City Paper is not for tourists
The generally accepted view of the Beatles is that they were dangerous working-class roughnecks, touched by genius but simply unpresentable until Brian Epstein switched their leather jackets for matching suits, transforming “the boys” into lovable, nonthreatening moptops. So the most astonishing thing about seeing A Hard Day’s Night in 2000 is not the film’s verve or invention but its prickliness. At the movie’s center are the fresh-faced Fabs and their exuberant music, but on the side are generous helpings of generational, class, regional, and ethnic hostility.
This, of course, wasn’t at all clear to ’60s American Beatles fans who encountered the film as teenagers or preteens; they were about as likely to understand the nuances of British subcultural resentment as they were to recognize the gambits that director Richard Lester borrowed from Godard, Truffaut, Eisenstein, and the Maysles brothers. A Hard Day’s Night was what was known at the time as a “jukebox musical,” a cheaply and hastily made exploitation product. Indeed, United Artists ordered Lester to finish the movie in time for a 1964 release because the studio doubted that the group’s fame would linger into 1965.
The new edition of A Hard Day’s Nightoriginally planned for a 35th-anniversary release in 1999 but inexplicably held for more than a yearoffers restored images and brighter sound. If the movie sometimes feels as fresh as it looks, it’s nonetheless impossible to see it as Beatles fansand surprised film buffsdid in 1964. Lester’s freewheeling style has been knocked off too many times, notably by The Monkees but also by virtually every director of the rock promo films we now know as “music videos.” In the film’s historical context, the deft use of jump-cuts, contrapuntal editing, and handheld camera is astonishing. Still, after almost four decades of other directors’ assimilating and accelerating Lester’s work, the original inevitably looks a little slow.
For those who’ve never taken this particular magical mystery tour, A Hard Day’s Night is a pseudodocumentary account of a day in the life of John, Paul, George, and Ringo; when not rehearsing or filming a live TV concert, they spend their time tormenting their elders, notably manager Norm (Norman Rossington) and the TV show’s director (Victor Spinetti). Both the movie’s demeanor and specific episodes were inspired by What’s Happening!: The Beatles in the U.S.A., Albert and David Maysles’ documentary about the band’s first trip to America: The fiction film’s scenes of the Beatles on a train echo the documentary’s sequence of the boys traveling from New York to D.C., and the press-party scene mirrors the actual press conference the Maysles brothers filmed at the British Embassy in Washington. In fact, not all the movie’s documentary moments are mock: Fans found out that the Beatles were filming at London’s Marylebone Station and turned up screaming; some of the famous opening sequence of John, George, and Ringo running from ecstatic Beatlemaniacs is staged, but some of it is real, and it’s virtually impossible to tell the difference.
What’s Happening! was certainly a significant influence on screenwriter Alun Owen, who originally planned on giving the Beatles minimal dialogue; he rewrote the script as he came to appreciate the musicians’ natural wit, and the filmmakers ultimately allowed the boys (especially Lennon) some ad libs, particularly during the press-party scene. Interestingly, Lester considered McCartney the weak link. The cute Beatle was dating actress Jane Asher at the time, and he apparently took the task of acting so seriously that he was unable to convey the same insouciance the other three did. All four Beatles were given solo sequences, but Paul’s was the only one that was cut. (Speaking of dating: One of the schoolgirls the Fabs encounter on the train was played by model Patti Boyd; Harrison was smitten, and the two soon married.)
The seven songs written for the movie tell the Beatles’ story almost as well as the action onscreen. The lyrics are relentlessly banal, frequently nothing more than excuses for rhymes even when the songs allegedly reveal genuine emotion, as in “And I Love Her,” McCartney’s only A Hard Day’s Night composition, or “If I Fell.” But the music is still startling, full of unexpected melodic, harmonic, and structural variations on such American models as Motown and the Everly Brothers. The title song’s opening chord presages heavy metal, and its final arpeggiosplayed on Harrison’s brand new 12-string Rickenbackerinvented folk-rock.
