The First Days of Disco


A Hard Day’s Night, rereleased this week at Film Forum, is hardly a great film. But as the movie that first projected the Beatles as something other than the lucky beneficiaries of a mindless teenage fad, it’s laden with cultural significance.

To be specific, Richard Lester’s mock cinema verité account of a day and a half in the life of the world’s most famous rock’n’roll band created a heady mixed-media synesthesia between pop art, pop music, new wave cinema, and new generation megalomania: The modern had become the mod. Tallyho, the ’60s were under way!

Thirty-six years after its release, as publishers continue to cash in on (and pundits remain pleased to ponder the meaning of) Al Gore’s favorite musicians, A Hard Day’s Night has never seemed more familiar, nor more remarkable in its prescience. As directed by Lester, an expatriate American with considerable experience in TV spots, the movie is recognizable today as a feature-length music video. No previous rocksploitation film had ever done so splendid a job of selling its performers. In addition to everything else, the Beatles can be said to have enjoyed the benefits of MTV decades before its invention.

Whose genius brainstorm? In 1963, George Ornstein, United Artists’ European production chief, was on a roll, having engineered such Anglo-American triumphs as the first James Bond films and Tony Richardson’s exuberantly new wave adaptation of Tom Jones. The latter picture had just gone into release when Ornstein met with Brian Epstein to discuss making a low-budget quickie starring the hot new group that Epstein was managing. Although the Beatles’ fourth single, “She Loves You,” was atop the British charts, the eruption of full-scale Beatlemania (conventionally dated to the evening of October 13, 1963, when the Fab Four topped the bill at the London Palladium as ticketless fans rioted outside) was several months away.

A Hard Day’s Night did not go into production until the Beatles returned from their successful American tour the following March. Beatlemania was the film’s subject. No dopey Elvis plot or “a star is born” nonsense for these lads. The Beatles play themselves, and the movie introduces them running from their crazed followers. (The screenplay was supplied by Alun Owen, an Irish-Welsh actor-playwright who, although somewhat older than the Beatles, had grown up in Liverpool, just down the road from Paul McCartney.) Feedback is a given. There’s scarcely a riff in the movie that doesn’t in some way refer to the group’s immense, confounding, and perhaps revolutionary fame. When the band goes out dancing, it’s to their own music.

Even the movie’s title came from one of Ringo’s fortunate malapropisms. A Hard Day’s Night presents a realm in which the Beatles (who are more or less the exclusive representatives of their generational cohort) appear to be the only sane inhabitants. On one hand, the foursome are skeptical children in a ridiculous adult world; on the other, as parents don’t exist and the band’s admirers are mainly preadolescent kids, the Beatles appear as that world’s only possible role models and authorities. (They are helped here by two memorable comic performances: Victor Spinelli’s dithering TV director and, particularly, Wilfrid Brambell’s turn as Paul’s obstreperous and programmatically juvenile grandfather.)

A Hard Day’s Night had its British premiere in July 1964 (a few purists compared it unfavorably with the Maysles brothers’ authentic verité documentary of the Beatles in America) and its even more rapturous U.S. opening a month later. New York Times critic Bosley Crowther began his review on a cautionary note: “This is going to surprise you. It may knock you right out of your chair—but the new film with those incredible chaps, the Beatles, is a whale of a comedy. I wouldn’t believe it either, if I hadn’t seen it with my own astonished eyes.” Elsewhere, the movie was compared (a bit condescendingly) to Citizen Kane, and the Beatles were commonly, if misleadingly, hailed as the new Marx Brothers. Not since Mickey Mouse had a pop phenomenon so captivated the intelligentsia.

Although the movie was much commented on for its frantic handheld camera, Lester settles down drastically after the first scene into a succession of strategic aerial overheads and undercranked antics. Much of the humor, some of it still fresh, is predicated on the deadpan Liverpudlian reiteration of running jokes, as well as comic pursuits and funny faces. There is an abundance of adorable close-ups. For all their apparent relaxed spontaneity, the boys—or at least John and Paul—can be annoyingly smug. Still, possessing a new sort of infectious happy cool, these neophyte movie stars seem supremely poised. (In this they were helped by the filmmakers’ willingness to indulge on-set Beatle improvisation and, even more, by a montage constructed to showcase clever one-liners in individual shots.)

A Hard Day’s Night served to integrate the Beatles into the nouvelle vague. More than simply the deployment of kicky, “now” technique, this was a matter of attitude. Like the principal characters in Breathless or Shoot the Piano Player, perhaps even more so, the Beatles are characters who are blatantly living in a movie. A Hard Day’s Night is all about image—cameras and TV monitors are near ubiquitous. What’s amazing from the perspective of 2000 is that this self-reflexivity hardly seems cynical. Indeed, the term guileless is barely innocent enough to describe these prehistoric antics.

Those with an archaeological interest in the origin of the disco and other relics of the high ’60s might avail themselves of the Jud Yalkut retro at the Whitney. The installation “Yin/Yang sine/pulse,” a Mylar-wallpapered chamber designed by Yalkut as part of the multimedia collective USCO, in which movies of light patterns and entwined naked bodies are projected on three rotating weather balloons, is now down, but, this weekend only, the museum will be presenting Yalkut’s 50-minute “film journal,” Metamedia.

Faded beneath its multiple superimpositions, overly fond of zooms and single-frame pixelation, Yalkut’s avant-garde home movie is a fascinating recording of various USCO-theques and other late-’60s multimedia environments. The craziest is a wonderfully mod-looking, celeb-and-fashionista-stocked opening party at the Jewish Museum, where USCO evidently concocted the multimedia aspect of the exhibit “Lower East Side: Past and Present.” There are also Timothy Leary’s appropriately tacky 1966 psychedelic celebration, “The Resurrection of Christ,” staged in the then happening East Village; a 1968 projected laser show by E.A.T. (Experiments in Art and Technology); a more hands-on occurrence staged by Carolee Schneeman; the whirling bikini-clad chaos of the Living Theatre’s BAM performance of Paradise Now; the sparsely attended American premiere of Hermann Nitsch’s Orgy-Mystery Theatre at the Film-maker’s Cinematheque; and a Yayoi Kusama event involving black light and fluorescent body paint.

Kusama was a particular Yalkut associate. His magnum opus, the 1967 Kusama’s Self-Obliteration, will be showing Saturday only; it’s less a movie than a chunk of the social moment. For those who miss this acid flashback, the Sunday program includes a three-minute commissioned film featuring the Lovin’ Spoonful. The band was once imagined as the American Beatles; here they do their best to enact the Beatlesque by haphazardly rehearsing, clowning around Central Park, goofing on squares, and otherwise making like the denizens of a low-rent Hard Day’s Night.

The pop culture of the ’70s was, in good measure, a massification of the previous decade’s populist avant-garde—Haight-Ashbury repackaged as the 2001 Disco in Saturday Night Fever. It’s a matter of historical conjecture whether the first full-fledged, sensory-overload New York disco was the sockadelic strobe, moiré, and Mylar environment that USCO created in early 1966 for a Long Island club modestly called the World or if it was the more hysterical multimedia assault known as the “Exploding Plastic Inevitable” that Andy Warhol and associates launched the same season on St. Marks Place. In any case, it seems appropriate that the American Museum of the Moving Image would wind up “Visions of New York,” its retrospective of the ’60s underground, with a program devoted to the EPI that includes documentary recordings and a perverse Velvet Underground nonperformance film, as well as other underground movies that may (or may not) have been projected on the walls and ceilings of the cavernous former Polish National Home.