A HARD DAY’S NIGHT – Blu-ray review

The following text begins with the review written by John J. Puccio for the 2002 Miramax DVD release of “A Hard Day’s Night.” The rest is written by Christopher Long on the occasion of the 2014 Criterion dual-format release of the film.

The Film According to John:

When the Beatles burst onto the musical scene in the early sixties, they were primarily a hit with younger teens. As I had just graduated from high school at the time, I along with a multitude of other young adults thought ourselves too sophisticated for the likes of “I Want to Hold Your Hand,” yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah. But in 1964, at the height of their newfound popularity, the Beatles made “A Hard Day’s Night” and everything changed.

Within the next few years, the British sensations went from teenage heartthrobs to everybody’s favorite singing group with theme albums like “Rubber Soul,” “Revolver,” “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band,” “Magical Mystery Tour,” Abbey Road,” and “Let It Be.” They would never again have the critical success with a live-action motion picture they had with “A Hard Day’s Night,” but that obviously didn’t affect their careers.

Directed by Richard Lester, who would go on to score further successes with “The Three Musketeers” and the “Superman” sequels, “A Hard Day’s Night” is a zany, no-holds-barred musical comedy that follows the real-life Beatles on a whirlwind fling through England on their way to a recording date, with teenage girls following them wherever they go. Don’t look for a plot; there isn’t one. Lester pulls out all the stops, using every cinematic device available to him at the time to produce a virtual kaleidoscope of effects at an almost dizzying pace.

Along on the ride with John, Paul, George, and Ringo are Paul’s grandfather and the troupe’s two managers, who barely hold the quartet in containment. The grandfather (Wilfrid Brambell) is especially a hoot, such a “clean old man,” constantly getting into trouble as an instigator and a ladies’ man. Along the way, the Beatles get to sing a host of their most popular songs up until that time.

The film is filled with clever quips and sight gags, mostly at the expense of a totally square, early sixties world. An interviewer asks John, “Tell me, how did you find America?” and John answers, “Turned left at Greenland.” Another interviewer asks Ringo, “Do you think these haircuts have come to stay?” and Ringo responds, “Well, this one has, you know. It’s stayed on good and proper.”

As I’ve said, the director uses every filmmaking gimmick at his disposal to do his work, from crane and helicopter shots to low and wide angles, with a rapid-fire editing that would make today’s MTV blush. Lester also encouraged the boys to improvise, and it’s clear that much of what the “Fab Four” say and do was made up on the spot. It’s all a part of the exuberance of the event. From time to time a little satire intrudes on the silliness of the antics, like a scene in a TV ad agency that goes awry, but most of the time the story is content with madcap, screwball comedy.

Among the songs featured in the film are, of course, the title tune, “A Hard Day’s Night,” along with “I Should Have Known Better,” “If I Fell in Love With You,” “Can’t Buy Me Love,” “And I Love Her,” “I’m Happy Just To Dance With You,” and a climactic medley of earlier Beatles’ hits like “Tell Me Why” and “She Loves You.”

There are two major running gags in the film. The first is the continual reference to Paul’s grandfather as a “clean old man.” The deal here is that the actor in the part, Wilfrid Brambell, played a dirty old man in the 1962 British TV sitcom, “Steptoe and Son” (a series translated to America as “Sanford and Son”), so this is a take on his earlier role. Interestingly, Brambell was only fifty-two when he played the grandfather; such is the magic of movies. The second gag is that while the Beatles are mobbed by female teenage fans wherever they go, they are hardly recognized by adults. When Ringo is arrested for suspicious behavior and taken to a police station, none of the officers know who he is, even when they have a photograph of the Beatles right in front of them!

It’s hard to estimate the effect the film had on the future of movies, television, and society in general. Certainly, the group and this particular film helped generate new musical trends, TV imitators like “The Monkees,” numerous swinging sixties’ movies, and, naturally, clothing and hair styles; maybe the film even inspired the hyped-up MTV phenomenon that we all currently know and love. “A Hard Day’s Night” may seem a bit dated and even stereotyped nowadays, almost forty years on, but the early sixties were probably already dated by the time the film premiered, and any clichés you may notice were not clichés at the time they were invented for the film. “A Hard Day’s Night” remains a classic; there’s little else to say.

The Film According to Chris:

My only disagreement with John is that I don’t see anything dated about “A Hard Day’s Night.” At least not in a pejorative sense. It’s very much a time capsule of a specific place and time, but that quality shines brighter with each passing year. The movie functions very much as a hybrid documentary, fully scripted but so deeply rooted in the unique daily experiences of the boys from Liverpool that the mobile camera seems to play the fly on the wall at a crucial moment in popular culture.

Screenwriter Alun Owen and director Richard Lester planned everything but found a way to make it all feel so spontaneous and naturalistic that I have no no doubt many viewers left the screening thinking the characters of Shake and Norm were really part of the Beatles’ real entourage. Lester also worked flawlessly with the Fab Four who each pull off one of the most difficult jobs any actor can be tasked with: just playing themselves.

Of course that’s partly an illusion too. There’s plenty of the real John and real Ringo and real yeah yeah yeah, but the film characters are still fictionalized portraits. And they’re such vivid portraits they would shape how everyone would understand each of the Beatles from that point on.  The anarchic, smart-ass Lester really was the perfect match for the equally irreverent but relentlessly cheerful Beatles; Alun Owen must have been a kindred spirit as well because he wrote a script that “totally gets” what the Beatles and Beatlemania were all about.

Great music helps too. The brilliant deployment of said music in the free-wheeling “Can’t Buy Me Love” sequence is as close to perfection as the mainstream cinema has ever achieved. Critic Andrew Sarris wasn’t just playing the fanboy when he described this movie as “The Citizen Kane of jukebox musicals.” He just might have been selling it short.

