Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (August 3, 2014)
At times like these, I revisit my internal 12-year-old. Back during my early adolescence in the late Seventies, I became a major Beatles fan. In fact, I rarely listened to anything other than the Fabs - solo or as a group - for the two years between the spring of 1979 and the spring of 1981; I then discovered the Stones and broadened my musical horizons.
Kids these days donít appreciate what we needed to do to enjoy filmed performances of our faves. Home video hadnít erupted just yet, so we were stuck with the occasional revival of a flick at a local indie theater.
Eventually I saw most of the Beatlesí movies this way. Yellow Submarine and Help! briefly hit the midnight circuit, so they werenít too tough. Magical Mystery Tour ran once at a DC art house, and my fellow Beatle-loving friend Billy Hunt and I trekked into town one afternoon to see that misbegotten project.
Let It Be took more perseverance. Actually, my only chance to take in a showing happened in the summer of 1980. My family went to Minnesota for my grandparentsí 50th anniversary celebration, and a local drive-in offered a triple-feature with The Buddy Holly Story, FM, and Let It Be.
I didnít care about the other two, so of course the theater planned to run Let It Be last. My Dad and I sat through all these other movies before I finally got to see the Beatles flick, and even then matters werenít simple. A nasty summer hailstorm ran through the area during the showing, so I never did get to finish the screening; the theater pulled the print as the tiny bits of ice beat down upon us.
I never took in 1964ís A Hard Dayís Night until home video became more popular. Actually, I donít recall exactly when I initially watched Night, but I know it occurred after my early Beatles passion dissipated. Iíve maintained my love for the band across the last 35 years, but my ardor will never replicate those old feelings, so Night will never create the same impact it would have had in 1979 or 1980.
That doesnít mean that I donít really like the flick, though. Night maintains a reputation as the Beatlesí best movie, and it deserves it. After 50 years, Night remains a lively and compelling piece of work.
Night features a plot that can be described as ďthinĒ at best, as it simply purports to display a day in the life of the Beatles. Slated to make an important TV appearance, the boys feel weighed down by all their responsibilities and constantly try to get away for a break. However, manager Norm (Norman Rossington) and his assistant Shake (John Junkin) always wrangle them back into the fold.
To complicate matters, Paulís grandfather (Wilfrid Brambell) gets foisted upon the Cute One. A sneering troublemaker, the old man acts as a monkey wrench and causes many problems for the band and their handlers.
Basically, Night alternates between random escapades and musical numbers. The Fabs take a train ride and meet some young birds. They go to a dance party. They hold court at a press conference.
None of these exist to further the plot because there really is no plot. The movie climaxes with a desperate hunt to get Ringo out of jail in time for the TV show, but otherwise, the movie exists largely as a group of loosely connected vignettes.
That may sound like a flaw, but it really isnít. If forced to choose a complaint about Night, itíd relate to the integration of the musical numbers. Though some pop up fairly naturally, usually they come out of nowhere.
That abruptness can seem jarring, but it doesnít actively harm the film. The dance party scene works worst of the bunch, as it really feels like filler.
It helps that the songs are uniformly excellent. Though I love all stages of the Beatlesí career, I feel a particular fondness toward their early work. Those songs offered a bright energy and honesty that became somewhat lost during the more experimental material from later years. To be sure, this isnít a criticism of the more ambitious tracks, but I love the clarity and freshness of the first few years.
Night stands as the bandís best work from that period. The first album comprised totally of Lennon/McCartney songs, it includes not a single weak number, and many of the tunes remain absolute classics.
If forced to choose the best of the bunch, Iíd go with Johnís stunning ballad, ďIf I FellĒ. Love songs rarely achieve its level of warmth without any sense of sappiness. It really doesnít get much better than ďFellĒ, and I think that Night likely offers the greatest soundtrack album of all-time.
Even without all those wonderful tunes, Night would offer a terrific experience. In addition to a bright, clever and peppy script from Alun Owen - a fellow Liverpudlian who nicely connected with the bandís natural sense of humor - Night enjoys crisp and irreverent direction from American expatriate Richard Lester. Not just some hack, Lester gives the movie its sense of brisk energy and he grounds its tone of flippant silliness.
Much of the movie shows the Beatlesí antipathy toward the staid establishment, but this never comes across as snotty or gratuitous. For an example of the latter, look at something like the atrocious Harold and Maude, an anti-establishment movie that denounces rules solely due to a hippie sense of entitlement.
In Night, the Beatles earn their attitude. The film establishes the haughty snideness that the Fabs experienced daily, and it wasnít strictly generational. Authority figures generally treated the boys as a commodity and saw them as almost sub-human, an attitude aptly displayed when George inadvertently ends up in a meeting with a snide ad executive. While fun and lively, Night provides some depth as it depicts the negativity often aimed at the band.
Night also succeeds due to the remarkably natural performances by the Beatles. Granted, one might think it canít be too tough to play yourself, but in truth, the Beatles represented here are exaggerated versions of the Fabs.
In any case, they still needed to deliver lines and put on performances, and they generally did quite well. Ringo received the highest praise, largely because his character displayed the most emotional depth. However, I think I most like George here, as he offers many of the filmís highlights. I love the scene at the ad agency, as George wonderfully deflates the arrogant pitchman.
Of the four Fabs, only Paul comes across as somewhat weak. Paul always was the most showbiz-minded Beatle, and he simply tries too hard to ďactĒ, whereas the others relaxed and didnít take matters too seriously. Paul does decently in the film, but he stands out as somewhat forced, which is probably why he receives less screentime than the others; I can actively think of good moments from the other three, but I canít recall a single standout piece from Paul.
Night also enjoys a terrific supporting cast. While all do well, Brambell sticks out for his delightfully abrasive performance as Paulís grandfather. Brambell may create the least lovable and sentimental old man ever filmed, as he turns him into a hard-edged and sneering presence. All he does throughout the movie is create problems for the others, but he does so with such a gleeful sense of malice that I like him anyway. (As an aside, itís shocking to realize that Brambell was only 52 when he shot Night; heís clearly supposed to be in his seventies, and he looks it.)
A Hard Dayís Night may not offer a perfect film, but I canít think of a better flick in the genre. Probably the best rock movie ever made, it remains bright and funny after 50 years. This oneís pure fun, and the music ainít too bad either.