Thursday, October 11, 2012

Rocktober: 'A Hard Day's Night' (1964)

For a movie created to cash in on a hot pop-music phenomenon, A Hard Day's Night has proved surprisingly enduring and influential; it's hard to imagine people caring about something like Justin Bieber: Never Say Never or the Britney Spears vehicle Crossroads 40 years from now except as an object of kitsch or ridicule. But Richard Lester's goofy, energetic movie about a day in the life of The Beatles has become a genuine classic, appreciated by critics and scholars as much as it is treasured by Beatles fans. For me, though, it was one of those movies that is more admirable than enjoyable, and while I can understand the way that Lester presaged caper comedies and music videos with his techniques here, it felt a little like watching a time capsule whose relevance has faded.

Although none of them ever went on to significant acting careers, all of the Beatles are perfectly effective here playing themselves, or at least movie-friendly versions thereof. The bare-bones plot features nothing more than the band members traveling to a TV studio and preparing to tape a live appearance, and is mostly just an excuse to string together slapstick set pieces and a whole lot of musical numbers that indeed resemble what would later become the dominant music-video form. Audiences in 1964 were probably just happy to see The Beatles doing anything at all onscreen, and the scenes of the four lads sitting around and goofing off have a fun, relaxed feel that sells them as lighthearted regular guys (even if that wasn't an entirely accurate portrayal).

But there's so little structure, and so much of the appeal is based on the four musicians simply showing up, that the whole thing felt a little too tossed-off to me. There are inside jokes that were probably very satisfying to moviegoers of the time but were completely lost on me, and while all the music is excellent, the performance segments often add very little to its presentation. I was honestly itching for the fast-forward button at times during those portions of the movie. The comedy bits are mildly amusing, but the only scene that really made me laugh was the quick montage of the band members answering inane questions from the press, which effectively satirizes both celebrity journalism and the evasive non-answers that celebrities tend to give to journalists.

Lester deserves credit for bringing inventive filmmaking to what could have been a disposable product akin to a Beatles lunch box, and the band members deserve credit for trusting a real filmmaker to shepherd their screen debut. There's a clear French New Wave influence in the way that Lester has cheeky youths run amok amid staid cultural gatekeepers, and an awareness of the significance of the band that shows remarkable foresight. In hindsight, however, a lot of that stuff is pretty obvious and dated, and while I'm glad that A Hard Day's Night paved the way for future innovations, on its own it's now mostly underwhelming.

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