," he said. "Anarchy is too strong a word, but the quality of confidence that the boys exuded! Confidence that they could dress as they liked, speak as they liked, talk to the Queen as they liked. ... You must accept that this is a film based on a class society."

As a result, "A Hard Day's Night" captured not just the energy of a young pop band but the spirit of the entire Baby Boom generation asserting its identity. The movie repeatedly casts The Beatles as children mouthing off to oppressive authority figures. They're pushed around by their handlers (Norman Rossington and John Junkin), prodded by journalists and disdained by a prissy television director (Victor Spinetti), but the lads always get the upper hand. "I fought the war for your sort," fumes a fusty businessman (Richard Vernon), to which Ringo replies, "I bet you're sorry you won."

Lester's use of handheld cameras and natural lighting create a raw, spontaneous feel, but the movie is actually a canny combination of staging, ad-libbing and happy accidents. George Harrison's crashing to the pavement while fleeing from fans certainly wasn't planned. And when McCartney didn't show up to frolic with his bandmates for the now-famous "Can't Buy Me Love" sequence, Lester picked up a camera and became the fourth Beatle, filming his shoes to complete the illusion. But Lester also was an inventive director who planned ahead. The band's baggage-car rendition of "I Should Have Known Better" was filmed in two versions -- one with the band casually playing cards, one with them playing instruments -- then seamlessly edited into a segment now widely cited as a precursor to the modern music video.

THE CRITICS LOVED IT

Upon its reception, "A Hard Day's Night" met with surprisingly strong reviews. Critics couldn't resist a few jabs at The Beatles' haircuts, but they were impressed by the movie's vigor, vibrancy and skill. Newsday called it "a breathless, sometimes funny film." London's Guardian called it "a worthwhile cinematic contribution" and Bosley Crowther, The New York Times' famously square film critic, put it on his year's top 10 list alongside "Dr. Strangelove," "Mary Poppins" and "My Fair Lady." Owen, the screenwriter, and George Martin, who contributed to the score, were nominated for Oscars.

"There's a spontaneity of life and freedom in the action that I think is fantastic," says Becker. "This was the movie that became the images that we carry around of The Beatles."

Lester would later win the Palme d'Or at Cannes for his 1965 comedy "The Knack ... And How to Get It" and re-team with The Beatles for "Help!" His searing drama "Petulia" became one of the more polarizing films of the 1960s, and he scored commercial hits with "The Three Musketeers" and "Superman II." Still, he always seemed aware that "A Hard Day's Night" would remain his best-known film.

"When I die, the placard will read 'Beatles director in death drama,'" Lester said in 1970. "No matter what I do, that will never change."

How Newsday reviewed it

How did Newsday react to "A Hard Day's Night" upon its release? Here's Mike McGrady's review from Aug.12, 1964:

It's plotless. It's nutty. It's fun. And not only that, it's a chance to meet the Beatles individually. Paul McCartney is nice looking. John Lennon, the brightest of the Beatles, is clearly embarrassed by that absurd haircut. Ringo certainly has an enormous nose. And I forget the other one's name but he seems pleasant enough.

Moreover, in between the squeals of an enraptured audience, they manage to sing most of their current hits. While I wouldn't want them as a steady diet, they're not all that bad. What's more, their freewheeling attitude toward moviemaking -- ably directed (Richard Lester), barely scripted (Alun Owen), beautifully photographed

(Gilbert Taylor) -- adds up to a breathless, sometimes funny film maybe even worth a squeal or two.

A final note for our younger readers, couched in that somewhat peculiar language known as Beatletalk: While "A Hard Day's Night" is not precisely fab and not entirely gear, it is much less grotty than one expected.