Since we’re awash in Beatles nostalgia at the moment, it’s appropriate that Miramax is re-releasing the Fab Four’s first film in a restored print with a digitalized soundtrack. (It’s also a pleasant change that after so many pictures, from 1978’s “I Wanna Hold Your Hand” through 1991’s “The Two of Us” and 1993’s “Backbeat,” which have played dramatically with the group’s history and legend, we’re getting to see them in unfiltered form again.) And of course there’s plenty of great music, sounding especially fine in this newly spiffed-up version.
It must be admitted, however, that “A Hard Day’s Night” hasn’t aged all that gracefully insofar as its story and cinematic technique are concerned. When it was first issued, Richard Lester’s feature debut–a jokey, free-association piece supposedly delineating a day in the life of the band–seemed innovative and a trifle subversive; its narrative non-sequiturs, absurd verbal riffs and flashy editing, drawn from the world of commercials and television, were faintly daring and fresh. Now, however, they seem rather quaint and musty. In 1964 the picture was sometimes described as anarchic, but from the perspective of thirty-six years later what’s most striking about it is the sense of naivete and innocence it conveys, even in the music, which is harmonically pretty unadventurous and lyrically obvious, though still melodically charming. (It’s hard to believe that the Beatles, in this early guise, were ever thought of as even vaguely threatening; despite their slightly long hair, they come across as the lighthearted guys next door any mother would love.) For true cinematic anarchy one still has to go much further back, to the Marx Brothers’ 1933 “Duck Soup,” for example. It may be stagey and cinematically conventional beside Lester’s flamboyant virtuosity, of course, but it possesses an undercurrent of avant-garde strangeness that all of the quick cutting and throwaway bits on display here can’t even begin to match.
If it seems a bit dated, however, “A Hard Day’s Night” still has a great many virtues besides the incomparable tunes: there are, for example, quite a few clever lines and situations provided by scripter Alun Owen, as well as the winning personalities of the stars, which come across despite their tendency to mug. And best of all there’s the turn by Wilfrid Brambell as Paul’s mischievous, trouble-making grandpa. Brambell adds a touch of British music hall and sitcom magic to the mix (he was, after all, the star of “Steptoe and Son,” the TV series on which “Sanford and Son” was based). It might seem odd that his old-fashioned style works so well in tandem with the supposedly more modern mien of the Beatles, but as the guys’ last stage set in the picture shows, they actually come out of the same tradition, so the fact that they mesh with Brambell’s work is entirely understandable.
“A Hard Day’s Night” seems much less revolutionary than it once did, in terms of both content and technique. It now strikes one as very much a product of its time, but it still has many pleasures, not least the opportunity to see the Fab Four performing their early hits one more time. And the picture looks and sounds great in this transfer; fans everywhere should be most appreciative of Miramax’s efforts.