© Copyright 1988, Glenn Chase
Auteurist Style and Ideological Views
in the Beatles Films of Richard Lester
RTF 370/ Ramirez-Berg
August 14, 1988
Auteurist Style and Ideological Views
in the Beatles Films of Richard Lester
The Beatles films of Richard Lester are generally considered comedic entertainment, with some of the best pop music ever featured on celluloid. Closer examination of "A Hard Day's Night" and "Help!" reveals a unique style of parody that satirizes the adult generation, and promotes not just the Beatles, but the spirit of youth. There is far more than sheer marketing, slapstick comedy, and great music in these films.
In examining "A Hard Day's Night" and "Help!" I believe it is important to view Lester's auteurist style, his social outlook within the context of early and mid-sixties Great Britain, and how those films revolutionized the genre of the "jukebox musical."
"A Hard Day's Night" was originally produced by United Artists to cash in on the phenomenon known as "Beatlemania," a condition the New York Times called "juvenile madness...the current spreading craze of otherwise healthy young people for the four British lads with the shaggy hair." Virtually all of the adult observers believed that the Beatles were just a passing fad, and United Artists wanted "A Hard Day's Night" finished within three months to exploit the market while it lasted.
Today it is difficult to believe that Richard Lester met that deadline and managed to create what Andrew Sarris has labeled "the 'Citizen Kane' of jukebox musicals." The companion film, "Help!" was less critically received, but like "Hard Day's Night," enormously profitable. Both Beatle films are reflections of Lester's strong alliance with the younger generation in Britain that was only beginning to assert itself at the time.
Lester's style was the perfect accompaniment to the youthful exuberance blossoming in Britain around Beatlemania, an attitude his films helped export to the United States. His cinematic style was one of trendy, contemporary satire, with innovative editing, a moving, probing camera, and frames visually packed with scenery, gags, and action.
Much of Lester's auteurist style was cultivated from his early experience in live television and TV commercials. The latter, especially, requires an impression to be made quickly and economically, a trait that gives Lester's Beatle films a brisk pace and a feeling of spontaneity.
Lester is also an avid admirer of Buster Keaton's silent slapstick, and often emulates it. The "Hard Day's Night" field sequence to "Can't Buy Me Love," which features the Beatles romping and playing is an example of this, as are Ringo's adventures strolling about town when he takes Grandfather McCartney's advice to go "paradin.'" The scene in "Help!" where one of the Beatles attempts to bullfight a locomotive during the "Ticket to Ride" musical sequence is a virtual carbon copy of Keaton in "The General." The great admiration for Keaton is also responsible for Lester's strong role as an auteur in his films. In an interview he stated:
"...with Keaton, the camera very delicately was always at the right place at the right time and the space around the performer seemed to matter. It matters terribly to me. And because of it I feel that I must be involved in the creation of that space. I must choose the setups, I must choose the distance the camera is from a person, the way the person looks, what kind of sound is coming from his mouth."
Lester's role in creating his personal vision extended to shooting many of the scenes in both Beatle movies himself. About "Hard Day's Night" he says,
"My whole first day I didn't let the operator touch the camera, because I wanted them to know how I intended to go on."
Lester was also the operator for the key camera on Paul during the "If I Fell" sequence. To achieve the smoothness he wanted for the scene, Lester suspended the camera with a rope to move it around. The result is one of the most tender moments in the film, and shows Lester's ability to interpret musical sequences with compassion for the material and the artist. Lester's editing style of cutting to the beat of the music today is seen in every MTV video, and his pioneering influence is documented when you see Beatle "videos" that are nothing more than excerpts of the musical sequences from "Help!" and "Hard Day's Night."
Lester's attitude about his role in directing films is one that he never willingly compromises. He says:
"Ideally, a film should be one person, doing it all. And I think that the closer a director can come to that, the better the film he makes. A director's job...is to be an absolute dictator and produce a personal vision...he must be absolutely ruthless in producing an accurate vision. He must be a dilettante and interfere in every part of the production, and it must finally succeed or fail on the success or failure of his own personal vision."
Lester's all-encompassing influence on the Beatle films extended to creating most of the visual gags. Although it is difficult to believe, Lester claims that he never pre-plans his shooting scenarios, preferring to construct the rhythm of his films in the editing room.
"Directing is an editing process...you try a whole series of visual images, you edit out what doesn't seem to be honest or doesn't seem to be fair. I go with very little preparation into the actual shooting and work by instinct. In the editing, it's a matter of painful self-analysis."
