Tag Archives: Richard Lester

A Hard Day’s Night Revisited

“We didn’t want to make a fuckin’ shitty pop movie. We didn’t even want to make a movie that was going to be bad.”

-John Lennon, 1970

“Aesthetic experience exists. A Hard Day’s Night has nothing to do with it. At best, it is fun. But “fun” is not an aesthetic experience: Fun remains on the surface. I have nothing against the surface. But it belongs where it is and shouldn’t be taken for anything else.”

-Jonas Mekas, 1st October 1964

promotional photograph taken on set

promotional photograph taken on set

In the wake of the Beatles break-up in 1970, John Lennon began to systematically debunk the public’s more romantic notions of the band he founded as a teenager. Despite Lennon’s somewhat abrasive interview with Rolling Stone that year, and a series of songs that attacked the Beatles myth, Lennon never really succeeded in retooling the public’s image of the Beatles. As much as Lennon, McCartney and Harrison all worked to distance themselves from their Beatle identities to promote their first solo albums, those personas would forever prove inescapable. In truth, the Beatle personas that proved so inescapable were the product of the press, a product that found a physical, widely distributed manifestation in Richard Lester’s film A Hard Day’s Night (1964).

George Harrison and Richard Lester

George Harrison and Richard Lester

Lester’s film, in terms of Beatle history, arrived in time to solidify their celebrity on an international scale. The film was released on the heels of their first U.S. tour, and in the proceeding months after John Lennon published his first book of comedic prose In His Own Write. Lennon’s literary achievement and the widely covered press conferences of the American tour would form the crux of the Beatle’s fictional counter-parts in A Hard Day’s Night. To lend a more intimate air to the film, Beatles manager Brian Epstein commissioned Allun Owen to pen the script after spending two nights on tour with the band. Owen’s script, despite capturing the tempo and mannerisms of the Beatles’ dialogue, still adheres strictly to the caricatures of the fab four that they themselves propagated, albeit inadvertently, by way of their momentous press coverage.

Lester himself was selected to direct the film because of his association with Peter Sellers and Spike Milligan. Lester made a film with Milligan and Sellers titled The Running, Jumping, & Standing Still Film (1960) which reprised a number of comedic elements Milligan and Sellers employed while on The Goon Show; a radio program Lennon and McCartney adamantly followed while in school. Richard Lester’s style at this point was purely economical. His use of handheld portable cameras, and the cinema-verite style they represented, were simply a product of necessity. Lester’s follow-up film to A Hard Day’s Night, The Knack And How To Get It (1965), exhibits a far more formal approach to cinematic technique, marking the beginning of his move away from the kinetic energy that made A Hard Day’s Night such a novelty to critics and audiences alike.

A Hard Day’s Night’s visual virtuosity may have been widely praised, but in certain quarters the film was dismissed as a contemporarily dressed Elvis movie. The loudest spokesperson of this camp was Jonas Mekas. Mekas, an ex-patriot Lithuanian filmmaker based in New York, filled his column in The Village Voice with accusations directed more so at the film critics who heralded A Hard Day’s Night as opposed to the film itself. Mekas’ point was simple. He saw in A Hard Day’s Night nothing new. And it’s true, Richard Lester’s film, in so much as its visual style is concerned, offers the cinema nothing that hasn’t already been done by the “underground”, the likes of which include Morris Engel, Shirley Clarke, John Cassavetes, and Mekas himself. Indeed, A Hard Day’s Night’s greatest achievement in the vein of cinematic style is that it demonstrates that avant-garde tactics can be employed for commercial use, providing a blueprint for the music video format that would begin to evolve over the next two decades.

