Posts Tagged ‘music’

Beatles

UK 1964

Director: Richard Lester

Screenplay: Alun Owen

Runtime: 87 mins

An enduring classic is re-released in a restored version

Clang!! This greatest of all pop music films opens with the resounding chime of the greatest chord in pop music, a chord that renders the title track instantly recognisable to millions of people worldwide. As the rest of the song plays over the opening credits, we see The Beatles being chased by their fans, indicating the frenetic lifestyle that is documented throughout the rest of the film.

Now showing in a newly-restored version, A Hard Day’s Night stands alone from any pop music film made before or since. On the surface, it presents a fictionalised day-in-the-life story about the preparation for a television variety show, in which The Beatles will be the headlining act. In order to add some episodes of dramatic conflict, the writer Alun Owen introduces the character of Paul’s scheming grandfather (“a real villain, a mixer”), played by Wilfred Brambell, who drives other characters to behave in ways that threaten to derail the TV show.

However, Owen also shows us the flipside of fame, in which the world’s most famous musicians are constantly seeking to escape from the demands placed upon them. He also delivers some sly satire on the manufacture of teenage fashion. And visually the film is a treat. Much has been made of Richard Lester’s borrowings from the French new wave cinema of the time, but it is possible to overplay this influence. Other more conventional techniques are also deployed to great effect and the heralded “Can’t Buy Me Love” sequence obviously borrows from Lester’s own 1960 work, The Running, Jumping & Standing Still Film (a favourite of The Beatles themselves).

There is a very beautiful shot in the “And I Love Her” sequence, when the camera slowly pans around McCartney’s head until a spotlight begins to make the screen white-out, until eventually we see a nicely backlit profile of Paul. This reinforces the dreamy nature of the song itself. During the same song there is also a nice shot of John sitting in the background playing the guitar, whilst in the foreground we see him reflected upside-down in what appears to be a drumskin.

Having never before seen A Hard Day’s Night on the big screen, I watched this restored version at the cinema on two separate occasions. The second time I went was on a Saturday, and the audience were mostly adults including various older adults who had brought their young children. On this occasion there were only a few lines in the film that elicited some isolated titters. The first time I saw the film was a weekday evening, and the audience was easily dominated by young people who giggled at various bits of dialogue and sight gags, including things that would surely have been incomprehensible or bizarre to a modern audience. Did they understand that the joke about Paul’s grandfather being “very clean” is a reference to Wilfred Brambell’s role in the 60s & 70s TV comedy Steptoe and Son, where his son constantly referred to him as a “dirty old man”? One of my favourite moments shows the boys in the studio where they are due to perform, and John elicits some mocking laughter by saying “Why don’t we do the show right here?”. The line is a reference to earlier, more innocent, pop musicals; there may have been only one film that used this line, but in my imagination it feels like every Cliff Richard movie has a scene where his gang – having been thwarted from performing at their intended venue – turn up at a country field, whereupon someone delivers that cliché. The knowing use of the line consciously sets A Hard Day’s Night apart from all the earlier pop musicals.

The film also has some blink-and-you-miss-it moments, as well as some elements that you can’t imagine appearing in any other movie. In one extraordinary scene Paul’s grandfather, who is Irish, is taken to a police station for his own safety, where he also bumps into Ringo. There, he launches into a diatribe against the coppers, telling them he knows it will only be a matter of time before the rubber cosh appears, and singing “A nation once again!”  The scene works because the policemen in question are in fact friendly bobbies, offering their guests cups of tea, but it still seems quite incredible to slip in such a reference to police brutality against the Irish. Quite a few of the media and showbiz figures in the film are clearly camp gay men, though thankfully you always feel these are good-natured depictions rather than homophobic (The Beatles themselves were famously accepting of the sexuality of their manager, Brian Epstein). At one point John Lennon encounters an actor in a regency costume; the two stop as they are about to pass in a corridor and the actor suggests they swap costumes. “Cheeky!”, laughs Lennon, and they move on.

To modern eyes it is surprising to see grown men behaving in a mildly flirtatious manner with girls in school uniforms, as The Beatles do in one early scene. But again, this scene is played entirely humourously and the representation of schoolgirls was almost certainly a simple recognition that this demographic was then the core audience for the Beatles. At one of the screenings I attended there were two very young girls next to me, and they giggled throughout at the scenes of similarly young girls screaming, crying, and hugging each other as The Beatles play onstage. It is only later in the film, when fully adult women appear – actresses – that The Beatles show any real interest in the opposite sex.

