Film Reviews Of A Hard Days Night And The Song Remains The Same
Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 5/9/12
Growing up, the rock heavens were dominated by four bands from Britain: The Beatles, The Rolling Stones. The Who, and Led Zeppelin. In fact, so dominant were this quartet on rock stations of the late 1960s and 1970s that the foursome was simply known as Beatles/Stones/Zeppelin/Who and the only real argument was as to how they ranked, relative to each other. The Stones were always trying to catch up to the Beatles, in terms of fame in the wake of the Beatles, but then Led Zeppelin came along and pretty much buried everyone else, becoming to the 1970s what the Beatles were to the prior decade. In my pantheon, I always found the Beatles wildly overrated, especially at the expense of bands their equal or superiors, such as the Zombies, the Yardbirds, Cream, and even the Hollies, not to mention great American acts like the Doors and the Jefferson Airplane. Nonetheless, as I aged, I found that, in going against the flow, I’d underrated the Beatles, and currently would rank the quartet, in descending order, as Led Zeppelin. The Who, The Beatles, and the Stones bringing up the rear.
My rationale is as follows. Zeppelin wrote the most memorable songs, riffs, founded both the heavy metal and hard rock genres, and if one were to rank the best musicians, by position, three of the four best belonged to Zep: Robert Plant was the definitive model for the rock god male singer for all bands that followed, and his range, when young, was far beyond Roger Daltrey, Mick Jagger, or whatever Beatle was singing. Jimmy Page was far and away the best lead guitarist in the mix. Pete Townshend was far behind, and neither the Beatles nor Stones had a guitarist that could be considered in the rank of guitar heroes. On drums, while Keith Moon rose to prominence a few years before John Bonham, there’s little question that, like Plant, Bonham is looked to as the role model for all rock drummers afterward. The only slot where a Zep member was not in the top slot was likely bass guitar, where the Who’s John Entwhistle gets the slight nod over Zep’s John Paul Jones, but only because his riffs were more noticeable because the rest of the Zeppelin players were able to keep up with him. As for the music and lyric writing? Page and Plant get top honors, as they reworked blues classics for a new generation and instilled the whole heavy metal mythos with mysticism. Yes, the Beatles introduced sitars to the rock world, but much of their later work is pretentious, while their earlier songs are bubble gum pop- well wrought bubble gum pop, but bubble gum all the same. Pete Townshend’s two rock operas, Tommy and Quadrophenia, alone, show more ambition than the output of the Beatles and Stones combined. Yet, Zeppelin did even more. As for the lag behind Stones? The truth is they have not had a good album out since the early 80s, and not crafted a great nor influential one since the early 70s. They’ve been on musical cruise control ever since.
Nonetheless, all four bands tower above virtually all other claimants to the throne, and I recently watched two seminal films from the Beatles and Led Zeppelin, after many years’ interim, and the age of both efforts showed, badly; especially with the Beatles.
It was many years ago that I first saw the Beatles’ 1964 debut black and white film, A Hard Day’s Night, on PBS. It had to have been during the 1980s, possibly during a pledge drive. Given that I was not a Beatles fan growing up, I didn’t think much of the film, however, perhaps this was my bias, the wan rift of memory, plus the fact that I have become a much more acute critic of all things, including cinema, clouding my memory. Then, a couple of years ago I watched the band’s second film Help! It, too, was not a good film. In fact, it was quite a bad film. However, most critics state that the second film was not as good as the first, and this includes Roger Ebert and virtually every other online critic for, according to Rotten Tomatoes, the film has a 100% rating in terms of favorability.
Yet, the truth is, if Help! is, as I describe it, a ‘bad’ film, its 87 minute long predecessor is a flat out terrible film. That anyone would find this appallingly poorly executed, unfunny, hodgepodge of ill acted swill remotely entertaining is a testament to the depths human enjoyment can plunge. Yes, the songs from the bands’ early era are good, but there isn’t a single joke told in this film that garners even a mild teehee. That some critics suggest this film is equal to the great classic comedies of the Marx Brothers shows how addled some minds truly are. While it’s true that, as Ebert suggests, this film had a profound influence on the music video industry that arose in the 1980s, it’s had a negligible impact on film, itself. Michelangelo Antonioni, Akira Kurosawa, and Ingmar Bergman, among others, were already far more visually sophisticated and daring than anything director Richard Lester tossed into this film, along with cinematographer Gilbert Taylor. In fact, despite Ebert’s claims that the film is ‘strikingly original,’ the very opposite is true- it is derivative to the core (think Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, Harold Lloyd, the Marx Brothers, the Ritz Brothers, the Three Stooges, Abbott and Costello, the Bowery Boys- need I continue?); so, unless one wants to claim that being almost wholly and shamelessly derivative is perversely a ‘strikingly original’ thing to be, Ebert’s statement is doomed to go down as one of the greatest examples of his tendency to cinematically brain fart. The screenplay, by Alun Owen, is simply abominable. The film consists solely of songs with a few poor comic tidbits in between. These tidbits consist of the boys running away from female fans, engaging in pseudo-blue banter with Paul McCartney’s supposed ‘other’ grandfather, a man who seemingly undermines and embarrasses the boys at every opportunity, and arguing over petty matters with their band manager. The film ends with the boys titillating a television studio full of screaming young females.
