John, Paul, George, and Ringo. The Beatles. The Fab Four. Legends, icons, and lasting pop culture sensations, what is there really left to say? In fact, so much has been written about the band, that I'm sure even that previous sentence actually lamenting the fact that there's nothing left to say about them, has already been written countless times before. Still, the relentless coverage is fully deserved. Once just four humble lads from Liverpool, they are collectively responsible for producing some of the most popular and enduring musical hits ever recorded, and as their fame shot up in America, right at the height of Beatlemania, they of course, made a movie. From director Richard Lester, 'A Hard Day's Night' is an innovative, somewhat experimental foray into satirical, surreal comedy, loose plotting, and frenzied musical performances. A highly influential work, when first released the film essentially created a whole new form of musical, paving the way for pop music videos as we know them.
The basic plot follows the famous quartet as they rehearse for a live television concert. We follow band members John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison, and Ringo Starr (all playing themselves of course) as they take a train ride, practice their songs, chat up women, and deal with mobs of fans, controlling managers, and overbearing press. Though there actually is a script, the story is essentially negligible, with the film's goals extending far off the usual narrative path, aiming for a more unconventional and almost nonsensical mixture of episodic comedy and melodic delight.
The humor itself is a fun blend of dry, witty one-liners, and odd, absurdist sensibilities, that mix well with the band members' actual personalities. Quick instances of snarky banter and sarcastic observations are placed against more overtly wacky scenarios and reality bending visual gags. Frequent non sequiturs and meaningless observations are thrown into a gleefully directionless series of sequences that see the band struggle to deal with the pressures surrounding them. Thankfully, not all the laughs are purely irrational, and beneath the surreal humor is some real, biting satirical commentary on fame and the superficiality of shifting trends. Some highlights include poor Ringo's unsuccessful attempts at enjoying the simple things in life, George's run-in with some trend setters, and a lively press party that sees the band unleash amusing verbal jab after jab at the unsuspecting and sometimes oblivious journalists.
Tying the film's loosely constructed web of comedy and song together, is director Richard Lester. Bringing an innovative and energetic visual style to the screen, Lester essentially pioneers an entire method of filming musical performances. Many scenes forgo classic coverage for a more improvisational, free flowing approach. The frenzy of Beatlemania is captured through montages of shaky close-ups depicting screaming fans and pandemonium on the streets. Fast moving zooms and pans all add energy and excitement, following the band wherever they go. Lester also plays around with frame rates, using slow and fast motion to capture the group's free spirited whimsy.
The musical performances themselves often come in the form of random breaks from the normal flow of the story, with songs simply occurring matter-of-factly with no real attempt at transitions. A more traditional approach is taken for the climax, however, which sees the band literally play for a television concert. Multiple cameras capture every angle, giving the viewer an intimate and multifaceted view, from both the audience and the performer's perspective. The opening sequence itself, set to the title track of the film, is perhaps the movie's most iconic scene, and The Beatles running through the streets of Liverpool has become an immortal moment of cinematic history, loudly ushering in a new kind of filmmaking with a catchy, memorable hook.
While there is no denying the movie's influence and importance in creating a new kind of synergy between film and popular music, 'A Hard Day's Night' doesn't quite hold the same impact that it once did. The movie has aged remarkably well and never really feels dated per say, but techniques and stylistic choices that once seemed radical and subversive are now rather standard and common place. This of course isn't a real fault of the film itself, and is instead just further proof of how ahead of its time it really was. Even so, the movie's effect can't help but be slightly diminished by the generation of imitators that followed.
Through their albums, The Beatles helped shape popular music as we know it, and through their first attempt at big screen success, they helped establish a new form of moviemaking. Lester's irreverent mishmash of zany nonsense, sharp satire, exciting visuals, and great music, was a genuine original accomplishment when it first premiered in 1964. It may not hold the innovative impact it once did, but 'A Hard Day's Night' remains an entertaining, fun, and artfully constructed peek into the fascinating world of celebrity and rock and roll.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
Alliance brings 'A Hard Day's Night' to Blu-ray on a single BD-25 disc housed in a standard case with a cardboard slipcover. Originally a Canada only release, it is now available on Amazon's U.S. site as well. A collectable twelve page insert is also included in the package with shots from the film's famous poster photo shoot. After some logos and warnings, the disc transitions to a standard menu.
The movie is presented in a black and white 1080i/AVC MPEG-4 transfer in the 1.66:1 aspect ratio. As a whole, the image is certainly serviceable but never quite impressive.
The print is in decent shape but there are periodic signs of damage and age throughout. Despite the interlaced presentation, I detected no combing or other related artifacts in motion. Some minor signs of grain are periodically visible but unwanted video noise is also apparent. Detail is somewhat lacking, especially in wide shots, and the film has a sometimes soft look to it. There is rarely any sense of depth, and the visuals tend to look flat in many sequences. Black levels are mostly good, but can appear elevated in certain scenes. Whites are strong, giving the image a nice sense of contrast.
'A Hard Day's Night' doesn't look particularly bad on Blu-ray, but it also doesn't look particularly great. It's hard to say how much difference a progressive encode or a new source master might have made, but as it stands, this is a pretty average video presentation.
The film is provided with an English DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track, an English Dolby Digital 5.1 track, and a French Dolby Digital 5.1 track, with no subtitle options. The audio is a bit inconsistent, but does shine nicely when it needs to.
What we have here is really a case of two very different audio experiences, with some major discrepancies between the film's dialogue and effects, and the actual music performances. When not engaged in a musical number, the audio is essentially mono, with only the center channel active. When the musical performances begin, the track instead switches to a mostly stereo presentation with virtually no activity in the center channel, and only faint echoes in the rears. Dialogue is rather thin sounding with some occasional pops and crackles, and there is no directionality to speak of during the narrative parts of the film. On the other hand, the music itself, thankfully, sounds great. Vocals are full and rich, and there is some nice separation across the front left and right speakers. Dynamic range is full and bass has some nice kick. Due to the differences in quality and presentation between the music sequences and the rest of the movie, transitions to these performances can be a little jarring, and the songs seem to have been mixed a bit higher than the rest of the audio.
While a more consistent sound mix would have been preferable, it's very possible that this is simply the best way the film is capable of being presented. The Beatles' music is as wonderful and timeless as ever, and despite the sometimes harsh transitions, the songs sound good.
Alliance has put together an in depth collection of interviews with virtually everyone involved with the production (with the notable exception of the actual band). In total, there is a little over three hours worth of material. Though some of the interviews are more interesting than others, they all offer some nice insights into the film's production and the band members themselves. All of the special features are presented in standard definition with Dolby Digital 2.0 sound and no subtitle options. A play all function is available to view all of the supplements together.
'A Hard Day's Night' is an original, odd, musical satire that features some great performances from one of the greatest bands that's ever been. It may not pack quite the same innovative punch that it once did in 1964, but it's still an entertaining and well made film. Video is fairly average, and though a bit inconsistent, the audio presents the music wonderfully. Supplements are plentiful, but it would have been nice to hear from the band members themselves. Even with some minor technical issues, this is a solid recommendation, especially for big fans of the band.