A Hard Day’s Night has an even more troubling relationsLennon and Anna Quayle hip to the Maysles Brothers film of their first stateside tour that has gone under several title changes before it’s contemporary DVD release as The First U.S. Visit. In fact, Mekas based one of his articles on the relationship between these two films: “The Maysles brothers made a film about the Beatles. You have to see the Maysles film to realize what really good photography is, or what cinema is, or what the Beatles are”. The First U.S. Visit demonstrates how effective the medium of the documentary is at handling musical subjects. The Maysles’ film of the Beatles pre-dates D.A. Pennebaker’s Don’t Look Back (1966) and is equally inspired and effective. When Mekas alludes to the truth of the Beatles, he is undoubtedly referring to the manufactured characters of Owen’s script like Paul’s grandfather, who are the catalysts of all the film’s plot points and the unwilling foils of the fab four. The problem with Mekas’ argument is that while the Maysles’ film may be more illuminating and visually inspired, it is not as traditionally entertaining and therefore not as accessible as Lester’s film, or to paraphrase Jonas Mekas, it isn’t as much “fun”. That being said, the Maysles’ film was also never as widely distributed as A Hard Day’s Night, which had been bankrolled and released by United Artists. Mekas’ attacks on critics for their praise of Lester’s film seem, with hindsight, off base.

-Robert Curry


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Mr. Freedom

William Klein came to film from the world of fashion.  He had garnered acclaim for both his photographic essays on urban environments and his fashion spreads in numerous magazines long before he directed his first film Who Are You Polly Maggoo? (1966).  At first, Klein seemed reliant on both the kinetic style of Richard Lester’s The Knack & How To Get It (1965), and the comic self-awareness exercised in the films of the French New Wave.  But with the release of his second feature Mr. Freedom (1968), Klein demonstrated a remarkable progression in style.  He had absorbed and taught himself the means to a style, though derivative of Lester and the New Wave, was quite his own.Mr. Freedom involves the title character (played to excess by John Abbey) on an anti-communist mission in Paris.  Advocating American Imperialism and fascistic terror tactics to enforce these beliefs, Mr. Freedom leaves nothing but urban devastation and political unrest in his wake.

Klein depicts his title character as the embodiment of all that is corrupt and hypocritical about American foreign policy. The violent chaos Mr. Freedom inflicts on Paris serves as a mirror to the events unfolding in America’s Vietnam War as well as in Algiers and post-colonial Africa.  In fact, when the French people demonstrate against Mr. Freedom in the film, the footage was actually shot by Klein during the real May protests of 1968.  A film that begins as a campy satire soon morphs into a film whose depiction of violence as Looney Tune gag comedy and incorporation of real events is wholly disturbing.  Klein has employed a two-part structure to his film.  The first half is a campy comedy that absorbs the audience’s attention, giving them a sense of distance from the narrative  à la Godard’s Alphaville (1965) whilst the second half embraces a loony barbarism that would not recur in the cinema till Roeg’s Performance in 1970.

For all of Mr. Freedom’s satire and political subversion, it’s most remarkable quality is in its design.  Working with his wife Janine, Klein has correlated every color scheme in costume, set, and light to either match or contrast based on the scene with a Chester Gould recklessness.  The meticulous attention to design in the film seems to be the direct result of Klein’s background in the world of high fashion.  Janine Klein’s costume designs even evoke different stereotypes and clichés associated with the American propaganda machine.  Mr. Freedom sports hockey pads, football helmets, and capes all striped in red, white and blue.  Delphine Seyrig, as Mr. Freedom’s French liaison Marie-Madeleine, is dressed in an array of swimsuits with thigh high boots incorporating the colors of the French flag, blue, white and red.

The cast itself is equipped with political signifiers.  French singer-songwriter Serge Gainsbourg has a bit part as one of Mr. Freedom’s henchmen.  Gainsbourg, at the time, was heavily associated with the Paris left bank.  Donald Pleasence plays Mr. Freedom’s boss, Dr. Freedom.  Pleasence was a renowned character actor with an affinity for comical, but authoritative roles.

Klein has correlated every component of his film to maximize on his political lampooning of America.  Mr. Freedom may even be difficult to watch, with all its excess in style and performance, if it weren’t for the careful and selective style of cinematographer Pierre L’homme.  This kind of stylistic advancement, from Who Are You, Polly Maggoo? to Mr. Freedom is remarkable in just how rare such a feat is.  Today the relevance and urgency of Mr. Freedom may have dwindled somewhat, but it is still the most flamboyant commentary of political injustice one could hope to find.

-Robert Curry

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