Many people, critics included, credited the Fab Four with the success of "A Hard Day's Night," claiming that Lester's most important effort in the film was keeping out of it and letting the camera capture the Beatles natural irreverence and humor. Lester disputes that claim, and his opinion is corroborated by many. Lester claims authorship for virtually all of the visual gags in "Hard Day's Night," saying about the Beatles:
"They are marvelously free, but they don't create things. If you give them the barest glimmer, they can build on it. But they won't create, won't suggest. It wasn't in their nature to suggest, in this, nor in 'Help!'"
Lester's role in both of the Beatles films, then, was that of a true auteur. His influences ranged across all aspects of the film, especially in the areas that openly satirized the dominant ideology of the older generation in Great Britain. "A Hard Day's Night" and "Help!" are thus reflections of not only Lester's style of film making, but also his view of British society.
Lester was fascinated with the Beatles as representatives of lower class Britain transcending dominant class barriers and intimidation. "A Hard Day's Night," and to a lesser extent, "Help!" are both films that make strong sociological statements about the rise of the young generation in Great Britain during the ealy sixties. Lester said:
"I prefer the social attitudes of the young people to the disapproval of their parents. If you deal with a subject, you have to take sides somewhere, so I've chosen the side I have the most sympathy for and therefore I suppose it could be called anarchy because it is a youth revolution."
"Hard Day's Night" is, in fact, a series of satirical sketches that poke fun at the older generation and promote the Beatles (as representatives of youth) as not only "fab" and "gear," but in the end, wiser than all of the adults they must deal with. Lester's targets of satire are primarily show business and the older generation, with every adult character the object of parody or ridicule.
In recognizing Lester's portrayal of the superiority of youth, note first that there are no parents anywhere to be found in either Beatle film. Grandfather McCartney, the "clean old man," is actually a scheming old goat on the make for sex and profit, and is Lester's representative of the parental generation. It is notable that the Beatles are never presented as concerned with gaining greater wealth or success, it is always the older generation surrounding them that is infatuated with greed. Like a parent, manager Norm is always pestering the boys to straighten up and stop clowning around. The Beatles constantly try to escape adult supervision, and the "Can't Buy Me Love" sequence in the field and the club scene where the Beatles dance playfully to "I'm Happy Just to Dance With You" show the Fab Four joyfully escaping the responsibility demanded by the adult world. The lyrics accompanying the field sequence reject the capitalist notion of wealth equaling success and happiness: "I don't care too much for money, money can't buy me love."
Perhaps the clearest confrontation between the dominant ideology of the older generation and misunderstood youth occurs early in the film when the Beatles encounter a bullying businessman (Johnson) in their train compartment. In the scene Paul argues to listen to pop music on Ringo's radio: "We're a community, like, a majority vote. Up the workers and all that stuff!" while John leers at Johnson and simpers "Give us a kiss!" When he responds "I fought the war for your sort!" Ringo defies his false superiority with "Bet you're sorry you won!"
Lester points out the importance of this scene in counterposing the Beatles as youth and the businessman as the older generation:
"He (the businessman) is all part of this, why the film was made. I mean this is the most obvious reference to it...you can see quite clearly their behavior and people's attitudes towards them and the way they are being treated and so on."
Even more representative of the social conflict between youth and adults is how Lester shows the older generation as exploiting the spirit of youth for their own profit. The most obvious example of this is Paul's Grandfather, who forges autographed Beatles pictures to sell in front of the theatre. Several other characters act as exploiters as well; the neurotic television director who seeks to advance his own fame, and the blatantly feminine clothing designer that claims to be in touch with young minds so well as to predict the next change in fads. To George he proclaims, "Now, you'll like these (shirts). You really 'dig' them. They're 'fab' and all the other pimply hyperboles." George tells it like it is, calling them "dead grotty," and Simon characterizes the exploitation of youth by the adult generation when he replies:
"Here's this kid trying to give me his utterly valueless opinion when I know for a fact within four weeks he'll be suffering from a violent inferiority complex and loss of status because he isn't wearing one of these things. Of course they're grotty, you wretched nit, that's why they were designed, but that's what you'll want."
The press conference where the boys must suffer through the inane questioning by the media is another case where Lester shows the exploitation of youth by the greedy older generation. The Beatles can't even get a sandwich at their own reception, and are treated condescendingly by reporters that ask questions like "What would you call that haircut?" to which George deadpans, "Arthur."