The film is presented in its original 1.75:1 aspect ratio. The old Miramax “Deluxe 2-DVD Set” , likely the version most Beatles fans have, was 1.66:1 so this will look slightly different. Criterion has, as expected, done a fabulous job with this Richard Lester approved restoration in 4K resolution. Black-and-white contrast is very rich compared to the muddier, flatter look of the old SD. The image detail is, of course, much sharper which gives the viewer a chance to appreciate just how much is going on in some of the crowd scenes. One of the many charms of the film is that it looks very much like a documentary shot on the fly though it is entirely fictional and this 1080p transfer more than does justice to that sensibility.

This is a dual-format release with two DVDs (one with the film, on with most of the extras) and a single Blu-ray disc. I watched about fifteen minutes of the DVD transfer and it definitely looks better than the old Miramax SD but obviously can’t hold a candle to the high-def transfer in this set.

OK, this is complicated and since I’m not an audiophile or a musicologist I’m not going to get all the details right.

The old Miramax release was criticized for having a mediocre 5.1 mix that was basically jerry-rigged from the mono audio to which they had rights. Criterion, working in consultation with Richard Lester and with the cooperation of Abbey Road Studios, offers three audio options: LPCM mono, stereo, and DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1. The tracks were sourced from “a vast range of surviving audio elements in Hollywood, at Abbey Road Studios, at the BFI, and in Lester’s personal collection.”

A note from Giles Martin and Sam Okell states that “the songs are slower in the film than on the albums. This difference is quite noticeable during the scenes where the Beatles are rehearsing and performing in the television studio. Our understanding is that these scenes were filmed at 25 frames per second, rather than the usual 24…” I freely admit I didn’t “quite notice” while watching, but I get swet up by this movie no matter how many times I see it.

Whatever option you choose, the audio is rich, resonant and completely absorbing. The songs sound as good as on the remastered CDs and dialogue, sounds of screaming audiences, etc are all crisply recorded and separated. Optional English subtitles support the English/Liverpudlian dialogue.

For the first time ever, I have four pages of notes strictly on the extras for a Blu-ray/DVD release. I will do my best to condense. Criterion certainly did not go cheap here.

The commentary track is a strange concoction. Best I can tell, it’s cobbled together from many of the short audio features included on the old 2002 Miramax SD and turned here into a full-length commentary track consisting of many voices who were not speaking together or at the same time. Among the cast and crew we hear from are actors John Junkin and Anna Quayle, associate producer Dennis O’Dell, cinematographer Gilbert Taylor, assistant editors Pamela Finch and Roy Benson, and many others.

“Things They Said Today” (36 min.) was included on the old Miramax and consists of interviews with Richard Lester, George Martin, screenwriter Alun Owen, and others.

“In Their Own Voices” (18 min.) edits together 18 minutes of audio of each of the Beatles in 1964 reflecting on their experiences during filming. The audio clips play over behind-the-scenes footage from the production.

“Anatomy of a Style” (17 min.) is new for the Criterion release and might be my favorite of the extras. Story editor/screenwriter Bobbie O’Steen and music editor Suzana Peric closely analyze five key sequences from the film, beginning with the opening shot where George and Ringo fall while trying to escape a ravening crowd, prompting John to break out in laughter. A close look at the famous “Can’t Buy Me Love” sequence (sometimes credited as one of the first music videos) is particularly interesting.

The menu selection “Richard Lester” includes two selections. First is “The Running, Jumping, and Standing Still Film” (1959, 11 min.), the Oscar-nominated short directed by Lester and “devised by” Peter Sellers. This is at least the fourth time I’ve watched and I don’t get it any more now than I did then. I find it torturously long at even 11 minutes, but apparently the Beatles were among the many fans of this anarchic comic (so I’m told) short film. “Picturewise” (2014) is a fascinating feature produced and written by critic David Cairns and narrated by actress Rita Tushingham. The piece combines narration with interviews with Lester to unleash a series of arguments and observations about the film, some of which contradict with other features on the disc, such as the claim that writer Alun Owen invented the slang “grotty,” an invention Owen attributes to Liverpool in “You Can’t Do That” (see below).

“The Beatles: The Road to ‘A Hard Day’s Night’” (2014, 28 min.) is an interview with Beatles’ scholar/author Mark Lewisohn which traces the earliest years of the Beatles from their youth in post-war Britain up to the making of this film. I took almost a full page of notes because this feature is so jam-packed with information, but I’ll let you discover it for yourselves.

“You Can’t Do That: The Making of ‘A Hard Day’s Night’” (1994, 62 min.) is a bit of a fluff piece produced by Walter Shenson (also producer of “ A Hard Day’s Night) for the 30th anniversary of the movie. The feature begins with the totally gear original 1964 trailer for the movie and includes the performance of “You Can’t Do That” that was shot for the last sequence but eliminated from the final cut of the movie. I was going to say something sarcastic about Phil Collins being the host of this piece, but he does a fine job and since he was in the movie as an extra he’s got a right to brag.

Finally, yes finally, the disc includes the 2000 and 2014 re-release trailers.

The 80-page square-bound insert booklet includes an essay by critic Howard Hampton and lengthy (and I do mean lengthy) excerpts from an interview of Lester conducted by J. Philip DiFranco in 1970 and originally published in 1977.

Film Value:
Strong transfer, robust audio options, packed with extras. This Criterion release of “A Hard Day’s Night” is top notch. And it’s very clean.

Note: Criterion is also releasing a single-disc DVD only version of “A Hard Day’s Night” for the budget conscious fan. I did not receive a copy for review, but I assume it has the same quality SD transfer and audio options as the DVD in the dual-format release. You will only get the commentary track, “In Their Own Voices” and the “You Can’t Do That” documentary as extras.