Following are excerpts from “Britmania: The British Invasion of the Sixties in Pop Culture” by Mark Voger ($43.95, TwoMorrows Publishing, ships Oct. 5).
‘A Hard Day’s Night’ (1964)
That iconic opening chord to “A Hard Day’s Night,” the song, is the opening salvo of “A Hard Day’s Night,” the movie. With one resounding strum, we’re off to the races with the Beatles — racing against time to get on the train, to get to the TV studio, to get ahead of the sprinting mob of screaming girls.
Richard Lester’s film is so much more than a mere showcase for a pop band. In depicting the global entertainment phenomenon that was the Beatles, the movie makes wry commentary on the media machine that cynically enabled their rise. In two “typical” days in the lives of John, Paul, George and Ringo, we see the boys mock reporters at a press reception; let off steam at a dance club; elude their hapless “minders” Norm (Norman Rossington) and Shake (John Junkin); and perform a set to a sweaty, teary, packed house for a television broadcast.
Commentary on the folly of fame is sharpest during a sequence in which George mistakenly wanders into the wrong office at the TV studio. There, an impresario named Simon (Kenneth Haigh) calls George “ducky,” “chickie baby” and “Sonny Jim.” Simon assumes George came in to audition as a shill for “trendsetting” TV personality Susan Campy (Edina Ronay, seen in a photo).
“Oh, you mean that posh bird who gets everything wrong?” says George in his most adenoidal Liverpudlian.
“I beg your pardon?” says Simon.
After throwing George out of the office, Simon frets: “You don’t think he’s a new phenomenon, do you?” His receptionist (Alison Seebohm) replies: “You mean an early clue to the new direction?” If they only knew.
‘Ferry Cross the Mersey’ (1964)
Another black-and-white musical comedy from from 1964 about a band from Liverpool with screaming fans? “Ferry Cross the Mersey” — a title shared with Gerry and the Pacemakers’ #6 hit — was in serious danger of seeming like a “Hard Day’s Night” remake. Some behind-the-scenes movers and shakers shepherded both projects: George Martin (musical director), Gilbert Taylor (cinematographer), and Brian Epstein (credited as the “presenter” of the Pacemakers’ movie).
But Jeremy Summer’s “Ferry Cross the Mersey” is about Liverpool, not West London, and explores how the port city’s socioeconomics shaped its musical exports. The movie bids us to enter the scene’s epicenter: the Cavern Club (where the Pacemakers play Larry Williams’ “Slow Down,” also recorded by the Beatles).
The film opens to the strains of “It’s Gonna Be Alright,” as the Pacemakers land in a BOAC jetliner; are mobbed by fans; and race to a recording studio. Taylor’s framing in the studio sequence recalls “AHDN,” but the movie does something new. We are transported, via flashback, to a time before hit records and screaming girls. The Pacemakers are not pop stars, but happy-go-lucky art students who tool around Liverpool on Lambretta LI 150 scooters. We see the boys perform the title track on the ferry, as it crosses the vast River Mersey.
“A Hard Day’s Night” was a brutal act to follow. Richard Lester’s “Help!” is a choke, but the film has glimmers of comedic brilliance and, of course, a collection of songs that are beyond reproach.
Setup: Ringo has obtained a ring, the “dreaded, sacred, sacrificial ring of the dread Kaili,” a religious cult that needs the oversized bauble for its rituals. The Kaili chases the Beatles all over the globe, dooming the film as a glorified travelogue. But “Help!” could’a been a contender.
An early sequence hints at the magic that often surrounded the Beatles. When the boys return home after a performance — not to a remote mansion, but a cookie-cutter block of “terraced housing” (as the Brits call it) — they enter four separate dwellings that are revealed to be one conjoined residence. Once behind closed doors, the boys each retreat into their own private pleasures. Paul emerges from the floor playing an organ; John retreats with a book (of his own authorship) into a pit of pillows; George oversees the grooming of an indoor lawn using novelty clattering “teeth”; Ringo hunts for a snack among the handy vending machines. The implication is that the boys are so wealthy now, they inhabit a fantasy world of their own creation.
‘Having a Wild Weekend’ (1965)
Yes, it stars the Dave Clark Five. Yes, songs by the Dave Clark Five are heard throughout. But John Boorman’s film is not about a British Invasion band. It’s a sweet, sometimes sad romantic comedy in a modern setting with modern stresses.
Steve (Clark) and his four buddies (Mike Smith, Lenny Davidson, Dennis Payton and Rick Huxley, collectively the DC5) are “stunt boys” — fit young men who perform stunts and do extra work in films. They live in a trampoline-equipped church repurposed as the headquarters of their company, Action Enterprises Limited. The place is kind of like the Beatles’ funhouse in “Help!” that same year, or the Monkees’ zany group home that soon followed.
Meanwhile, Dinah (Barbara Ferris) is known everywhere as the “butcher girl,” a fashion model who has become the face of the glories of meat consumption. (“Meat for Go!!” is the slogan of the ad campaign for which Dinah’s face is plastered all over England.) But Dinah and the boys yearn to get away from the whole phony business.
While filming a commercial, Dinah and Steve go AWOL in a gorgeous white Jaguar convertible — bad news for the advertising firm that handles the meat account. An ad exec implies to the newspapers that Dinah has been abducted by Steve, and the narrative takes on a life of its own. Soon police, reporters, and ad-firm lackeys are in hot pursuit of the young couple as they abscond on their “wild weekend.”