John Lennon, Paul McCartney, Ringo Starr and George Harrison played themselves 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.

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