Release Date(s)1964 (January 18, 2022)
Studio(s)United Artists (Criterion – Spine #711)
- Film/Program Grade: A+
- Video Grade: A+
- Audio Grade: A+
- Extras Grade: A
[Editor’s Note: The bulk of this review is by Stephen Bjork, while the extras coverage is by Tim Salmons from his review of the 2014 Blu-ray release of the film. Also, the original pressing of this release contained some errors, and Criterion followed up with a replacement program. You can find those details in the Additional Notes below.]
A Hard Day’s Night captured lighting in a bottle in a way that no musical film had done before, and none have ever done since. That’s understandable, considering that it was filmed at the height of Beatlemania, shortly after the band’s legendary first appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show. There’s never been anything else quite like Beatlemania. Yet if the film was nothing more than a document of that madness, it still wouldn’t have had the impact that it did. Instead, A Hard Day’s Night proved massively influential, and much of that is thanks to director Richard Lester, who couldn’t possibly have been better suited to bring this particular band to the big screen. The anarchic, improvisatory style that Lester had been exploring in his short films and television work meshed perfectly with The Beatles, and the film that resulted is one for the ages.
While A Hard Day’s Night feels spontaneous and improvised, much of the dialogue was actually carefully scripted by Alun Owen, who had spent time with the band to observe their unique style. (The one noteworthy exception is the press conference, which was mostly improvised by Lester and the lads.) Owen did a marvelous job of capturing their individual personalities, so while the dialogue is hilarious, it always seems natural coming out of their mouths. He really nailed all of their quirks, especially John’s caustic irreverence. He also perfectly captured the nature of the youth counterculture that they represented, which is exemplified by their encounter with the older gentleman on the train:
“And don't take that tone with me, young man. I fought the war for your type.”
“I bet you're sorry you won.”
On the other hand, many of the visual gags are unquestionably attributable to Richard Lester (with the enthusiastic participation of The Beatles). The dialogue may not have been improvisatory, but Lester’s shooting methodology was. He took advantage of every situation that he was presented with, often turning challenges (like his limited access to the train) into surrealistic virtues. The gags fly as fast and furious as the dialogue, from throwaway moments like John pretending to snort his Coke bottle, to genuinely absurdist moments like him disappearing into the bathtub.
Lester also solved the problem of fitting the inevitable musical numbers into real-world settings by fully embracing the surrealism. That’s best demonstrated during the scene where The Beatles sing I Should Have Known Better in the baggage car. It starts with them playing cards, and as the song starts to play in the background, it slowly morphs into them singing with all of their instruments in hand. Lester actually shot two versions of the scene, one with the card game, and the other with the instruments, and then cut back and forth between the two during the number. It was a brilliant way to integrate the music in a way that felt organic and natural.
The thin story that exists in A Hard Day’s Night is little more than a framework on which to hang the otherwise disconnected incidents, but it did provide important elements for The Beatles to play against. John, Paul, George, and Ringo were all effortlessly charismatic performers, but they needed antagonists to make the film work—counterculture requires a culture in opposition to it. Owen’s script delivered that in the form of Norm (Norman Rossington) and Shake (John Junkin), the two road managers for The Beatles, as well as the television director (Victor Spinetti) who can’t handle them. Of course, all of that is anchored by Paul’s unruly Grandfather (Wilfrid Brambell), who is really the engine that drives the entire story. Everyone is wonderful, even actors in smaller roles like John Vernon as the older man on the train, or Anna Quayle as the woman with whom John has an amazingly non sequitur filled conversation (a scene that proves Alun Owen could provide some verbal surrealism of his own).
It’s easy to say that A Hard Day’s Night is a time capsule that captures a bygone era, but that’s really a facile observation. The reality is that it captures something far more timeless: life itself. It’s a low-budget black-and-white film that’s far more colorful than the most lavish Technicolor epic, and its energy is boundless. Literary critic Harold Bloom referred to Shakespeare’s Hamlet as a “poem unlimited”, and if that’s true, then A Hard Day’s Night is a film unlimited. There’s no end to the depths of its vitality. Modern movies are cut far more quickly, with more frenzied camerawork, but they don’t have half the energy. Lester had drawn the attention of The Beatles due to his short The Running Jumping & Standing Still Film, but with A Hard Day’s Night, he never took the time to stand still. Even the film’s quietest moments are filled with life and energy.