A Hard Day’s Night concludes with the boys departing for the midnight matinee at Wolverhampton, a reminder that they haven’t escaped the crazy hardworking schedule that fame has brought them and which, in real life, would eventually see them abandon live music and retreat into the studio. However, as the title track played over the final credits such dark thoughts were swept from my mind and I was lifted once again by some of the most wonderful pop music that has ever been made.

Rating: 10/10

 

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Frank

UK / Ireland 2014

Director: Lenny Abrahamson

Writers: Jon Ronson & Peter Straughan

Runtime: 95 minutes

 

For anyone seeking an alternative to (or respite from) the relentless onslaught of summer blockbusters (so far: Pompeii, Spiderman 2, Godzilla), there can be few better recommendations than the decidedly oddball Frank. As a story this is almost impossible to categorise, but ultimately it is a kind of paen to outsider art. The idea was developed by journalist/writer Jon Ronson (The Men Who Stare at Goats) and draws upon his experiences as sometime keyboard player for the real life Frank Sidebottom, a fictional stage character created by  Chris Sievey.

As Sidebottom Sievey would take to the stage wearing an outsized round mask with big wide eyes (literally an “odd ball”) and adopt a relentlessly cheerful, optimistic persona, whilst he and his band delivered the audience an unpredictable show that might include some ramshackle music, stand-up comedy, and even lectures. But whereas many of the artists in Sievey’s orbit would go on to achieve great fame and success, he not only seemed disinterested in reaching for such a goal but appeared to actively sabotage opportunities that might have led in that direction. As described by Jon Ronson, Chris Sievey was undeniably eccentric but essentially normal. The movie Frank does not pretend to be a biopic of Sievey/Sidebottom, but instead imagines a fictional Frank who never removes his mask, and explores the relationship between Frank, his bandmates, and the tensions between artistic originality and commercialism.

The story begins with Jon (Domhnall Gleeson), a young man wandering along a seafront and struggling to compose lyrics based on the things he sees around him. He witnesses the police and an ambulance crew trying to prevent a man from drowning himself in the sea. This would-be suicide turns out to be the keyboard player in a band with the unpronounceable name Soronprfbs. As the wretched keyboardist is taken away to have the seawater pumped from his stomach, Jon strikes up a conversation with Don (Scoot McNairy), who is the band’s manager. When Jon mentions that he plays keyboards, Don disappears back to the band’s van and then returns to say that Frank (Michael Fassbender) has invited Jon to play at that evening’s gig. On stage, Jon is momentarily discombobulated by the sight of Frank’s enormous fake head, but soon finds himself enjoyably settling into their eccentric musical groove.

Soon afterwards Don tells Jon that Frank has invited him to play with the band in Ireland. Thinking that this is just an overnight gig, Jon – who has a regular day job – is startled to discover, once in Ireland, that they are there to record a new album (“I’ve only packed one pair of underpants!” he complains). Worse, with the exception of Don and Frank, the various band members take an inexplicable dislike to Jon and his presence among their group,  especially the theremin player Clara (Maggie Gyllenhaal), who seems to ooze contempt from every pore. The tension is not improved by Jon’s attempts to nudge Frank in a slightly more commercial direction.

Frank is one of the few modern films to fully recognise the ubiquitous presence of social media in our everyday lives. The narrative is regularly peppered with Jon’s Twitter updates to a slowly increasing audience of followers, and unbeknownst to the rest of the band he circulates YouTube clips of their rehearsals. When they eventually become aware of this there is outrage among everybody but Frank, who is naively thrilled to discover that twenty-seven thousand people are apparently following the band.  On the strength of this he agrees to the suggestion that the band should play at an American music festival that has a slot to promote interesting new groups. However, once in America all the tensions within the band, and between artistic integrity and commercial realism, come to a head.

If the film can be said to falter at all, it is towards the end where it feels the need to explain the character of Frank. This is not badly done, but it is perhaps just a little too pat. Maybe it would have been just as satisfactory for Frank’s character to remain a mystery. Nonetheless, in its tribute to those who wish to plough the lonely furrow of their own unique artistic vision, come what may, I thought the finale was emotionally satisfying. There are fine performances all round, especially from Gyllenhaal and Fassbender.

Rating: 8/10