A Hard Day's Night

A Hard Day's Night ★★★★★

A Hard Day's Night is a particularly pleasant surprise in a year so full of unexpectedly unpleasant surprises. I have no idea who is the most responsible — director Richard Lester or screenwriter Alun Owen or the Messrs. John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison, and Ringo Starr, better known collectively as the Beatles.

Perhaps it was all a happy accident, and the lightning of inspiration will never strike again in the same spot. The fact remains that A Hard Day's Night has turned out to be the Citizen Kane of jukebox musicals, the brilliant crystallization of such diverse cultural particles as the pop movie, rock 'n' roll, cinéma vérité, the nouvelle vague, free cinema, the affectedly hand-held camera, frenzied cutting, the cult of the sexless subadolescent, the semidocumentary, and studied spontaneity. So help me, I resisted the Beatles as long as I could. As a cab driver acquaintance observed, "So what's new about the Beatles? Didn't you ever hear of Ish Kabibble?" Alas, I had. I kept looking for openings to put down the Beatles. Some of their sly crows' humor at the expense of a Colonel Blimp character in a train compartment is a bit too deliberate. "I fought the war for people Iike you," sez he. "Bet you're sorry you won," sez they. Old Osborne ooze, sez I. But just previously, the fruitiest looking of the four predators had looked up enticingly at the bug-eyed Blimp and whimpered "Give us a kiss." Depravity of such honest frankness is worth a hundred pseudoliterary exercises like Becket.

Stylistically, A Hard Day's Night is everything Tony Richardson's version of Tom Jones tried to be and wasn't. Thematically, it is everything Peter Brook's version of Lord of the Flies tried to be and wasn't. Fielding's satiric gusto is coupled here with Golding's primordial evil, and the strain hardly shows. I could have done with a bit less of a false saber-toothed, rattling wreck of an old man tagged with sickeningly repetitious irony as a "clean" old man. The pop movie mannerisms of the inane running joke about one of the boys' managers being sensitively shorter than the other might have been dispensed with at no great loss.

The foregoing are trifling reservations, however, about a movie that works on every level for every kind of audience. The open-field helicopter-shot sequence of the Beatles on a spree is one of the most exhilarating expressions of high spirits I have seen on the screen. The razor-slashing wit of the dialogue must be heard to be believed and appreciated. One as horribly addicted to alliteration as this otherwise sensible scribe can hardly resist a line like "Ringo's drums loom large in his legend."

I must say I enjoyed even the music enormously, possibly be-
cause I have not yet been traumatized by transistors into open re-
bellion against the "top 40" and such. (I just heard "Hello, Dolly" for the first time the other day, and the lyrics had been changed to "Hello, Lyndon"). Nevertheless I think there is a tendency to underrate rock 'n' roll because the lyrics look so Silly in cold print. I would make two points here. First, it is unfair to compare R&R with Gershwin, Rodgers, Porter, Kern, et al., as if all pre-R&R music from Tin Pan Alley was an uninterrupted flow of melodiousness. This is the familiar fallacy of nostalgia. I remember too much brassy noise from the big-bands era to be stricken by the incursions of R&R. I like the songs the Beatles sing despite the banality of the lyrics, but the words in R&R only mask the poundingly ritualistic meaning of the beat. It is in the beat that the passion and togetherness is most movingly expressed, and it is the beat that the kids in the audience pick up with their shrieks as they drown out the words they have already heard a thousand times. To watch the Beatles in action with their constituents is to watch the kind of direct theater that went out with Aristophanes, or perhaps even the Australian bushman. There is an empathy there that a million Lincoln Center Repertory companies cannot duplicate.

Toward the end of A Hard Day's Night I began to understand the mystique of the Beatles. Lester's crane shot facing the audience from behind the Beatles established the emotional unity of the performers and their audience. It is a beautifully Bazinian deep-focus shot of hysteria to a slow beat punctuated by the kind of zoom shots I have always deplored in theory but must now admire in practice. Let's face it. My critical theories and preconceptions are all shook up, and I am profoundly grateful to the Beatles for such a pleasurable softening of hardening aesthetic arteries.

As to what the Beatles "mean," I hesitate to speculate. The trouble with sociological analysis is that it is unconcerned with aesthetic values. A Hard Day's Night could have been a complete stinker of a movie and still be reasonably "meaningful." I like the Beatles in this moment in film history not merely because they mean something but rather because they express effectively a great many aspects of modernity that have converged inspiredly in their personalities. When I speak affectionately of their depravity, I am not commenting on their private lives, about which I know less than nothing. The wedding ring on Ringo's finger startles a great many people as a subtle Pirandellian switch from a character like Dopey of the seven Dwarfs to a performer who chooses to project an ambiguous identity. It hardly matters. When we are fourteen, we learn to our dismay that all celebrities are depraved and that the he-man actor we so admired would rather date a mongoose than a girl. Then at fifteen we learn that all humanity is depraved in one way or another and Albert Schweitzer gets his kicks by not squashing flies. Then at sixteen we realize that it doesn't matter how depraved we all are; all that matters is the mask we put on our depravity, the image we choose to project to the world once we have lost our innocence irrevocably. There is too much of a tendency to tear away the masks in order to probe for the truth beneath. But why stop with the masks? Why not tear away the flesh as well and gaze upon the grinning skeletons lurking in all of us?

Consequently, what interests me about the Beatles is not what they are but what they choose to express. Their Ish Kabibble hairdos, for example, serve two functions. They become unique as a group and interchangeable as individuals. Except for Ringo, the favorite of the fans, the other three Beatles tend to get lost in the shuffle. And yet each is a distinctly personable individual behind their collective facade of androgynous selflessness—a facade appropriate, incidentally, to the undifferentiated sexuality of their subadolescent fans. The Beatles are not merely objects, however. A frequent refrain of their middle-aged admirers is that the Beatles don't take themselves too seriously. They take themselves seriously enough, all right; it is their middle-aged admirers and detractors they don't take too seriously. The Beatles are a sly bunch of anti-Establishment anarchists, but they are too slick to tip their hand to the authorities. People who have watched them handle their fans and the press tell me that they make Sinatra and his clan look like a bunch of rubes at a county fair. Of course, they have been shrewdly promoted, and a great deal of the hysteria surrounding them has been rigged with classic fakery and exaggeration. They may not be worth a paragraph in six months, but right now their entertaining message seems to be that everyone is "people," Beatles and squealing subadolescents as much as Negroes and women and so-called senior citizens, and that however much alike "people" may look in a group or a mass or a stereotype, there is in each soul a unique and irreducible individuality.

Village Voice, August 27, 1964

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