That limitless vitality is why I chose A Hard Day’s Night as the first film that I watched after having had a very unexpected heart attack a couple of days previous. After staring death in the face, I needed to tap into the endless well of life that the film represents. Nearly six decades after it was made, most of the participants are no longer with us. Hell, half of The Beatles are gone at this point. Yet they’re all still alive on film, captured forever on Eastman Double-X negative, and their vitality can never fade, regardless of what may happen to those elements. Thankfully, the art of digital restoration means that their spirit will never fade for generations to come.
Cinematographer Gilbert Taylor shot A Hard Day’s Night on 35 mm film using multiple Arriflex 35 IIB cameras (with Lester often serving as one of the camera operators for handheld sequences). Tight interior sequences like the ones aboard the train were shot with 14 mm spherical lenses, while 10:1 zooms were used for many other scenes in order to give the operators maximum flexibility in following the action. While the film was shot within a 1.66:1 frame, Lester intended it to be exhibited at 1.75:1, and the print leaders do specify that ratio. Criterion’s 4K Ultra HD release uses the same restoration as their 2014 Blu-ray release, which is at the correct 1.75:1 ratio. The original camera negative was scanned at 4K resolution, although two reels have been lost, so fine grain master positives were used to replace the missing material. Everything was given a new HDR grade, with both HDR10 and Dolby Vision included on the disc. (Note that this is the original theatrical cut of the film, so the I’ll Cry Instead prologue that was created for the 1981 re-release isn’t included here.)
The results are fantastic, though since the extant Blu-ray version was no slouch, the improvements aren’t drastic. Yet they are indeed noticeable. The opening credit sequence with its optically-printed titles looks understandably softer, but once that’s over, everything is beautifully sharp and well-resolved. The grain is even throughout and well-managed by the encoding, and the level of fine detail is subtly improved. That’s immediately obvious in the textures of the clothing worn during the opening scenes on the train, especially the incredibly fine weave on George’s coat, or the herringbone pattern worn by Wilfred Brambell. (In the later scenes, Victor Spinetti’s frizzy sweater also stands out.) The HDR grade allows for a slightly more expansive grayscale, with finely resolved shades of gray that also improves the apparent level of detail. Contrast and black levels are effectively perfect, and there’s little in the way of visible damage. Short of viewing the uncompressed master files, A Hard Day’s Night couldn’t possibly look any better than it does here.
Audio is offered in English 2.0 mono LPCM, English 2.0 stereo LPCM, and English 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio, with optional English SDH subtitles. Doubtless that purists will insist on listening to the mono track, especially those who’ve long preferred the mono versions of the original Beatles albums over the stereo ones. However, that age-old debate isn’t quite applicable here. The mono versions of the albums were the ones that George Martin and The Beatles worked on, with the stereo mixes being hasty afterthoughts done by others, so there’s a definite argument to be made in favor of the mono albums. Yet in this case, the 2.0 stereo and 5.1 tracks for the film were mixed by Giles Martin, who has proved repeatedly that he knows how to take the original recordings and remix them in a way that opens them up significantly, while remaining faithful to the intent of the original mono versions. (If you haven’t heard his mixes of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, The Beatles, Abbey Road, or Let It Be, you’ve missed out.) In this case, it’s best to let Martin’s own words speak for themselves, right out of the enclosed booklet:
“When remixing the Beatles’ songs in stereo and 5.1, our objective is to retain the original spirit, vibrancy, quality, and charm while making subtle improvements to the balance, tonal color, and stereo picture. We employ many of the actual compressors, echo chambers, and plate reverbs used in the original recordings and mixes of these songs. Hopefully, this approach brings authenticity to what we are doing…”
He's right. Shed any preconceptions while trying out his 5.1 mix, and you may be surprised. The music sounds more expansive and livelier, but without losing any of the energy from the mono mixes. The surrounds are mostly used to provide ambience, and they don’t distract from the fronts by steering effects unnaturally. It’s a superb mix that improves on the original mono without taking away from its essential character. Regardless, you can’t go wrong with any of these mixes.
