Four Working Class Heroes, John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Ringo Starr, landed on our shores on February 7, 1964, exactly six weeks to the day after an assassin’s magic bullet claimed the life of President John F. Kennedy and threw the U.S. into mourning. America needed to party and try to forget, and these longhairs from Liverpool provided the soundtrack.
Hollywood wanted the “mop-tops” onscreen, and fast! The result was two United Artists films over two years: A Hard Day’s Night (1964) and Help! (1965). Both were devoured by legions of fans, spawned must-have albums and brought America and rock music, back to life.
Hollywood knew there was big money to be made putting teen idols onscreen and selling the finished product to screaming fans. The film studios had already castrated the King of Rock Elvis Presley after he came back from the army, by cramming him into a series of forgettable romps, re-traced more than they were written. The bar of quality wasn’t exactly high.
But the Beatles managed through talent, pluck and timing to rise above the sheer craven commercialism of the enterprise and make a couple of gems that are still well worth watching today. Our Smackdown then: Which one — A Hard Day’s Night or Help! — packed the definitive pop punch for the ages? Read on… A splendid time is guaranteed for all…
Sometimes life just works. United Artists would’ve been thrilled had A Hard Day’s Night been a financially successful pile of cinematic cheese, fit only to be later sliced into guitar picks. In spite of the fact, or perhaps because the suits had no idea what Beatlemania was, they left director Richard Lester, screenwriter Alun Owen and the Beatles alone to simply and quickly produce a cinematic masterpiece.
A Hard Day’s Night – a title born of a malaprop spoken by Ringo to explain how much work went into being an international phenomenon – was a mockumentary designed to replicate a day in the life of Beatlemania. We follow John, Paul, George and Ringo as they travel between – to quote the film – “a train and a room and a car and a room and a room and a room.”
They dodge screaming fans, rehearse for a TV appearance, romp through an empty field (in a scene that set the template for every single episode of The Monkees), deflate authority and flirt with beautiful girls, the prettiest of whom is played by Patti Boyd, soon to be Mrs. George Harrison and later wife of George’s best friend, Eric Clapton. One look at her in her swingin’ London finery, and you’ll see how she came to inspire such classic songs as “Something” and “Beautiful Tonight.”
Along for the ride is Paul’s troublemaking grandfather, played by curmudgeonly Wilfrid Brambell, best known as the crusty paterfamilias of Steptoe and Son, the British sitcom that Norman Lear retooled and recast in the 1970s as Sanford and Son. Shot in less than seven weeks on a budget of about a half a million bucks, the film features evergreen classics from Beatlemania’s first wave, like “Can’t Buy Me Love,” “I Should Have Known Better” and the title cut.
The film’s energy hasn’t lost a megawatt since its debut. It moves like lightning; the supporting cast, including the brilliant Victor Spinetti as a pompous TV director, is superb; and the Beatles are as funny as they are adorable. John Lennon’s bit in a bubble bath playing with a (not yellow) toy submarine is worth the price of admission alone. More to the point, its wit, style and irreverence set the template for just about everything we’ve listened to and looked at ever since.
Wanting an immediate follow-up to the international box office tidal wave caused by the black-and-white film, A Hard Day’s Night, director Richard Lester was again dispatched to bring the boys to the screen. His resulting film, Help! – originally titled Eight Arms to Hold You – was given a significantly larger production budget than its predecessor. Its poster spared the subtlety, flaunting: “The Colorful Adventures of the Beatles Are More Colorful Than Ever… in Color!
Help! served as the cinematic missing link between the Goons (the Godfathers of anarchic surreal British anti-comedy: Spike Milligan, Harry Secombe and Peter Sellers) and Monty Python. It also owed a large debt to the Marx Brothers’ best efforts, notably Duck Soup. John, Paul, George and Ringo were all fans of Groucho, Chico, Harpo and Zeppo.
Finally, Help! was influenced by one other then-recent British pop cultural phenomenon. His name was Bond. James Bond. The popularity of 007 was reflected in the plot, a wild comic caper involving murder, sex and plots to…dare I say it?… rule the world!
