At a time when teen pop stars are packaged and sold with as much personality as a box of frozen fish sticks—it's fitting that the members of 'N Sync play puppets in their videos—the reissue of 1964's A Hard Day's Night seems almost depressingly bittersweet. Made on the fly to capitalize on The Beatles' meteoric rise, Richard Lester's joyous and innovative pseudo-documentary is also transparently promotional, a shrewdly calculated exercise in star manufacture. Yet even as it strings together the obligatory hit parade of singles and performance sequences, the film conveys an intensely liberated spirit, with fun interludes and digressions that make bubblegum out of the French New Wave. A major innovator in the editing room, as he would later confirm with 1965's The Knack and 1968's masterful Petulia, Lester created his own rhythm section, cutting in time to the monosyllabic rhymes and head-snapping jangle. With the songs as a grounding force, he freed himself to experiment in music-video abstraction before the form even existed, imagining the young performers' daily lives as a wild, nonstop anarchic adventure. Made before stardom got the better of its subject, A Hard Day's Night chronicles the afternoon leading up to a live TV performance, primarily occupied by John, Paul, George, and Ringo running from hordes of screaming schoolgirls. In the downtime, they deftly squeeze through a thicket of journalists and handlers and find ways to get into trouble, usually courtesy of Paul's mischievous "grandfather" (Wilfred Brambell). Peppered with one-liners and odd bits of surrealism, the non-musical scenes in A Hard Day's Night recall the Marx Brothers while referencing the then-ascendant British sketch-comedy scene. Riding high from their sudden popularity, the members of The Beatles were undoubtedly happier in the beginning (certainly compared to their toxic rapport in Let It Be), and their infectious personalities carry the film. Then, of course, there are the songs themselves, cheery pop nuggets without a hint of the darkness that would seize the band later on. "I Should Have Known Better," "All My Loving," "She Loves You," and the title track are all performed at length, but none can rival the pure pleasure of watching the four goofing off in a field to "Can't Buy Me Love," still high on the intoxication of celebrity.
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