Criterion’s 4K Ultra HD release of A Hard Day’s Night is a 2-disc set that also includes their previous Blu-ray copy of the film. Both discs are housed in a keep case that also includes an 80-page booklet that is nearly identical to the one featured in their Blu-ray set, but with some necessary revisions to the restoration information. The commentary track is duplicated on both discs, with the rest of the extras confined to the Blu-ray only:
DISC ONE (UHD)
- Audio Commentary with Cast and Crew
DISC TWO (BD)
- Audio Commentary with Cast and Crew
- In Their Own Voices (HD – 18:02)
- Anatomy of a Style (HD – 17:07)
- You Can’t Do That: The Making of A Hard Day’s Night (Upscaled HD – 62:10)
- Things They Said Today (Upscaled HD – 36:17)
- Richard Lester: The Running Jumping & Standing Still Film (HD – 11:10)
- Richard Lester: Picturewise (HD – 27:13)
- The Beatles: The Road to A Hard Day’s Night (HD – 27:42)
- 2000 Re-Release Trailer (HD – 2:00)
- 2014 Re-Release Trailer (HD – 1:39)
The extras selection is quite extensive. It begins with an audio commentary with various cast and crew members including, but not limited to, actors John Junkin, David Janson, and Jeremy Lloyd; cinematographer Gilbert Taylor; associate producer Denis O'Dell; second assistant director Barrie Melrose; and assistant editors Pamela Tomling and Roy Benson. There's also the In Their Own Voices featurette, which combines interviews with The Beatles from 1964 with behind-the-scenes footage and photos; Anatomy of a Style, a deconstruction of five music sequences from the film by story editor and screenwriter Bobbie O'Steen and music editor Suzana Peric; the You Can’t Do That: The Making of A Hard Day’s Night documentary from 1994, produced by Walter Shenson and hosted by Phil Collins, which includes an outtake performance by The Beatles; Things They Said Today, a documentary from 2002, produced by Martin Lewis, which includes interviews with, but not limited to, Lester, George Martin, screenwriter Alun Owen, and cinematographer Gilbert Taylor; the aforementioned The Running Jumping & Standing Still Film, Lester’s 1960 Oscar-nominated short film; Picturewise, a segment written and produced by critic and filmmaker David Cairns and narrated by actor Rita Tushingham about Lester’s early work (including an audio interview with the director); The Beatles: The Road to A Hard Day's Night, which is a 2014 interview with author Mark Lewisohn; the 2000 and 2014 re-release trailers; and finally, an 80-page insert booklet featuring cast and crew information; an essay by critic Howard Hampton; excerpts from a 1970 interview with Lester; and restoration information.
Though the bonus materials are excellent, this release certainly doesn't feature all of the extras from previous releases. Not included here from the MPI Home Video DVD release is the 1981 prologue to the re-release of the film set to the song I'll Cry Instead; two British newsreels: Beatlemania Grips Gotham and Beatles Get Show Biz Top Award; the 1981 re-release trailer; trailers for The First US Visit, You Can't Do That!, Help!, and Magical Mystery Tour; text about MPI's restoration of the film, as well as bios on the filmmakers and supporting cast; and a short interview with Lester from the 1960s. The Miramax Collector’s Series 2-disc DVD and Alliance Blu-ray releases featured a digitally restored soundtrack for the film (now trumped by the audio selection on this release); a set of interview featurettes (Their Production Will Be Second to None, With The Beatles, Working Like a Dog, Busy Working Overtime, Listen to the Music Playing in Your Head, Such a Clean Old Man!, I've Lost My Little Girl, Taking Testimonial Pictures, Dressed to the Hilt, Dealing with “The Men from the Press”, They and I Have Memories, and Hitting the Big Time in the USA); and a slew of DVD-ROM features, including two of the film's screenplays, the ability to watch the film while reading them, scrapbooks, roundtable discussions, and access to an archive of Miramax's original web site for the film. Also missing from all releases are the film's original theatrical trailers, TV spots, and radio spots.
A Hard Day’s Night has always had a special place in my heart as one of my very favorite films, for reasons that are shared by many of its fans. Yet thanks to some rather unpleasant external circumstances, it now has an even more special place in my heart—quite literally so, in point of fact. Thanks to this stellar 4K Ultra HD release from The Criterion Collection, A Hard Day’s Night is now livelier than ever, and even those whose hearts are two sizes too small should be able to delight in it. (If you can’t find joy in A Hard Day’s Night, then I’m truly sorry.) Criterion’s set gets the highest possible recommendation from both myself and Tim.
- Stephen Bjork and Tim Salmons