Friday, August 22, 2014

Feature: Richard Lester, the Mocker

by F.T. Rea

Since receiving MTV’s first Lifetime Achievement Award in 1984 Richard Lester, 82, has been seen by some pop culture aficionados as the inventor of music videos. No doubt, his own background as a musician -- he was a piano prodigy -- helped him to have a special feel for how to use music in movies.

However, considering the Soundies and other short films featuring musical performances produced throughout the 1940s, it might be a stretch to say Lester invented anything. But with “A Hard Day’s Night” (1964) he did prove the wisdom of the advice offered in the Jimmie Lunceford 1939 hit song, "'Tain’t What You Do (It’s the Way That You Do it)." Thus, MTV probably gave that award to the right director.  

After getting his start in the freewheeling days of live local television in Philadelphia in the early-1950s, Lester fled to Europe, at first making his living as musician/performer. After a year of that he began working in British television as a director, and in making TV commercials.

Before he left Philadelphia, Lester had admired the early work of Ernie Kovacs, who hosted a show at the same television station that had employed Lester. Studying Kovacs’ absurd, experimental sense of humor helped prepare Lester for working on a couple of television shows with Peter Sellers, Spike Milligan and other former Goon Show regulars.

The Goon Show was a half-hour BBC radio comedy program (1951-60) that opened the door for other surrealist British comedy such as that exhibited by Marty Feldman, the Bonzo Dog Band, the Monty Python troupe, etc. It was Lester’s work as a director with Sellers, Milligan and other comedians that led him to directing his first film, “The Running Jumping & Standing Still  Film” (1960), an Oscar-nominated short that was shot with Sellers’ 16mm camera.

“A Hard Day’s Night” (1964) put Lester on the map. It was his third feature-length film as a director; the first was a showcase for American and British pop and jazz artists with a thin plot -- “It’s Trad, Dad” (1962). It presented a lineup of second tier acts. Among them were: Helen Shapiro, Craig Douglas, Acker Bilk, Gene Vincent, Chubby Checker, Del Shannon, The Paris Sisters, The Dukes of Dixieland, Gary "U.S." Bonds, John Leyton, Chris Barber's Jazz Band. In the USA the same movie was released as “Ring-a-Ding Rhythm.”

Lester’s second time at bat as a director yielded a sequel to a popular comedy, “The Mouse That Roared” (1959). The second “Mouse” movie again had a tiny country, Grand Fenwick, mocking power, this time by claiming the moon’s surface as its territory. “The Mouse on the Moon” (1963) satirized the space race; it starred Margaret Rutherford and Terry-Thomas.

Before or since, nothing has equaled the meteoric rise to fame the Fab Four experienced in 1964. Their momentous appearances on the Ed Sullivan Show were in February of 1964. Less than a month later the Beatles started working on the film project to gather the ongoing frenzy of Beatlemania. For the movie, the Beatles, especially John Lennon, wanted Lester to direct it.


Most fads don’t last long, so there was no time to waste in producing the film. “A Hard Day’s Night” went into general release in July. It was shot in black and white and runs 87 minutes. The story has the four musicians traveling from Liverpool to London for a TV appearance. As trouble ensues the opportunities for playful gags blossom like wildflowers.

With its exhilarating pace, the look of “A Hard Day’s Night” borrowed from cinema verité films. The influence French New Wave movies had had on Lester was also obvious. For all to see, Lester demonstrated a startling mastery over the latest trends. In the Village Voice critic Andrew Sarris described the picture as “the ‘Citizen Kane’ of jukebox musicals.”

Of the plot, in an interview for Vanity Fair, Lester said: 
The boys had just recently played Stockholm. I asked John, “How did you like it?”

“It was lovely,” he said. “It was a car, and a room, and a stage, and a cheese sandwich.”

That became the script!
The spontaneity in the action was facilitated by Lester’s technique of having more than one camera on the Beatles as much as possible, recording whatever happened in a near-documentary style. That the Beatles had been spoon-fed the sarcastic sense of humor of Lester’s previous work with Sellers, et al, put them all on the same page.

Today, for what it’s worth, the film’s soundtrack is ranked as Number 4 on Rolling Stone's all-time list of the greatest soundtracks. Lester went on to make several good movies after his low-budget hit opened the door for more opportunities as a director.

Suddenly, people with money trusted him. In addition to his second film with the Beatles, “Help!” (1965), among his better films that followed "A Hard Day's Night" were:

“The Knack... and How to Get It” (1965), “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum” (1966), “Petulia” (1968), “The Three Musketeers” (1973), “Juggernaut” (1974), “The Four Musketeers: Milady's Revenge” (1974), “Robin and Marian” (1976), “The Ritz” (1976) and “Superman II” (1980). Several of his flops were omitted from the list above.

During the shooting of “The Return of the Musketeers” (1989), Roy Kinnear, an actor/friend of Lester’s, died after falling off a horse during the filming of a scene. The accident was said to have devastated Lester.

A year later, at 58, Lester directed “Get Back” (1991), a concert film starring his old collaborator, Paul McCartney. That stands today as Richard Lester’s last directing credit. He simply walked away; the former prodigy's considerable influence on directors is still being felt.

Perhaps one line in "A Hard Day's Night" best sums up the landmark film's 1964 spirit, when a reporter asks Ringo, “Are you a Mod or a Rocker?

Ringo's reply: “I’m a Mocker.”

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