Thursday, January 19, 2012

The Beatles, Richard Lester, and the Art of Rock & Roll Movies

Press Goon: “Don’t you ever get a haircut?”
George Harrison: “I had one yesterday.”
Everyone: hysterics

If The Beatles could break up a room by drolly delivering middling quips like this, just think what they could do mouthing the words of a professional screenwriter! After all, they’ve already sent millions into frenzy doing nothing more than twanging their electric ukuleles, bashing their Ringo bongos, shaking their hideous wigs, and screeching “Yeah, yeah, yeah!” Look at all the cash raked in on those awful Elvis films. Quickly, quickly! Get a writer! Get a director! Any will do! No budget is too small! Just get “The Beatles” up on the marquees before time runs out on this fab fad.
Dezo Hoffmann's iconic leaping Beatles.

Rock & Roll wasn’t supposed to last, and Rock movies were even more ephemeral. The New York Times said The Girl Can’t Help It was “as meager and witless as a cheap pin-up magazine joke.” So what if Frank Tashlin infused it with the color and energy of a Tex Avery cartoon? So what if Little Richard, Gene Vincent, Fats Domino, and The Treniers pitch the pace into hyperdrive with their elation-inducing performances? The Times knew well they were just “grab[bing] the spotlight and beat[ing] out their agonized tunes… the way alert bullfighters rush into the ring when a companion is gored.” No one would remember the picture beyond 1957, but it doubled its budget at the box office. No one would remember a Beatles movie beyond 1964, but that sort of thing was guaranteed cash in the bank.

The Beatles didn’t seem to think much of the Elvis pictures, but they did catch The Girl Can’t Help It. Lennon was particularly turned on by the sights of Little Richard screaming while beating his piano standing up and Gene Vincent and his Blue Caps shaking off their blue caps during “Be-Bop-a-Lula” (a record he first heard from his mother, Julia, The Beatles often covered in their early days, and opened Lennon’s Rock ‘n’ Roll L.P. in 1975). The New York Times may have been quite happy to forget all about The Girl Can’t Help It. The Beatles weren’t. On September 18, 1968, they even delayed the night’s “White Album” session—and put their severe personal problems on hold—to convene at Paul’s place to watch the movie’s BBC debut. Perhaps Rock & Roll movies weren’t so fleeting. Perhaps they could have profound impacts, inspiring fledgling musicians to change the world and patch up damaged relationships. Perhaps a visionary director such as Frank Tashlin could make a difference.

Few affected John Lennon’s art like that first wave of rockers, but his mother, friends, and favorite writers (particularly Lewis Carroll) seasoned his work as well. He was particularly taken with the absurdist comedy trio of Peter Sellers, Spike Milligan, and Harry Secombe, known as The Goons. Knowing that George Martin had produced the group helped seal their working relationship. Another goon collaborator was American Richard Lester, who’d directed and starred in a short film with Sellers and Milligan called “The Running, Jumping & Standing Still Film” in 1960. Producer Walter Shenson had worked with Lester on that short and The Mouse That Roared (1963), also starring Sellers. Lester had music-film credentials, having made It’s Trad, Dad!, a 1962 cash-in on the British “trad jazz” (Dixieland is the U.S. term) craze that made a star of Acker Bilk and gave The Who their start. Lennon didn’t choose Lester to direct his band’s film. Shenson brought his old colleague on board, but the fit was just as right as the George Martin/Beatles pairing. Another director may have scoffed at fashioning a cinema cash-in for the faddish Beatles. Lester crowed, “I’ll do it for nothing!”

Paul and Richard Lester (with unknown pal in the center) making A Hard Day's Night.

Television writer Alun Owen (“Armchair Theatre”, “Corrigan Blake”) cooked up the script for the tentatively titled Beatlemania. The fabs’ quips were sharper (Press Goon: “What would you call that hairstyle you’re wearing?” George Harrison: “Arthur.”). Lennon and McCartney’s songs were their best yet. Wilfrid Brambell (“Steptoe & Son”), as Paul’s “very clean” grandfather, was a comedic ace in the hole in the event The Beatles’ humor didn’t translate well to the big screen. Lester could just shoot the film in workmanlike fashion and United Artists could make a tidy profit (the budget was miniscule enough that Shenson answered Lester’s cry of “I’ll do it for nothing!” with “Don’t worry about that, Dick, we’re all going to do it for nothing”). But that wasn’t the approach the still-new filmmaker took.

Lester was excited by the prospect of directing The Beatles. He unstrapped his imagination to a degree the band hadn’t even dared yet. He broke rules of continuity (“Hey Mr., can we have our ball back!” Paul shouts outside the train he was riding in the previous frame), editing (the proto-music video “Can’t Buy Me Love”—notice how John disappears from the scene without explanation), and filmmaking 101 (he shoots directly into a lamp during the “And I Love Her” sequence… a big no, no at the time that has since become standard, even overused, as it was during Otis Redding’s performance in Monterey Pop). Lester transformed the Rock & Roll movie into art as assuredly as The Beatles would transform Rock & Roll into art.

Yet the marriage was not without fault. Everyone was too secure in the success of The Beatles and A Hard Day’s Night, next settling for a James Bond-derived script not nearly as imaginative as the secret agent’s films but just as casually racist. Of course, Help! has its moments. Lester designed terrific set pieces around “You’re Gonna Lose That Girl” (elegantly shadowed Beatles sink into smoke) and “Ticket to Ride” (stoned Beatles go skiing). His “intermission” joke is priceless. The colors are vibrant, and The Beatles’ flat is a hipster’s fantasy setting. The supporting players are top notch (Eleanor Bron, John Bluthal, Leo McKern, Hard Day’s Night-vet Victor Spinetti, Patrick Cargill, who does a funny Ringo impersonation). But the freshness is gone. A Hard Day’s Night vibrated. Help! feels overlong at a mere 92 minutes.

Then Lester essentially went his own way for a long, quite successful film career. As The Beatles’ music got more serious, they stopped making room in their schedule for fictional feature films, even as they batted around ideas (including Lord of the Rings and Joe Orton’s experimental Up Against It). Individually, they’d pop up in fictional films from time to time, and Lennon even reunited with Lester for the disjointed farce How I Won the War in 1967, in which he appears with his hair chopped and his iconic granny glasses for the first time. Collectively, they made the T.V. film Magical Mystery Tour at the end of that year, but the short film was critically shredded so mercilessly that they never attempted such a thing again. They were repelled by the idea of being depicted as cutesy cartoons, so they opted out of Yellow Submarine too, but were charmed enough by the eye-poppingly artful final product that they volunteered to cameo. By the time Michael Lindsay-Hogg made Let It Be in 1969, most of the joy had drained out of the Beatles project, though there still was enough left for a magically impromptu rooftop performance.

So what are we left with? Several interesting time capsules of varying quality (the best is certainly the nearly Beatle-less Yellow Submarine, though Magical Mystery Tour is better than its reputation suggests) and one genuine masterpiece. For those who thought The Beatles were a passing fad, for those who doubted the permanence and artistry of the Rock & Roll movie, there’s A Hard Day’s Night. And just as The Girl Can’t Help It swayed The Beatles—and outlasted its own naysayers—A Hard Day’s Night can be viewed as the progenitor of all the creative and enduring Rock & Roll movies that followed, from Head to The Harder They Come to Rock and Roll High School to Purple Rain. The Beatles and Richard Lester established an existing form as a new art form.

Today is Richard Lester’s 80th birthday.
Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...
All written content of is the property of Mike Segretto and may not be reprinted or reposted without permission.