Monday, May 3, 2010

Every Rock and Roll Book on the Magazine Stand

I found this little treasure on the Interwebs a few months ago: an absolutely gear-fab article about A Hard Day's Night (the film, not the album), originally published in Spin magazine, circa March of 1999.  When I found it, it was buried on someone's web site as an image scan; I've transcribed it into plain text, in the hopes that all the various and sundry web-crawling bots can find it and start giving it a proper place of prominence with the search engines.

With love, from me to you ...


Fool's Gold
Rediscovering the sublime stupidity of A Hard Day's Night
by Bob Davis
(SPIN, Mar. 1999)

In 1963, the Beatles still had two years on their Parlophone contract at a ludicrous penny per single sold.  But because the contract didn't cover film scores, they made two movies for United Artists, in 1964 and 1965.  No one at UA cared about the movies.  No development meetings, no focus groups.  They let the Beatles be themselves, choose the director, choose the writer.  UA just wanted the soundtracks for their record division.

It's hardly a surprise, then, that the first music video that truly matters comes smack in the middle of a Beatles movie.  The four mop-heads in coordinated jackets and ties throw themselves around a makeshift playground.  Spastic silent-film antics are mixed with shaky helicopter cam.  Paul flies.  John flies.  George flies.  Ringo struggles to lift off, can only hop.  There's running, jumping, and standing still.  Simple.  Stupid.  But for sheer psycho-electric joy - the performers', the filmmakers', ours - the "Can't Buy Me Love" segment blows away anything on today's MTV.

Which is why Miramax's rerelease of Richard Lester's 1964 A Hard Day's Night makes perfect sense in 1999.  Thirty-five years ago, the Beatles movies celebrated the demise of the dour, defeatist "angry young man" syndrome, celebrated the explosion of a dynamic, positive youth culture.  According to Lester, "There was a sudden gaining of confidence, and the Beatles told everyone, 'You can damn well do anything you like, just go out and do it!'"  As if to prove that statement, Lester (a then-32-year-old director of TV docs and an insane proto-Python home movie) whipped up A Hard Day's Night on a tight schedule (United Artists wanted a summer release in order to cash in before the whole Beatles thing blew over) and on a small budget (that's why it's black and white).  It was fast, cheap, and out of control.

Shot in now-familiar fake-documentary style, A Hard Day's Night is an ebullient "day in the life" of the Beatles that the filmmakers pretty much made up as they went.  Six-year-old boys form a mini-human pyramid so the top boy can drop an inverted bucket over a bobby's head.  George shaves the reflection of a roadie's face in a mirror.  John splash-torpedoes Nazi toy subs in his bubble bath.  Like, say, The Waterboy, the Beatles movie flaunts its ain't-we-naughty-boys childishness.

Still, two features distinguish A Hard Day's Night's foolishness.  First, it's a smart, even cultured foolishness.  Paul studied literature; John went to art school; Alun Owen (Hard Day's screenwriter) was Britain's top playwright; Lester, who had an I.Q. of 186 and described himself as a "surrealist gag man," was something of a polymath.  Second, the film's unadulterated joy and silliness is 100 percent authentic.  The Beatles' boyish energy was an expression of unbridled optimism, silliness as subversion.  When, an hour into the film, George opens the wrong door and becomes the test audience for a new line of clothes for kids, he's unimpressed with the marketing firm's "resident teen" and spokesmodel; he finds the fashions "grotty."  An ad exec considers George's antipathy a facade.  "That pose is out, too," he says, "the new thing is to care passionately, and to be right-wing."  But the thing is, George's attitude is not calculated.  The movie and its stars are pre-Madonna, anti-pose, real.  When Ringo says, "You learn a lot from books," he really means it.  When the boys are "having fun," they're really having fun.  You can tell.  "They were brilliant," the film's producer once said, "at playing themselves."

And the response generated by all this realness is real too.  It's hard even to compare it to Spice World, a rehash of Hard Day's Night's 48-hours on-the-road, which replaces the Beatles' boyish anarchic playtime with Girl Power's doorknob-dull-politically-correct messages.  When the Girls sing "Wannabe," their fans - Hollywood extras, dispassionate faces, absurdly more mature than the Spice Girls' target demographic - wave their arms over their heads in unison, just how the assistant director showed them.  A pathetic fake orgasm.  When the Beatles sweat under very real stage lights, cracking high notes in "She Loves You," masses of hysterical teenage girls (and a young Phil Collins if you look closely) lean out over the balcony, drowning out the music, screeching with whip-pan hot orgiastic tears - paul yes john yes she loves you yes yes panting exhaustion yes squeal george yes yes yes!  A Dionysian moment.  Ecstatic, orgasmic.  Totally real. Truly amazing.

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