Richard Lester can’t really understand why people are still interested in his groundbreaking film that captured The Beatles at the tipping point of modern pop culture. Beyond the obvious, that is.
Lester understands the musical attraction, of course, because his film is a document of the most successful band of all time at the very moment they went stratospheric, a height they never descended from. Yet, speaking at London’s BFI before a screening of a beautiful restoration to mark 50 years of A Hard Day’s Night’s production and release, he seems at a loss as to why people would watch it as a film in its own right.
It would be easy to proclaim Lester’s assertion as self-deprecation or ignorance, but this is really not the case. The truth, it seems, is a mixture of perfectionism and deep humility.
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A Hard Day’s Night, trailer
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“It’s difficult for me to say whether it’s kept its vivacity, it’s too subjective, I’m still trying to fix it,” he replies when I ask if one of the reasons that the film holds up is because everything in it was new and fresh at the time. Not just The Beatles, but the whole concept of the rock doc, the tour movie and the behind the scenes access to pop icons. All these things have become commonplace in cinematic genre terms, but rarely has the form ever been so delightfully surreal, insightful, playful and joyous as it was on A Hard Day’s Night.
Lester’s genius is in bringing together so many different new and existing styles and concepts and making them all fit together seamlessly. While many of the aspects of what takes place in the film – the band on a journey between venues, press conferences, in rehearsals, hanging backstage – have become part and parcel of the modern rock film, what it uniquely contains is a strange blend of naturalism and surrealism that combines beautifully, because of both the personas in front of the camera and the care and craft of those behind it.
When discussing the approach to the film, Lester says: “Once I started to work on it, I determined very early on not to see what other people were doing or had done because I thought I had better just stumble along my own road and do it instinctively, based on the best way I could present four people who I liked, and whose qualities deserved to have a sympathetic showing.”
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I thought I had better just stumble along my own road and do it instinctively, based on the best way I could present four people who I liked…
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This instinctive and interested approach is apparent in the abundance of energy in the film. It’s an energy that is obvious within their songs and musical performances, but also in their acting performances and inter-group chemistry and dynamics. This can be attributed to Lester, even though he might be loathe to admit it, because he approached the production by ensuring that the band found themselves in scenarios they were familiar with, such as those mentioned above.
The Beatles were also encouraged to indulge their desire for escapism – in a literal sense from their road management, but also into much needed “bouts of surrealism”. And it’s this blend of the band in scenarios we expect and also in wondrous ones we don’t that helps the film succeed where so many fail.
And the film is a success on its own terms. Underneath all The Fab Four hoopla, it’s a film directed by a Palme d’Or-winning director who, in the 1960s, was at the vanguard of British comic cinema. Lester was working with the likes of Peters Sellers and Cook, Marty Feldman, Spike Milligan, Michael Crawford, Zero Mostel and Phil Silvers among others, before directing films such as The Three Musketeers and Superman II: superlative prototype examples in genres that would become the de rigueur franchise behemoths that currently blight the multiplex landscape.
The long-time championing of Lester’s talents by Steven Soderbergh, the recent Criterion Collection release of A Hard Day’s Night (part of a global 50th anniversary celebration) as well as the BFI release of The Bed Sitting Room counter Lester’s almost stoic countenance regarding his worth as a cinematic artist. When asked if he is surprised at the film’s longevity as a movie, not merely as a document of The Beatles, he laughs and almost blows it off, before letting his guard slip a touch.
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To be able to go to the 50th anniversary of something with the film’s originality intact and the fact that I can still stand up and see it, that’s terrific…
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“I’m surprised at my longevity, first. To be able to go to the 50th anniversary of something with, as you say, the film’s originality intact and the fact that I can still stand up and see it, that’s terrific.” The “as you say” seems key to the whole Lester persona.
Despite Lester’s downplaying of it, the film captures a vital moment and retains an energy that feels natural, unforced and fresh to this day. It’s more than just a document of a pop group going about a routine. It’s very much a changing-of-the-guard celebration. There’s defiance in the film that something new is here, and it’s not going away. The band never mocks the hysteria that follows them. Yes, they would rather go dancing than reply to fan mail, but they are young men and they reply eventually, when their exasperated tour manager drags them back by the ear. The energy of young people seizing the day runs throughout the picture, from the stage to the seats and to the street beyond.
After we finish talking, Lester introduces the new restored print with a lengthy Q&A with Beatles expert Mark Lewisohn, where he discusses using three cameras at once, constantly – “I can’t understand why everyone doesn’t” – one of which he would himself operate. Lester is a filmmaker who is always technically prepared and this approach allows him to capture whatever is happening in front, from as many angles as possible.
This is responsible for the wealth of material he was able to edit for A Hard Day’s Night, so much a part of its manic charm, and also for the natural wonder of the performances from four young Liverpudlian men who weren’t trained actors and who might not get it on a second take. With the film going from idea to release in under six months, a turnaround that shames modern filmmakers, this approach was not a mere luxury but a seeming necessity in order to get the film ready for a voracious public.
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There are enough people that are taking risks – every once in a while you think, ‘That’s ridiculous, don’t do it,’ but it works…
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Aside from Paul McCartney’s Get Back concert film of 1991, Lester hasn’t made a film since his friend Roy Kinnear died tragically on the set of The Return Of The Musketeers in 1989. Is he now positive about the future of cinema? It seems pertinent to ask someone who was front-row centre wielding his camera in one of the last great revolutionary periods of the form, European Cinema in the mid-1960s.
“I don’t think you cannot be optimistic, because there’s so many interesting people doing interesting work where you think that’s impressive. There are enough people that are taking risks – needless to say nine out of 10 are not taking risks – but people are making films, like Steven [Soderbergh], where every once in a while you think, ‘That’s ridiculous, don’t do it,’ but it works. So you cannot be oblivious to young people having the courage to do things.”
Pop music could always do with a band as talented, hungry, experimental, witty and adventurous as The Beatles coming along, but right now British cinema could do with a filmmaker like Richard Lester coming along. With A Hard Day’s Night, he crafted a film of stylish experimentation, energetic daring, eccentric and sharp humour and a dose of magic that stands the test of time in spite of its illustrious protagonists – and despite the modesty of its director.
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Words: Neil Fox
A Hard Day’s Night is released on special edition Blu-ray and double-disc DVD on July 21st, via Second Sight Films.
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