Constructing ‘the Beatles’

Re-viewing these Cliff Richard films serves as a reminder of how shocking some of the early British beat groups must have seemed, at least to the older generation. By the time of Wonderful Life, groups like the Animals, the Rolling Stones and the Yardbirds were already making their way into the charts with a much more raucous, sexy and seemingly rebellious form of rhythm and blues music. However, the most popular of these groups, the Beatles, was perhaps something of a different matter, at least at this point in their career. Here I want to discuss the Beatles’ first two films, A Hard Day’s Night (1964) and Help! (1965). Both were directed by Richard Lester, who had previously worked on translating the zany radio comedy The Goon Show to television; he also directed an early youth-oriented music film It’s Trad, Dad! (1962), featuring representatives of the British traditional jazz boom alongside early rock-and-roll performers.

Made in black and white, A Hard Day’s Night is presented as a quasi-documentary about 36 hours in the life of the band. Hand-held camerawork and jumpy editing give parts of the film an improvisational feel that some have compared to the French ‘Nouvelle Vague’ of the time, and to the documentaries of the British ‘Free Cinema’ movement; although it’s likely that Lester was also influenced by a backstage verité documentary about the band’s first US tour, directed by the Maysles Brothers (broadcast on British TV in February 1964 as Yeah! Yeah! Yeah! The Beatles in New York). The four Beatles (John, Paul, George and Ringo) play ‘themselves’, although the characters who surround them are obviously fictional: many are played by well-known television comedy actors of the time – most notably Wilfred Brambell of the BBC’s Steptoe and Son (1962-65 and 1970-74), who plays Paul’s irascible and badly behaved grandfather and generates a good deal of the comic mayhem. The film begins with the band and their entourage catching a train from their home town of Liverpool to London, pursued by screaming fans; it follows various back stage activities, including rehearsals and a press conference; and at various points, the band escape the control of their manager, for example by sneaking out to a casino and a night club. Later, the drummer Ringo absconds and wanders aimlessly around the city, while the others search for him; and the film culminates in the recording of several songs for a television special, in front of a live (and quite hysterical) audience.

By the time A Hard Day’s Night was released in the Summer of 1964, the Beatles were already enormously successful on both sides of the Atlantic (the so-called ‘British invasion’ began with their appearances on the Ed Sullivan Show in February of that year, which were reportedly watched by 73 million people). The Beatles were apparently not interested in making a ‘rise to fame’ movie, along the lines of the Elvis films, or a traditional musical like Summer Holiday. Indeed at one point in the film John ironically exclaims ‘Hey kids, I’ve got a great idea! Why don’t we put on the show right here!’ – although in fact there are elements of the backstage musical here. Ultimately, though, both this film and Help! are more concerned with the perils of fame once it is achieved, rather than with showing how it arises.

The film was made quickly and inexpensively, and for the express purpose of generating a lucrative soundtrack album. As with Elvis and Cliff, feature films were part of the band’s multimedia marketing strategy, driven by their manager Brian Epstein: by this point, Beatles merchandise already included lunchboxes, toys and puzzles, wigs, action figures, posters and other fan paraphernalia, and would shortly extend to TV cartoons. Epstein was carefully shaping the band as lovable ‘mop tops’ suitable for a mass audience: the rock-and-roll edginess of their earliest work was smoothed out in favour of a wholesome, family-friendly image, and the leather jackets were replaced by distinctive smart-casual ‘Beatles suits’.

Another key aim of A Hard Day’s Night was to differentiate the members of a band that had hitherto been seen largely as a single entity. The four Beatles were given ‘personalities’ that may or may not have reflected their real identities (although how one might ever know that remains a moot point); and it was these personalities that remained with them for the rest of their careers. The film shows the band interacting as a group, and in performance, but each of them is also given a sequence that is intended to provide them with some individuality – although Paul’s sequence ended up on the cutting room floor. Thus, John is characterized by his sarcastic intelligence; Paul by his good looks and boyish charm; George is ‘the quiet one’; while Ringo is affable and funny, as well as being the butt of much of the others’ repartee. In order to ensure their imaginary availability, the band are all single: there are occasional flirtatious looks and remarks, and a little sexual innuendo, but there was no question of showing them as being romantically involved (despite the fact that John had married in 1962).

While the film purports to show the ‘real’ backstage lives of the Beatles, it says remarkably little about the operations of the music business (for example when compared with Loving You or Expresso Bongo, or even Jailhouse Rock). Norm, their manager, and Shake, their road manager, are more like long-suffering parents or teachers than business-like Svengalis; while the harassed TV director is also played primarily for laughs (his middle-class ‘media-type’ status amply signalled by his absurd mohair sweater). Nevertheless, the film also shows the Beatles as effectively imprisoned by their success. In the opening sequences, they are shown running from their rapacious fans, using various forms of disguise and deception. As Paul’s grandfather notes, their apparently exciting lives seem to consist of ‘a train and a room, and a car and a room, and a room and a room’: they are constantly moving, but they are almost always trapped.

