It's a strange thing, but I'd never watched the Beatles film A Hard Day's Night until yesterday afternoon. That is to say, I'd never watched it all the way through. I've started to watch it several times, but usually bailed out after 5 or 10 minutes, because I found its self-conscious cuteness too toe-curlingly embarrassing. I do have a fondness for the recordings of the early Beatles -- I was 10 in the year of the release of Hard Day's Night -- but for me those once exciting new sounds are diminished, not enhanced, by following the wacky adventures of four cartoonish mop-tops pursued by a horde of screaming pre-teen maenads.
The film has recently been re-mastered and will be re-released, and was shown the other night on the BBC, presumably in its original version. I could hear my daughter chortling in disbelief as she watched the scenes of tweenies gripped by the hysteria of Beatlemania. Those shrieking girls, of course, are all now her mother's age. So, I thought I'd give it yet another go, and see if I could get past the train compartment scenes this time.
I did, but only because it seems I'm more accustomed to dealing with embarrassment these days. It still made me cringe. Much is made of the film's influence at the time, stylistically, which I'm sure is true, but it is the usual fate of pioneers to be outshone by their imitators. It seems pretty stilted and period-bound now; it's filmed in black and white, for a start, and it's far too over-excited about a Modern World where vending machines dispense pre-packaged milk, and photo-booths and public hip-wiggling are all outrageous novelties. Even safety razors -- hardly a major innovation even in 1964 -- get a moment in the sun.
However, there is one bit of the movie that did totally seize my attention, a true "wow" moment of absolute stylistic innovation and mastery. I'm talking about the closing credit sequence, made from close-up portraits uniformly taken from the same distance, and printed in that richly contrasty "soot and whitewash" style made famous by the likes of David Bailey, and sequenced in a semi-animated style that says everything about the excitement and innovation of 1964 that the film itself somehow fails to do.
The photographer was Robert Freeman, for some years the Beatles' photographer of choice. The portraits are the same ones that appear on the cover of the Hard Day's Night album, except they are of necessity cropped from the original square to a cinematic letterbox aspect ratio, which gives an even tighter edit, so that the screen is filled with those familiar "always already" famous features, grinning, gurning, and looking thoughtful.
What is so special about this sequence? On one level, it's pure, innocent teen-pop porn: without context, without distracting clothes or props, just an in-your-face, in-your-tweenie-dreams John-Paul-George-and-Ringo Beatles-fest. I can remember the girls at school all interrogating each other: which one is yours? It was perhaps the first time in human history that an entire generation could construct their fantasies around the same four virtual objects. Personally, I was more interested in The Man from U.N.C.L.E. at the time, though Emma Peel throwing judo shapes in a leather catsuit in The Avengers was beginning to make me shift uncomfortably on the sofa.
But that photography is essential, iconic 60s style, if not "art" on the level of David Hockney or Peter Blake, then still something pure and new and ahead of the curve. It sits quite oddly at the tail of the preceding movie, as it is cut from such very different cloth; it's actually a much truer glimpse or prediction of the future. The animation of the sequence is artfully done, too, nicely matching the reprise of the song "A Hard Day's Night" -- it may even be, in effect, the very first custom-made pop video. It really is the most "zeitgeisty" bit of the film, a new visual language being born.
So, if you've never seen it, I recommend you sit through the film, if you can endure it, just so you can see those closing minutes. As for the rest, even the famous jokes and quips ("Are you a mod or a rocker?" "I'm a mocker") have achieved the unenviable status of Shakespearean jests, which is to say, completely lacking in spontaneity and surprise after 50 years of exposure, and utterly unfunny.
Apparently the scandalous hobby Lennon writes on the reporter's pad is "tits". Well, you had to be there.