The story begins in a mysterious Eastern country (two years before George Harrison’s musical tastes turned to the sitar), where a beautiful girl is about to be sacrificed to appease the local gods. She is painted red in preparation. But just as the axe is literally set to fall, it is discovered she is not wearing the sacrificial ring that must be worn by the victim. A powerful Swami (the magnificent Leo McKern, BBC’s Rumpole of the Bailey) panics. Without the daily sacrifice, his absolute rule over his people will be lost.
So, where’s the ring? Cut to – big surprise – Ringo, drumming away, wearing the elusive jewel, a gift from an exotic woman he met on the road. She turns out to be the enticing and wonderfully funny Eleanor Bron, best known today as Patsy Stone’s mother on the BBC cult classic, Absolutely Fabulous. The sacrificial lamb was to be her sister, but she repeatedly reminds us she can “say no more!”
Thus, the Fabs are now in the crosshairs of the homicidal Eastern Swami. Ringo tries to get rid of the cursed ring – but wouldn’t ya’ know? It’s stuck. So the lads are off around the world – from Buckingham Palace to the Alps to the Bahamas, their list of enemies now including two mad British scientists (the glorious Victor Spinetti of AHDN and Roy Kinnear from 1971’s Willie Wonka & the Chocolate Factory).
If it sounds confusing, relax. Marc Behm and Charles Wood’s screenplay is all a cinematic Maguffin serving up colorful locations, great comic set pieces and stunning music videos of fantastic songs (including “The Night Before,” Lennon’s Dylanesque, “You’ve Got to Hide Your Love Away” and the title cut), all shot by Oscar-winning cinematographer, David Watkin.
Let’s be blunt. The powers that be behind these films were not looking to make masterpieces; they were looking to make money. Shortly after A Hard Day’s Night, cheap and cheery films were cranked out featuring teen idols like Gerry and the Pacemakers (like the Fab Four, managed by Brian Epstein) and Herman’s Hermits. Nobody remembers those films today. Nobody remembered them in 1965. They stank.
Yet, both AHDN and Help! are certifiable cinematic classics.
A Hard Day’s Night managed to capture a slice of cultural zeitgeist just at the moment when everything changed. It pulled out the rug from parents, teachers and the Don Drapers of Madison Avenue who had no idea that these long-haired weirdos were staging a cultural revolution under their very noses that would change TV, film, politics, advertising, music, fashion and S-E-X. And it’s a great, kinetic, musical extravaganza to boot.
The one thing that always puzzled me is the disconnect between the “real” Beatles and the scripted “sorta-Beatles.” There’s just enough real to make you wonder why simple truths are avoided in favor of fiction. At the same time, any and all fantasy is layered within the reality of the world’s biggest pop stars. Come to think of it, another one of the things for which this film set the template is reality TV.
Much of Help!’s glory comes from the fact that the Beatles themselves evolved so richly in the ridiculously short time from 1964 to 1965. Their confidence grew, along with their hair. Their songwriting advanced from three-chord pastiches of Buddy Holly, Chuck Berry and Little Richard to deeper, more contemplative studies, especially from Lennon. Their depth owes much to Bob Dylan, both for the example he set as a lyricist and for an illegal herbal substance he turned the boys onto around that time. Look closely at the spectacular adventures in color. The sky is blue, and their eyes are red.
Both films are legitimate classics. If you haven’t seen them, what the hell’s wrong with you? Buy them, rent them, watch them, lather, repeat. Often. In many ways, Help! is the more ambitious film, knitting together a globetrotting James Bond spoof, a political satire, a social satire and some of the most beautiful music videos ever shot (“You’re Gonna Lose That Girl” still takes my breath away).
But as remarkable as it is, it couldn’t have existed without A Hard Day’s Night. Visually, musically, comedically, stylistically, it is Pop Culture Ground Zero, the alpha and the omega. Therefore, almost half a century after its assault on our senses, the clear winner has to be A Hard Day’s Night.