My memories of the Beatles kick in just before Lennon was shot, and by then, they were already the band your parents liked and your friends liked to make fun of. For most of my existence, the Beatles were scarcely played on the radio at all, and when they were, it was the early, easily digestible "Yeah, Yeah, Yeah" stuff. It was frustrating to know how much truly great material the band created in their later days, all of which my contemporaries were dimly aware of at best.
But now the Beatles are back, and in a big way. As I write this, a collection of the band's greatest hits is doing so well on the charts that some footage of the band doing their famed rooftop performance of "Get Back" is making the rounds as a video on MTV. What must all those impressionable Backstreet Boys fans make of these few precious minutes of actual musical genius? In these days of slick, crooning replicants, it's possible the Beatles could seem as revelatory as they were when they first arrived on these shores.
Certainly A Hard Day's Night, which is enjoying a rerelease, remains as delightful as it must have been to audiences in '64. It's actually shocking to see just how young and giddy the Beatles were back then. The film charts a "typical" day in the life of the band during the first blush of Beatlemania, before Yoko, before LSD, before everything; back when running from mobs of screaming girls was still quite a lark. The film's humor falls somewhere between the Brothers Marx and Benny Hill, filled to the brim as it is with bon mots and bosomy chorus girls, in addition to what seems like dozens of surprisingly good, early Beatles tunes.
The band is so young and carefree here that they often seem like the schoolboys they'd been just a few years before. It's amazing to see Lennon before his baby fat had burned off, back when his patter had the quality of the class clown who simply can't shut up. He's funny, but he's also such a smart-ass that you have to sympathize with the band's much put-upon road manager when, near tears, the poor man mutters, "I've thought about putting a ball and chain on him, but he'd just rattle them at me—and in public, too."
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Speaking of Lennon, in the wake of The Hours and Times, a fictitious film in which Lennon was depicted as having had a relationship with the band's gay manager, Brian Epstein, certain elements in A Hard Day's Night seem a lot less innocent than they must have in '64. There is the moment when he demands, "Give us a kiss" to an uptight gent on a train, the scene where he croons a love song to Ringo, the truly bizarre scene where he's "torpedoed" in the bathtub, the bit in which the band's manager threatens to "tell the truth" about Lennon ("You wouldn't!")—and I could go on. Lennon was by virtually all accounts rather noisily hetero, but if one didn't know better . . .
For all its youthful exuberance, the film does have a surprisingly frank, adult side. It's there in the often eyebrow-raising sexual innuendoes (as when a smutty old man hisses at poor, hapless Ringo, "When's the last time you gave a girl a pink-edged daisy?"), and in the sharply pointed critique of the marketing forces that were—even then—at work on America's youth. When one powerful and memorably snaky ad exec snorts to an incognito George Harrison about how the next big fad isn't scheduled for another three weeks, the joke is, if anything, more depressingly on target than it must have been back in the mid-1960s.
This isn't a tweaked masterpiece on the order of Yellow Submarine, but it's almost impossible not to be charmed by the thing's raucous innocence. With luck, the music of the Fab Four will work the same gentle magic on the current generation of teenyboppers that it worked on the baby boomers back in the day, and by 2005, ours will be a very groovy nation indeed. Let's just hope it sticks this time.
A HARD DAY'S NIGHT WAS DIRECTED BY RICHARD LESTER; PRODUCED BY WALTER SHENSON; WRITTEN BY ALUN OWEN; AND STARS JOHN LENNON, PAUL MCCARTNEY, RINGO STARR AND GEORGE HARRISON. NOW PLAYING AT EDWARDS' UNIVERSITY, IRVINE.