Several things are apparent in this film: 1) it was designed merely as a moneymaking venture for, despite the brain dead criticism this film is utterly void of any real art, 2) the Beatles simply cannot act and their films, it seems, started their later slide into musical pretension, and 3) the Monkees’- television’s Prefab 4 response to Beatlemania were almost infinitely better actors. In fact, their acting range was probably farther beyond the Beatles’ than the Beatles’ actual musical canon was above theirs, for the Monkees actually were good at improv; the Beatles weren’t. And, the film is actually at its best during seeming improves. The clearly scripted moments, which seem less like even a first draft but a first premise, and which have the boys interacting with real actors is excruciatingly painful to watch and hear, as jokes that are decades old, even then, are told with a manic glee that somehow, if a teen heartthrob tells them they will magically regain their humor. One wonders why both of the band’s first two films are so poorly made and the answer is rather obvious: producers rushed them through production for fear that the Beatles’ popularity would fade and that the Rolling Stones, or some yet discovered group would make them passé before the films were released.
The real test of the film’s cinematic worth, however, comes from a
simple test: if the film had been on a fictive band, made up of actors, singing
Beatles songs, would the critics have trumpeted it so? Of course not.
Furthermore, they would have used the films of many of the predecessor comedy
teams I mentioned as proof of just how derivative this film is. However, this
film’s cardinal sin is not its pretension, but, aside from its poor technical
quality, simply how dull and unfunny it is.
By contrast, pretension runs all through director Peter Clifton’s 137
minute long, 1976 quasi-documentary on Led Zeppelin and a series of three
concert performances at Madison Square Garden, in New York City, during July of
1973, called The Song Remains The Same. Aside from the concert footage, the film
weaves assorted silly fantasy sections into the film, as well as footage of
backstage goings on, such as security guards beating rowdy fans, the theft of
$203,000 from the band’s safe deposit box at the hotel they were staying at,
and band manager Peter Grant’s bullying of various Garden personnel over
matters trivial and not, among others. The film was not the first attempt at a
true ‘rockumentary,’ but it was the first rockumentary to try and add
extraneous fictive material so the whole could be seen as a work of art, apart
and above the actual music. Prior to The
Song Remains The Same such films,
like Michael Wadleigh’s 1970 documentary Woodstock, on the famed
1969 rock festival, were basically strictly journalistic endeavors or attempts
at cinema veritè. Not so with this film. And that’s its fatal flaw.
While the music, and even the band’s lapses into self-indulgence, are
great, the film’s cinematic pretensions bring the whole effort down into a
barely passable cinematic mediocrity. In a sense, parts of the film play out
almost like a precursor to Rob Reiner’s seminal 1984 ‘mockumentary’
classic This Is Spinal Tap.
Numerous shots where the band is actually ‘live’ in concert are mixed in
with scenes of them on stages at Shepperton Studios that do not resemble their
American venues, and numerous other little alterations had to be made. The film
would have been so much better had they simply filmed the concerts, then did the
fantasy sequences and combined them, rather than the time and money wasting
rigmarole that ensued.
Unlike the Beatles’ A Hard
Day’s Night, which received
overwhelmingly positive reviews for a bad film, The
Song Remains The Same, a merely
mediocre film, was almost routinely savagely attacked from Day One, mainly for
the fantasy sequences. That said, like the Beatles film, the Led Zeppelin film
did well at the box office. Unlike A
Hard Day’s Night, though, The
Song Remains The Same was, indeed,
a highly influential film. Almost all concert films and rockumentaries that have
come since have this film’s DNA stamped on it, for the good or the ill. And,
unlike the Beatles film, this film’s improvs are restricted to the musical
stage, where Plant and Page were masters of that art form.
Overall, of the two films, The Song Remains The Same is clearly a better film than A Hard Day’s Night, but neither film has any real worth outside of the bands and music they present. That’s reality, despite what the brainless boosters of either band contend. That this fact merely recapitulates Zeppelin’s musical superiority over their predecessors is purely coincidental. Deal with it!
[An expurgated version of this article originally appeared on the Talking Pictures website.]
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