The band are frequently seen attempting to escape, and in one of the most notable sequences, they abscond from a press conference and burst though a fire escape (‘we’re out!’ shouts Ringo): we then see them playing and running about on a recreation ground, shot largely in fast motion, and with some pixellation. (Snappily edited to the hit song ‘Can’t Buy Me Love’, but without lip-synch, this section is characteristic of the visual style and play with realism developed in Lester’s previous work, and is often credited as the origin of the contemporary music video.) Meanwhile, Ringo’s ‘personality’ sequence – which is much the longest and most naturalistic of the three – finds him donning disguise and wandering along the banks of the Thames, to a vaguely melancholic instrumental accompaniment (‘This Boy’), again escaping in order to rediscover his ‘real’ identity.

At the same time, there is a notable preoccupation with the visual and media construction of the band’s image. The performance sequences particularly emphasise the process of production: we see sound booms and cameras, and there is a recurring focus on the multiple screens of the vision mixing desk. There are also occasional ‘deliberate mistakes’ in continuity: the band members swap instruments, or sing each other’s lines. Shot with multiple cameras, often using large close-ups and unexpected camera angles, these sequences were also strikingly innovative for their time, and have been highly influential ever since.

This image construction is a phenomenon that the Beatles occasionally resist. At the press conference, they offer facetious or sarcastic replies to the journalists’ questions; and while they satirise the neurotic TV producer, they do of course bring off the performance successfully. At one point, George accidentally wanders into the office of a kind of youth style guru, where he makes a point of rejecting the man’s contemptuous assumptions about the teenage market; he describes the company’s resident teenage model as a ‘posh bird who gets everything wrong’. Meanwhile, John’s individual ‘personality’ sequence consists of a dialogue with a woman he meets backstage, as various performers go back and forth in costume. The woman recognizes him but isn’t able to place him, and an absurdist dialogue follows: ‘you look just like him’ she says, although she isn’t sure who he is – and John eventually concludes ‘she looks more like him than I do’. At the very end of the film, as the Beatles leave in a helicopter, photographs of the band that Paul’s grandfather has been trying to sell (complete with forged signatures) float down to the ground; and the film closes with a montage of still images of the band.

To some extent, the Beatles are seen to resist the authority of the older generation, although this resistance is mostly comical rather than more directly challenging. In their train carriage, they are joined by a bowler-hatted businessman who attempts to assert himself (they argue about closing the window, and the noise from their radio). When he blusters ‘I fought the War for your sort’, Ringo quips back ‘I bet you’re sorry you won’. Yet their challenge to authority is ultimately fairly tame. They talk back, and provide some sharp one-liners in their best deadpan Liverpudlian accents; but when their mucking about is curtailed, for example by the park-keeper at the recreation ground, or by Norm, their manager, they are always amenable. The Beatles are certainly cheeky and playful, but they are more like naughty boys than juvenile delinquents, let alone youth revolutionaries. If anything, it is the character of Paul’s grandfather who emerges as the true force of disorder, in a kind of generational reversal – a ‘senile delinquent’ perhaps. In one notable scene, when he is apprehended (along with Ringo) by the police, he retorts with a burst of Irish nationalist rhetoric.

A Hard Day’s Night achieved great critical acclaim and box office success on its release, and has remained massively popular: it features repeatedly on lists of the best British films of all time. (The noted US critic Andrew Sarris famously described it as ‘the Citizen Kane of jukebox musicals’.) While nostalgia might account for some of this, the film still appears fresh and innovative fifty-five years later – and remarkably more contemporary than many of the other pop films of the period. Nevertheless, in terms of my interests here, it is also a film that wants to have its cake and eat it. It purports to be realistic and authentic, and to expose the image-making process: yet, like the other films I’ve discussed, it actively participates in that process itself. It works to construct the ‘personalities’ of the four Beatles, providing the illusion that we are getting to know them as they really are – and of course it also offers ample opportunities to gaze adoringly at them, often in large close-up. Its self-reflexivity doesn’t really endanger its basic aims.

