Release Date(s)1964 (June 24, 2014)
Studio(s)HDN, LLC (Criterion - Spine #711)
- Film/Program Grade: A+
- Video Grade: A+
- Audio Grade: A+
- Extras Grade: A
In 1964, director Richard Lester, writer Alun Owen, and producer Walter Shenson came up with an idea on how to make a Beatles movie. They decided to create a loose narrative that could occasionally feature music, but would also let the Fab Four run wild and have a good time with a number of different characters and situations. That film was A Hard Day’s Night, which has now found a home with the Criterion Collection.
A Hard Day’s Night, in some ways, feels like a saterical snapshot of what was going on with The Beatles at the time the movie was made. We follow them from a train ride to London to the TV studio where they are due to perform. If only they could keep their mischievous selves out of trouble. As they make their way, they must evade crazed fans and paparazzi. You get the feeling at times that you’re watching actual vintage documentary material, then you witness a scene of them harassing a man in a train car, leaving the car and running alongside the train while it’s still in motion, waving to the man through the window. That’s when you realize that the narrative is more than it seems. If anything, this film is a pure romp.
Shot in a cinéma vérité style with a (then) small budget of $500,000, the film’s title (which was originally just Beatlemania) came about after Ringo had made a malapropism about a particular set of gigs, saying that it had been “a hard day’s night.” The band was asked to write a song using the title, which they essentially did overnight. The soundtrack to the film, of course, became just as successful as the film itself, earning The Beatles a number one single on both sides of the Atlantic, as well as a Grammy award.
Although The Beatles made more films, A Hard Day’s Night is seen as the strongest of the lot. Not only was it considered influential on later music videos, but it also had a strong influence on The Monkees’ TV show, and (according to some) other comedies and spy films of the era. Roger Ebert even felt that nearly all of modern documentary filmmaking, handheld camera work, and editing techniques were directly influenced by it. Its many accolades and appreciations aside, it’s still a clever and entertaining film with a great soundtrack.
Criterion’s Blu-ray release of A Hard Day’s Night features what I believe is the definitive presentation of the film. It’s sourced from a 4K digital restoration, approved by director Richard Lester himself, and is an absolutely beautiful transfer. Grain is perfectly distributed with an enormous of amount of foreground and background image detail on display, deep black and white levels, and perfect contrast. There are absolutely no signs of aggressive digital enhancement, and the print is free of major film debris, save for a small line here or there. And where the video excels, the audio excel too. You get three choices: English 1.0 & 2.0 LPCM and English 5.1 DTS-HD. No matter which you choose, you’re going to get a terrific sound experience. Both the mono and stereo tracks feature strong front-heavy presentations with excellent dynamic range, but the 5.1 track (newly mixed by sound producer Giles Martin at Abbey Road Studios) is a powerhouse. It opens up the soundtrack to the rear speakers beautifully, with an enormous amount of light and shade. The dialogue is perfectly clear and audible on all three options, and the music and sound effects have some dynamic heft to them. All in all, this is a perfect presentation that I can’t praise highly enough. There are also subtitles in English for those who might need them.
The extras selection on this release is also quite extensive. It doesn’t feature all of the extras from previous releases, but I’ll cover that in minute. What you do get begins with an audio commentary with various cast and crew members including (but not limited to) actors John Junkin, David Janson, and Jeremy Lloyd; cinematographer Gilbert Taylor; associate producer Denis O’Dell; second assistant director Barrie Melrose; and assistant editors Pamela Tomling and Roy Benson. There’s also the In Their Own Voices featurette, which combines interviews with The Beatles from 1964 with behind-the-scenes footage and photos; Anatomy of a Style, which is a deconstruction of five music sequences from the film by story editor and screenwriter Bobbie O’Steen and music editor Suzana Peric; the You Can’t Do That: The Making of A Hard Day’s Night documentary from 1994, produced by Walter Shenson and hosted by Phil Collins, which includes an outtake performance by the Beatles; Things They Said Today, a documentary from 2002, produced by Martin Lewis, which includes interviews with, but not limited to, director Lester, music producer George Martin, screenwriter Alun Owen, and cinematographer Gilbert Taylor; The Running Jumping & Standing Still Film, Lester’s 1960 Oscar-nominated short film; Picturewise, a segment written and produced by critic and filmmaker David Cairns and narrated by actor Rita Tushingham about Lester’s early work (including a new audio interview with the director); The Beatles: The Road to A Hard Day’s Night, which is a new interview with author Mark Lewisohn; the 2000 and 2014 re-release trailers; and finally, an 80-page insert booklet with an essay by critic Howard Hampton and excerpts from a 1970 interview with Lester. Since this is a dual-format release, there are also 2 DVDs included with all of the same content.
There were also three previous disc-based releases of the film: a DVD release from MPI Home Video; a Collector’s Series 2-Disc DVD set from Miramax, and a Blu-ray release from Alliance, the latter of which has the same content as the Miramax release. Not included here from the MPI release is a 1982 prologue to the film set to the song “I’ll Cry Instead,” two British newsreels: Beatlemania Grips Gotham and Beatles Get Show Biz Top Award; the film’s 1981 re-release trailer; trailers for The First US Visit, You Can’t Do That!, Help!, and Magical Mystery Tour; text about MPI’s restoration of the film as well as bios about the filmmakers and supporting cast; and a short interview from the 1960’s with director Richard Lester. The Miramax and Alliance releases featured a digitally restored soundtrack for the film (which is now trumped by the audio selection on this release, obviously), but also a set of interview featurettes (Their Production Will Be Second to None, With the Beatles, Working Like a Dog, Busy Working Overtime, Listen to the Music Playing in Your Head, Such a Clean Old Man!, I’ve Lost My Little Girl, Taking Testimonial Pictures, Dressed to the Hilt, Dealing with “The Men from the Press”, They and I Have Memories, Hitting the Big Time in the USA), and a whole slew of DVD-ROM features including two of the film’s screenplays, the ability to watch the film while reading the screenplays, scrapbooks, roundtable discussions, and an archive of Miramax’s original web site for the film. Also not included (nor on any previous releases) are the film’s first theatrical release trailers.
All in all, the extra material for this new release is terrific, but it’s a shame that a lot of the previous material couldn’t be included tool. Things like the trailers for The First US Visit, Help!, and Magical Mystery Tour are obviously not relevant to this release, but all of the film’s theatrical trailers and interview footage is. Rights issues probably kept a lot of it from being included, I’m sure, so if you have those releases and you wish to have all of the extra material available at your beck and call, I’d suggest holding onto them.
A Hard Day’s Night, to me, is a big slice of comfort food. It’s not about the filmmaking per se, although I do appreciate the hell out of it for that aspect alone. Rather, it’s about spending time with a fun group of guys who make great music and have a ball doing so. Criterion’s Blu-ray release of the film is so perfect that you’d be hard-pressed to find a good reason not to check it out for yourself. Highly recommended.
- Tim Salmons