When Walter Shenson first signed on in early 1964 to produce “A Hard Day’s Night,” he harbored no illusions that he was making “Citizen Kane.”
And then the movie came out, and Village Voice critic Andrew Sarris declared it to be “the ‘Citizen Kane’ of jukebox movies.”
Shenson wasn’t as shocked as you might think. He already knew that the Beatles’ “A Hard Day’s Night” was more than a bunch of fluff wrapped around a soundtrack. He had already had a series of pleasant surprises:
When Shenson read Alun Owens’ script for the first time, he remembers saying, “This stuff is brilliant.”
When he met the Beatles for the first time, he found that they were not only “decent, respectful, polite and fun,” but “extremely talented.”
And when he read the reviews, he realized the movie had accomplished something he never expected. “The film had converted the non-believers, the older people who had never understood what youngsters saw in the Beatles,” said Shenson, himself one of those older people.
More than 30 years later, “A Hard Day’s Night” is still considered the archetype of the rock-as-art film. Interest in the movie is still so high that Shenson has made a new documentary called “You Can’t Do That! The Making of ‘A Hard Day’s Night.”’
The documentary will air today on KSPS-7, followed by “A Hard Day’s Night” and the Beatles’ second movie, “Help!” which Shenson also produced.
The documentary was conceived last year as a 30th anniversary tribute to the movie. Shenson wanted to air some of the footage that the public never had a chance to see.
Shenson had an entire song, “You Can’t Do That!,” which was cut from the movie’s concert scene. Shenson also had some behind-the-scenes footage that had only been seen on the BBC many years before.
“It showed the Beatles backstage, being made up, being playful with the director and crew,” said Shenson by phone from L.A. “It was some very nice intimate stuff.”
And for a host, Shenson found singer Phil Collins, who is not only a huge fan of “A Hard Day’s Night,” but was actually part of the cast. At age 13, he was one of the extras in the staged concert, screaming his head off for the Beatles.
It wasn’t acting. Like practically every other kid in London, Collins was a huge Beatles fan.
And then Shenson lined up a series of interviews, including one with critic Roger Ebert, who weighs in with this opinion: “It’s one of the five best musicals ever made. It’s right up there with ‘Singin’ in the Rain.”’
The film’s quality was partly due to serendipity - the Beatles turned out to be natural comedians - but also due to some wise decisions.
For one thing, Shenson hired director Richard Lester, who had instant credibility with the Beatles because he had directed “The Goon Show,” a Monty Python precursor.
Shenson also hired Owen, who was himself from Liverpool. Owen wrote a screenplay that seemed so unforced and natural, many moviegoers thought that the Beatles were making it all up as they went along.
“It seems like the boys were just fooling around,” said Shenson. “Yet you don’t make movies for United Artists without a script, a budget and a schedule.”
Actually, the studio’s expectations were absurdly low when the executives first approached Shenson with the idea.
“I asked them why they wanted to do a picture with the Beatles, and they said that United Artists will get the soundtrack album if they make a movie with us,” said Shenson.
At the time, early 1964, a Beatles album was like a license to print money.
“I was living in London at the time, and I was very much aware that Beatlemania was going on,” said Shenson, an American fresh from success with “A Mouse That Roared.” “I knew who they were, obviously, but I was not a big fan. I’m a generation older. But my kids were playing their records.”
United Artists’ only requirement was that it include six new Beatles songs. Beyond that, UA didn’t much care.
“Lester once asked me, ‘What about using a hand-held camera?’ and I said, ‘If it works, do it. Nobody cares. All they care about is that we don’t go over-budget and give them enough songs for a soundtrack album,”’ said Shenson.
Studio indifference actually liberated Shenson and Lester to do what they wanted. And one thing they wanted was to film in black-and-white.
“Because we were bold enough to shoot in black-and-white, it gave the movie a feeling of a documentary,” said Shenson.
It also gave the movie an aura of artiness. Ebert, in “You Can’t Do That!” says, “I’ll tell you the truth, I don’t think we’d be making this documentary today if it had been in color. I think that black-and-white has a timelessness and a purity to it that color doesn’t.”
“It was almost outrageous what we did,” said Shenson. “For example, in the song, ‘And I Love Her,’ we had the camera moving 360 degrees. And New York got the picture, and, it was funny, they said, ‘Did you know in one shot there’s an arc light right in the lens?’ And I said, ‘Yeah, it took us a day-and-ahalf to get that shot.’ It was brilliant, a lovely silhouette of Paul. That’s lovely; that’s what makes it art.”
It’s also what made “A Hard Day’s Night” a surprise critical success. But for most fans, the appeal of the film was simply that it showcased the wit and freshness of the four Beatles. This movie made the Beatles into personalities, and their personalities became in turn the personality of the 1960s.
As Phil Collins says in the documentary: “Nothing, not any controversy or the passing of time, would materially alter the way we viewed John, Paul, George and Ringo as presented to us in ‘A Hard Day’s Night.”’
The movie certainly changed Shenson’s life. He had made good movies before - he was enormously proud of “The Mouse That Roared,” which introduced Peter Sellers to the world. He made good movies afterward, including “Reuben, Reuben” and “Echo Park,” movies financed at least partly by the continuing royalties from “A Hard Day’s Night” and “Help!”
But he considers “A Hard Day’s Night” to be his proudest achievement. He never would have predicted it at the time.
“In 1964, I was dealing with the day-to-day problems of shooting, and you just want it to be good,” said Shenson. “And if you get lucky, you get a hit movie that has lasted. I’m incredibly proud to be involved with that movie.”
MEMO: This sidebar ran with story: THE BEATLES MARATHON Get your fill of The Beatles today on KSPS-7 3 p.m.: “You Can’t Do That! The Making of ‘A Hard Day’s Night”’ 4:30 p.m.: “A Hard Day’s Night” 6:40 p.m.: “Help!”