Since "Hard Day's Night" had the look of cinema verite', the Beatle personalities were considered true to life by the audience. It let the Beatles be themselves, and highlighted their wit and Liverpudlian charm. While "Hard Day's Night" was a series of satirical sketches, "Help!" was pure fantasy, a series of visual gags with a silly plot that allowed Lester to feature the boys in numerous exotic locales. The criticism of adult culture is not as overt in this film, but Lester extends his satire and biting social wit to include a number of revered British institutions, as well as most of the trendy topics of the day.
In "Help!" Lester tries to satirize the Jame Bond spy thriller genre, with mad scientists, all sorts of technical gadgetry, and a plot that involves the Fab Four in a chase sequence that only stops to let them sing a song now and then. There is less depth, less dialogue, and greater dependence on the visual elements, a fact that caused John Lennon to remark that "The Beatles made guest appearances in our own film." Lester's satire is reduced to silly parodies of mad science/technology, religion, Scotland Yard, British police, military, and royalty.
Still, his portrayal of youthful spirit as superior to the dominant ideology of the older generation remains, but with the biting edge of a loss of innocence. "Hard Day's Night" presented the boys as resenting being packaged and sold, even though that was exactly what the film was doing. "Help!" shows the Beatles arriving home in a long black limo, and living in an ostentatious flat complete with vending machines and sunken bedroom. They are obviously not the same representatives of the "lower class." Lester defends "Help!" as being a film which he couldn't make any other way:
"We didn't want to repeat "Hard Day's Night," so we couldn't show them at work on tour. They were not allowed to have girlfriends, drink, smoke, or do what they really did in their leisure time. Therefore we had to end up making them totally passive...the camera had to be the star of the film."
Nevertheless, there are scenes reminiscent of the train car where the boys as youth engage the older generation in combat and win. When the Scotland Yard inspector questions John, "How long do you think you'll last?" he replies, "What about Scotland Yard, then?" The scientists, British Army, and Palace Guard are all bumbling adults that need help from the wiser Beatles. The difference is that the Beatles' exuberance seems more forced than natural, and you can discern the cynicism in the lyrics of their songs. The title song, in particular, references youth and innocence as something lost.
Lester's attitudes about society as they are portrayed in his Beatles films help document a social outlook that was indeed being revolutionized in the youthful "Swinging London" of the early sixties. As Lester says:
"There was a feeling that anything could be achieved, that the class structure was breaking down, that there was a new opportunity for education and a new opportunity for the structure of life in England."
It should come as no surprise, then, that "A Hard Day's Night" carried social messages far more distinct and radical than any "pop music" movie that preceded it. Lester singlehandedly revised the jukebox musical genre by introducing elements of realism and social comment that no director had dared to before him. His two Beatles films, with "The Graduate," are considered among the first to be openly critical of adult culture and established definitions of success and happiness. These films were the first to treat young people as intelligent persons, and Lester's efforts to promote youth as a vibrant, superior spirit is all the more admirable when you realize that he did it within the context of films that were meant to exploit youth. Lester was impressed with the determination of youth to assert their individuality in the world of adult-dominated ideology, and he likened that attitude to a scene that he shot for "Help!" The counterpart to "Hard Day's Night's" field sequence is a skiing scene with the Beatles romping on the snowy slopes to the tune of "Ticket to Ride." None could ski, and Lester told them to go and learn to ski, as he kept his cameras rolling.
Of that experience, he says:
"They attacked that bloody snowy mountain until they could stand up. John especially just attacked it. And it was that confidence and determination that spread throughout England. If there was a kernel, it was to somehow try and capture that."
Lester's auteurist style was a fortuitous match for the cheeky charm of the Liverpool foursome that infected Great Britain and later most of the world with a new way of looking at life through the eyes of the young. His cinematic innovations rejected the popular conventions that had been established in the Elvis Presley and beach music films, and allied him as a true proponent of a youthful revolution.
DiFranco, J. Philip, Editor. The Beatles in Richard Lester's "A Hard Day's Night." 1977.
Ehrenstein, David, and Reed, Bill. Rock on Film. 1982.
Gelmis, Joseph. The Film Director as Superstar. 1970.
Rosenfeldt, Diane. Richard Lester, a Guide to References and Resources. 1978
Sinyard, Neil. The Films of Richard Lester. 1985.
Walker, Alexander. Hollywood, U.K., The British Film Industry in the Sixties. 1974.
© Copyright 1988, Glenn Chase