This Post Originally appeared in Cinematography World magazine’s Letter From America column, Issue 006 , November 2021
“What’s your all-time favorite movie?”
If you’re like me, that’s the last question you want to hear. It puts you on the spot because expectations are high. As a professional cinematographer, people often think I have an inside line on what’s relevant or meaningful. The truth is, I don’t. What I do have is an enormous storehouse of references and impressions, many of which have touched me deeply and somehow express themselves through my work. When pressed I tend to deflect the issue with some comment about having too many full-blown idols to put any one of them on the pedestal. But hidden in this is something defensive, an element of self-protection. Most would be surprised at how pedestrian my cinematic tastes can sometimes run.
The fluidity with which all these movies trade positions of esteem depends upon the moment you approach me. Though I continue to take from them in personal and professional ways, you’ll appreciate that imposing a pecking order creates a fool’s paradise. It would be like trying to anoint your ‘most favorite favorite’ Beatles song. The thought of it leads to exhaustion!
Which brings me in an appropriately roundabout way to a movie that has rated close to the top of every list I’ve been forced to contrive. As unlikely as it may seem, A Hard Days Night – admittedly, a trifle if there ever was one – does exactly what the genuinely memorable should: it presents people, events, a time and a place in ways that tell as much about life outside the narrative as within it. The further I go into my career is the more I’m fascinated by the overall texture of the image. In this way, this cheap exploitation film memorialized one of the most exciting periods of the twentieth century.
Directed by Richard Lester and photographed by the brilliant Gilbert Taylor, BSC, it’s often hailed as the first music video; in fact, a number of efforts from the 1950’s have claim to that honor. But what those cheeky pioneers were missing (in addition to The Beatles) was something Albert Einstein once observed as common to all geniuses: the good sense to have appeared at the right time. A Hard Days Night could not have burst upon the scene at a more perfect juncture in history. Baby boomers were reaching maturity and a youth-driven culture was beginning to consume the world. Fueled by the expansion of mass communications, science and technology, jet travel, sexual freedom, the recreational use of drugs and ever more radical shifts in fashion and the arts, society in 1964 would have been unrecognizable to anyone only a few years prior.
A great deal of credit for our perception of that era must go to Taylor’s workman-like yet gorgeous black and white cinematography. Though it’s often referred to in documentary terms, that’s setting a low bar. It’s romantic immediacy – which is hard to accomplish in a big budget movie let alone one conceived as a money grab. Granted, the planets were lined up for him. The script was clever, Lester was a hot talent and the band members were natural actors at the first peak of the mania they introduced. Despite what I’m sure were formidable temptations, there’s no self-consciousness to his approach. In re-creating a wild, once-in-a-lifetime experience, Taylor’s clean, unadorned style retains the personal and familiar: you sense the hand-made nature of the effort (in fact, a hand-held Arri 2C was his primary camera!). Our jaded eyes of 2021 might tell us sincerity and innocence are lost to modern cinema, but that’s exactly what registers through the photography of A Hard Days Night.
Proof of this comes in the comparison to films made around the same time by the other British Invasion groups. They’re appalling! The Beatles’ own follow-up, 1965’s Help! (once again directed by Lester and shot by David Watkins, BSC) doesn’t even compete in the same way. The spark of the previous year is no longer there; everything seems forced and put upon. The boys’ understandable weariness is on full display and the rush to get it done permeates every frame. It’s still fun, but along with the innocence the thrill of discovering something new is gone. Years later, George Harrison partially attributed that loss to the group’s engagement with “the herbal jazz cigarettes.” Whatever the reasons, they only serve to magnify the exuberant emotions evoked by Taylor’s work on A Hard Days Night.
I had the great pleasure of speaking to him in 2006 when he accepted the ASC’s International Achievement Award. As the shooter of Dr. Strangelove, Repulsion, Cul-de-Sac and Frenzy – not to mention Star Wars – he was surprised by my intense interest in his Beatles film. “There was no roadmap and we had no idea any of it would last,” I recall him saying. “In the middle chaos, we made up much of it as we went along. But it worked out alright. It’s really what it was like at that time.”
Proof positive… If The Beatles hadn’t gone on to become legends, A Hard Days Night would likely have been forgotten along with Having a Wild Weekend, Hold On! and Ferry Cross the Mersey. Instead, we have a fascinating pop-culture time capsule that
nearly sixty years later remains emblematic. That it can also lift the most dour of spirits is yet another of its wonderful rewards.
Are bits of the movie dated? Absolutely. Does the question “What’s your all-time favorite movie?” still rankle? Certainly! But after writing this piece I’m starting to feel some wobble. If I were so disposed to make a choice, I think A Hard Days Night just might be the one!