Likewise, the film allows the Beatles to send up adult authority, and occasionally to escape its constraints; although ultimately they remain little more than loveable mop-tops, whom you would be quite happy to take home to meet your mother. Having said this, the film’s final performance sequence does cross some lines in this respect. Especially in the closing number, the editing gradually shifts the focus of attention from the band itself to the live audience; and here we see actual documentary footage of individual girls screaming out to their idols, many of them breaking down in tears. The ‘Beatlemania’ that is captured in the staged sequences of fans chasing the band right at the start of the film now returns, but with an almost troubling edge. What is going on here, it seems to ask. Of course, subsequent critics have offered various answers to this. Barbara Ehrenreich and her colleagues claim that Beatlemania was an assertion of ‘an active, powerful female sexuality’, a form of protest and defiance that was the first ‘uprising of the women’s sexual revolution’ – and there could be some evidence for that here.

Following the success of the Beatles’ first film, the following year’s Help! enjoyed a much larger budget – some might say too large for its own good. While some elements are effectively carried over from A Hard Day’s Night – Lester’s emerging ‘music video’ style in particular – this is in many respects a much more overblown and tiresome film. It combines musical elements with an elaborate plot reminiscent of the James Bond secret agent thrillers (which were becoming very fashionable at this time), or indeed the camp excesses of television’s Batman and The Avengers. The influence of Lester’s previous work with the Goons – the zany humour, slapstick and cinematic trickery – is also much more in evidence: along with the absurdist dialogue, there are ironic captions and incidental music, as well as a wearying plethora of secret weapons and gadgets, elaborate costumes, stunts and chase sequences. While the film was a commercial success – which would have been hard to avoid – the critical response was much more lukewarm.

Very briefly, the story centres on a ring that Ringo has been secretly sent by a fan. The ring is needed as part of a sacrificial ritual to be conducted by an Asian religious cult; but because he cannot remove the ring, Ringo becomes next in line for sacrifice. The cult members give chase to Ringo, using a range of devious means in their efforts to retrieve the ring; and they are subsequently joined in this by a mad scientist and his bumbling assistant. One female cult member, Ahme, changes sides and seeks to thwart them. The picaresque pursuit takes the film to a range of locations, including the Austrian Alps, Buckingham Palace, Salisbury Plain (where they are caught up in army exercises) and eventually the Bahamas.

The Beatles again play ‘themselves’ (at least as established by A Hard Day’s Night), but they are not seen primarily as musicians or performers: there is an album to record, but the film effectively loses sight of this as it proceeds. Musical performances in various locations are repeatedly interrupted by plot shenanigans, and there is very little Beatles music in the final twenty minutes. As John Lennon reportedly said several years later, the Beatles felt rather like extras in their own film; although their lack of interest in the proceedings was accentuated by their consumption of considerable amounts of marijuana, which they had recently discovered (and which is briefly acknowledged in a scene where they are seen smoking hookah pipes).

As in A Hard Day’s Night, there are occasional references to the pressures of fame. Right at the start of the film, they draw up in a Rolls Royce, and are spotted by two elderly working-class ladies; ‘they’re so natural,’ one of them says, ‘and still the same as they was before they was’. Yet as the Beatles enter their adjoining front doors, what we expected to be four separate houses are revealed as one single dwelling, with a range of high-tech facilities and luxury modern accoutrements resembling a James Bond-style bachelor pad. As in A Hard Day’s Night, the Beatles seem equally constrained or trapped – although in this case not so much by fame as by the evil forces who are pursuing them.

To an even greater extent than its predecessor, Help! locates the Beatles within mainstream light entertainment. Most of the other parts are played by well-known comedy and character actors, and many of the settings seem to come from TV sitcoms and conventional British film comedy. Once again, there are some choice Liverpudlian one-liners, but the sarcasm and mild rebelliousness apparent in A Hard Day’s Night has largely been subsumed in self-consciously ‘zany’ humour. The film would certainly win few awards for political correctness: with the exception of Ahme, women appear largely as marginal decoration, and the portrayal of Eastern religions is astonishingly patronizing, not to mention the frequent use of white characters in blackface.

Any ‘indigenous’ sense of youth culture is entirely absent here: this is unthreatening entertainment, suitable for all the family. At least at this point, there are some similarities between the Beatles’ direction of travel and that of Cliff Richard, although they would significantly diverge a year or so later. Like Cliff, the Beatles quickly became part of the British ‘establishment’ – they were awarded MBEs in 1965 – although some of them clearly struggled with this, and sought to break away from it (with mixed results) as the decade progressed. Indeed, for some critics, the Beatles were little more than an early ‘boy band’: John Muncie, for example, argues that they are best seen as forerunners of the Osmonds, New Kids on the Block and Boyzone, rather than as rock revolutionaries. Certainly when compared with some of their contemporaries, they seem to represent a kind of healthy exuberance that is far from dangerous or challenging: ‘youth as fun’ once again.


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