The Beatles on Film: “A Hard Day’s Night” & “Help!”
If an epic trilogy like The Lord of the Rings is a little too heavy and big of a commitment for your comfort viewing, you might want to opt for something a little lighter but no less substantial. Consider, for example, the groundbreaking first films by the Fab Four (aka the Beatles)!
At this point, well into the 21st century, it is often hard to fathom the Beatles’ impact on so many facets of popular culture across not only music but art, fashion, and even filmmaking. On the surface, their films can be enjoyed simply for their boundless and often madcap sense of joy and adventure. Yet there was a great deal of thought and care that allowed
director Richard Lester to capture and convey this energy on the silver screen.
A HARD DAY’S NIGHT
The preferred version of this film is currently only on a deluxe edition Blu-ray Disc package put out by Criterion. Not only does this present a restored version of the film based on a stellar 4K transfer, but there is a wealth of bonus materials that are essential viewing for appreciating the movie and its impact on the filmmaking. (You can also stream Hard Day’s Night on most of the major services, as well as on the Criterion Channel.)
A fanciful, playful adaptation of actual occurrences in the daily life of the Beatles coping with the first wave of “Beatlemania,” A Hard Day’s Night (1964) is a black & white documentary-like snapshot of that moment in time. You’re immersed in the Beatles’ lives, finding yourself in the thick of Liverpool and London as you witness these four “mop top” musicians’ daily struggle to exist. Victims of their own fame, just getting to a performance without being mobbed by fans was a major undertaking!
A Hard Day’s Night is akin to Francois Truffaut’s influential Day for Night (1973), which was at its core a movie about making movies. A Hard Day’s Night shows the Beatles being Beatles, four talented musicians performing their original music on television, in concert, and in the studio. At the time, being able to see that was still a new and exciting phenomenon.
Part of what makes this movie both a believable documentary-styled film and an enjoyable cinematic entertainment experience is its clever script design, which is crafted around the Beatles’ unique and fast-evolving “Fab Four” mythology. A Hard Day’s Night blurred the lines between traditional moviemaking and the free-form spontaneity of improvisation, allowing Lester to capture on film the essence of the Beatles’ individual personas and special magic as a group. Scriptwriter Alun Owen spent time with the band, following them around, familiarizing himself with their mannerisms as well as their daily trials and tribulations in the face of rapidly escalating Beatlemania.
Accordingly, this, coupled with Lester’s unique directing style provided the necessary basic story structure while allowing space for happy accidents and in-the-moment magic to make its way into the final cut. This helps lend a buoyant quality to the film, making it feel timeless nearly 60 years on.
A Hard Day’s Night showcases the Beatles’ whimsical English humor, which would show up throughout their careers, especially on film. Influences like The Goon Show, the comedy troupe that gave the world Peter Sellers (who became a friend of the band and even later co-starred with Ringo Starr in The Magic Christian), trickled down into A Hard Day’s Night and subsequent films like Help! and Magical Mystery Tour.
The movie boasts numerous innovations that influenced future filmmakers. For example, cinematographer Gilbert Taylor armed his team with handheld cameras so the Beatles wouldn’t feel inhibited on set. Combined with Lester’s prior TV-production experience, the result amounted to the development of a new filmmaking style, the repercussions from which are still being felt today. And it all started with these four lads from Liverpool!
The Criterion edition looks terrific in 1080p (working off the 4K restoration), displaying a remarkable level of detail. The solid but appropriately simple DTS-HD Master Audio surround mix created by producer Giles Martin definitely improves the viewing experience, especially compared to the old mono version.
In the book that comes with this edition, you can read in detail about the sources for creating the restored footage used in creating the Blu-ray Disc. It also goes into extensive detail about the audio restoration, including how the original master dialogue and effects tracks were located, while paying attention to significant details unique to the film that had an impact on the soundtrack. This is yet another reason to buy this director-approved Blu-ray.
The Criterion package delivers a bounty of bonuses, including the 1994 documentary You Can’t Do That: The Making of “A Hard Day’s Night.” From 2002 is a documentary called Things They Said Today, which features Lester and Gilbert Taylor as well as the Beatles’ music producer George Martin.
Lester’s Oscar-nominated short The Running Jumping & Standing Still Film (1960) is an essential bonus starring Peter Sellers and anticipating some of the ideas and visual concepts Lester used to great effect in A Hard Day’s Night (and which ultimately influenced Monty Python’s Flying Circus). Picturewise is a fascinating piece about Lester’s early work, and Anatomy of a Style is a more recent feature that explores his directing methods.
The best version of Help! I’ve seen to date was released in 2013 on Blu-ray. Lovingly restored (in 2007) and with some terrific bonus materials, its a fun film to add to your collection that looks and sounds great. Watch it in 5.1 surround sound for the most fulfilling experience. (You can also stream it on iTunes.)
For the followup to A Hard Day’s Night, the Beatles and Richard Lester knew they had to do something different so the second film wouldn’t seem like a formulaic retread. For starters, Help! was shot in color vs. A Hard Day’s Night’s black & white.
Most significantly, the film revolves around a genuine plot line as opposed to the quasi-documentary feel of A Hard Day’s Night— they didn’t try to make A Hard Day’s Night II! Instead, the Beatles were placed squarely in the then-popular spy-thriller genre. Very much a light parody of the 1960s Bond films, this connection continued for Paul McCartney, who would later compose the theme song for Live and Let Die.
Unlike A Hard Day’s Night, which stayed based in England, Help! takes the Beatles to sensational locations, including sunny beaches in The Bahamas and snow-capped mountainsides in Austria. But beyond the fun-mod look and feel of the film and some of the breathtaking location imagery, which might seem on the surface like just escapist fluff, Help! would end up having a big impact on the movies—and on TV.
For example, Lester refined the approach to the Beatles’ musical numbers that he had begun to develop in A Hard Days Night, where he had crafted standalone performance vignettes in unusual locations, be it a train or an aerial shot of the Beatles running around wildly in a field. In Help! he essentially invented the modern “music video,” with its combination of performance footage, story narrative, fast-cut editing, and innovative camera angles. MTV even named him the Father of Music Videos, according to Lester himself in an interview you can enjoy in the bonus materials on the Help! Blu-ray.
The Blu-ray’s sound quality is excellent, mixed into a mostly forwardly-leaning, gently immersive, and remarkably dynamic DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 mix. I prefer watching the film this way as it just feels fuller without being distracting.
The overall look of Help! is fantastic, and many kudos go out to the team responsible for its restoration. Do be sure to watch the documentary on the restoration. It’s quite impressive because it shows the process of how the film negative was prepared for digital transfer, and then explains how all the subsequent digital cleanup work was done frame by frame by hand in the computer by a tag team of experts. This was a labor of love for these film professionals, who also happened to be Beatles fans. They wanted to make sure they did the film justice, and it shows.
Help! looks fantastic in all its 1080p glory and I only wonder how it might look with an updated super-high-resolution restoration—maybe we’ll get to see that on the film’s 60th anniversary in 2025.
Mark Smotroff breathes music 24/7. His collection includes some 10,000 LPs, thousands of
CDs & downloads, and many hundreds of Blu-ray and DVD Audio discs. Professionally, Mark has
provided Marketing Communications services to the likes of DTS, Sony, Sega, Sharp, and AT&T.
He is also a musician, songwriter & producer, and has written about music professionally for
publications including Mix, Sound & Vision, and AudiophileReview. When does he sleep?