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DVD Review: A Hard Day's Night

By Glenn Abel

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Elvis art It still rings out clear and true, perhaps the most identifiable chord in rock, created appropriately by one John Lennon. The startling collection of notes that open "A Hard Day's Night" -- the movie and the classic Beatles song -- sound at once magical and familiar.

And what is this wondrous chord? Gsus4, perhaps? Don't ask George Martin, the group's producer and fifth Beatle (if one ever existed).

"To this day, I still don't know what that chord is," Sir George says. "But it was a very good one."

Martin is one of the many graying talking heads assembled for the DVD release of "A Hard Day's Night," the Fab Four's first and best movie. Miramax/Buena Vista has released the 1964 film and its new companion anthology ("Give Me Everything!") as a two-disc set designed for collectors (retail $29.99).

"A Hard Day's Night" makes most critics' best-ever lists. It's widely considered an electrifying mix of great music and hip comedy, both a time capsule of the swinging '60s and a timeless entertainment. Roger Ebert calls it "one of the great life-affirming landmarks of the movies."

Respect hasn't led to respectful treatment. Legal wrangling followed "A Hard Day's Night" throughout its home video life, resulting in oddities like the "tribute to John Lennon" musical prologue tacked on for VHS. The first DVD version, from MPI in 1997, disappeared after a few months of distribution.

Here, finally, is an up-to-date rendition worthy of the film.

"A Hard Day's Night" looks and sounds about as good as could be expected. The carefully lit black-and-white images should please most viewers -- even though they're on the flat side, with persistent minor speckling. The stereophonic songs swing as they must, smoking the tracks on Capitol's (shamefully outdated) soundtrack CD. (The MPI video had significantly worse sound but deeper contrasts.)

The film, shot in 35mm, is presented in widescreen, letterboxed with a ratio of about 1.66:1, enhanced for 16x9 televisions. The spiffed-up audio comes via Dolby Digital, with the musical numbers in stereo.

The first disc contains the movie as well as "Things They Said Today," a new promo film that gives the big picture. The second disc is all interviews, arranged by category (cast, crew, etc.).

Martin Lewis, a Beatles historian and pal to most of the filmmakers, conducted 30 video interviews for the package. They include key players -- Martin, director Richard Lester, United Artists exec David Picker, cinematographer Gilbert Taylor ("Star Wars") and Beatles publicist Tony Barrow -- as well as those who were just lucky to find themselves working on a film project "at the center of the universe."

The reminiscences get infusions of energy from upbeat clips, some amplifying the talkers' points and others making Beatle-esque visual jokes. The production was extensively filmed and photographed, with hours of that material first seen in this collection. The interviews are tightly edited, surprisingly focused and often a great deal of fun. It becomes clear that contributing to the film profoundly changed the lives of most of these people.

Back then, few expected much of the Beatles' film, especially the Fab Four. Pop films of the day usually were hit-and-run affairs, with singers inexplicably breaking into slapdash song while extras gyrated. The genesis wasn't promising: UA exec Picker got a tip from England and signed a three-picture deal with a band he had never heard of, expecting only to make a few bucks on the soundtrack and publishing rights.

The Beatles, already a sensation in Britain, had the clout to influence the choice of director. They went with Lester, who worked with Peter Sellers and his pals on TV versions of their radio "The Goon Show." The Fabs especially admired Lester's "The Running, Jumping, Standing Still Film," a madcap short made for 70 and nominated for an Academy Award.

"They thought they could trust me to produce that same sort of useless amateurism that they'd noticed before," Lester remembers.

UA turned control of the film over to Lester, producer Walter Shenson and Liverpool writer Alun Owen, effectively giving the trio final cut. The UA execs came to expect a "strange little movie" that would be made quickly, on a tight budget. Postproduction was allotted 3 1/2 weeks.

"In our price range, we didn't even think of using color," says Lester, who was greatly influenced by the dramatic blacks and whites of the French New Wave.

"A Hard Day's Night" was shot with great secrecy because of the group's skyrocketing celebrity. Lester shot the film in London before the Beatles' first trip to the States. The picture was released after their history-making "Ed Sullivan Show" debut. The concept was to follow a fictional pop group (technically not the Beatles) as they traveled by rail to an important TV gig.

The screaming fans seen chasing the lads throughout the streets of London were, in fact, screaming fans. The group "caused absolute mayhem wherever they went," says Jeremy Lloyd, a dancer in the film's club scene. "It was awful," one actress recalls. On the first day of shooting, an assistant carrying exposed film panicked when surrounded by fans and lost a half-day's shooting as he ran for his life.

Although it seems the Beatles ad-libbed their way through the movie, Lester says only about 5% of the dialogue wasn't in Owen's script. Owen had an extraordinary grasp of the group's offbeat humor. Lester and Owen felt it was important to create distinct personalities for each member of the group. "The stereotypes still go on to this day," music man Martin says. "They were not true."

Brought in to provide acting chops was Wilfrid Brambell, who played the Redd Foxx part in the British show that inspired "Sanford and Son." Although the boys kept their distance from the all-business TV star, they became quick friends with other actors. Choreographer Lionel Blair says the Fabs "liked the older stars, people who had been on the box for a long time. They had respect for us."

Interviewees repeatedly praise the Beatles for being easygoing "nonstars." "I don't know how they managed to stay sane and be the guys they were," says David Janson, who played Ringo Starr's young sidekick David Jaxon in the film.

Lester says George Harrison was "the most accurate" actor in the band. "He never attempted too much or too little." Paul McCartney, who was dating actress Jane Asher, "tried too hard to act," the director remembers. "He loved show business, while the others didn't care." (McCartney's solo spot was cut from the film.) Starr "had a dubious expression permanently" and worked his big solo scene with a hangover. Lester greatly admired Lennon, who "suffered fools very badly."

The film's thrilling final scene, a concert in a theater/TV studio, featured some of the production's worst craziness and greatest creativity. The seats were filled with acting students (including a young Phil Collins), but the real fans wouldn't be denied. Climbing in from the roof, they sawed locks off and rushed down. There were numerous accidents in the crush. Fans tore up seats, some becoming sick and others passing out. The crew had no way of communicating because of the screeching. (Incredibly, more screams sweetened the mix in postproduction.)

Six brave cameramen worked the mini-concert, making rock history amid the chaos. True to Lester's style, they were free to shoot as they liked, lingering on the instruments, shifting depth of field and shooting at unexpected angles. The scene never fails to amaze. "We established a style that's still used today when they photograph pop stars," cameraman Paul Wilson says. Editor John Jympson is repeatedly praised for pulling together a tightly paced film from a mountain of material.

DVD-ROM features include a screenplay-film comparison using Owen's first draft of the script and a round-table discussion with the cast and crew, for those who haven't had enough of Beatlemania.

Glenn Abel is Executive Editor, Electronic, at The Hollywood Reporter

Reprinted, with permission, from The Hollywood Reporter

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