Seen today, however, the movie reveals more than the Beatles’ musical ingenuity; its gibes at the British status quo are remarkably pointed and surprisingly prescient. Harrison is allotted a sequence in which he lampoons a would-be youth-culture taste-maker, but most of the other barbs are directed at the powers that be. On the train, the boys bicker with a middle-aged upper-cruster, who sniffs that he fought the war for ungrateful youths like them. “I bet you’re sorry you won,” cracks Lennon, who’s later seen playing with toy ships in a hotel bathtub and singing “Deutschland Uber Alles.” Agitated by Paul’s (fictional) grandfather, Ringo goes AWOL, beginning his rampage through “the unsuspecting South” with a stiff-armed Nazi salute. Taken to a police station while selling Beatles photos with forged autographs, Grandfather (Dublin native Wilfrid Brambell) dares the cops to beat him and declares himself a “soldier of the republic.” That’s the Irish Republic, presumably, although the desk sergeant then refers to Grandfather as “Lloyd George,” a reference to the Welsh-bred early-20th-century prime minister. Later, the TV director whimpers that, if the Beatles hadn’t arrived in time for the show, “It would have been News in Welshfor life.”
Some of these gags may have been purely for the amusement of Owen, the film’s Welsh-born scripter. Certainly they were too inside for ’60s American Beatle fans, who wouldn’t have understood the antagonism between the upscale South (London) and the working-class North (Liverpool). In fact, many U.S. viewers have assumed the film was shot in Liverpool; only a connoisseur of British regional identity could recognize the grim, dilapidated city where the story transpires as swinging London. Still, in retrospect, the movie’s baiting of the ruling classand especially its irreverence toward the men who won World War IIplaces the Beatles in an unexpected continuum. A Hard Day’s Night doesn’t anticipate Yoko, the Maharishi, or Sgt. Pepper, but it does drop a few hints about the coming of the Sex Pistols.
Kevin Macdonald’s Oscar-winning One Day in September opens ironically with a snippet of a cheesy promo film for the 1972 Munich Olympics. It’s a gambit that recalls The Full Monty, which began with a clip extolling the Sheffield steel industry. This prologue is not the documentary’s only flippant touch, but the film nonetheless manages to build to a powerful conclusion. It’s a tale not only of a defiled Olympics and the seemingly intractable Israeli-Palestinian conflict butmost astonishinglyGerman incompetence.
At first, the assemblage of photographs, old news footage, and contemporary interviews doesn’t seem to be telling us anything new: In September 1972, members of the Palestinian terrorist group Black September scaled the walls of the easily penetrated Munich Olympic compound and seized 11 Israeli athletes and coaches. With international TV crews training their cameras on the dormitoryand, incredibly, the games continuingthe group’s leader tried to trade the hostages for more than 200 political prisoners held in Israel and elsewhere. After the Israeli government refused to make any such exchange, the Palestinians and their captives were ferried to a nearby military airport. The idea was to ambush the terrorists there, but the plan was badly flawed. What happened next is best left to the film, but it certainly punctures the myth that Germans are well-organized, crisply efficient, and cool under fire.
Macdonald’s biggest coup would seem to be an interview with the Black September contingent’s only survivor, Jamal Al Gashey. The Palestinian says he’s proud of what he did, but he’s not so proud as to allow his face to be shown. (This is understandable; his two colleagues who survived the final shootout were subsequently tracked down and killed by the Mossad.) Gashey’s commentary actually adds little, however. More interesting are recent revelations about the debacle and its aftermath.
One Day in September tells such a compelling story that miscalculations like the banal narration (read by Michael Douglas) and the sometimes incongruous soundtracklots of Philip Glass, but also Led Zeppelin, Deep Purple, Moby, and Apollo 100’s electro-Bach “Joy”are not fatally distracting. Macdonald has said he was attracted to the subject because “it seemed amazing to me that I didn’t really know what had happened.” He and almost everyone else still don’t, but thanks to this film, we’re at least closer to understanding that day’s catastrophic events. CP