After 50 years — you heard me, 50 years — "A Hard Day's Night" is still a pure joy ride for those old enough to have seen it way back when. I'd like to think that it's also pleasurable for those too young to have lived through the Beatles era, even though its influence on filmmaking (including, notably, music videos) has made what was once innovative overly familiar.
In digging up earlier video versions for comparison to Criterion's new Blu-ray, I realized that this is either my fourth or fifth edition of the title. There was Miramax's 2002 two-DVD set, which was widely criticized for its handling of the audio and praised for its copious extras. MPI had already released a single DVD edition in 1997 that was visually imperfect — it seemed good at the time compared to the VHS — and had extras that appeared to have been thrown together from whatever was lying around. I also have the Criterion CD-ROM release from 1994, in which the movie played on your computer in a small low resolution box while the script scrolled alongside. It was an interesting experiment that led nowhere. I think I own the laserdisc but I'm not sure.
Criterion's new Blu-ray is by far the best in almost every regard. The film has been remastered (and approved by director Richard Lester); the audio has both the original monaural track and a 5.1 remix that puts Miramax's 5.1 to shame; and the extras include a few items repeated from the earlier DVDs and several new things. From the Miramax edition, we get the 40-minute "Things They Said Today," a 2002 documentary about the film featuring Lester, George Martin, screenwriter Alun Owen, and others, made by Martin Lewis, Britain's de facto cultural ambassador to L.A. There is also a "commentary track" newly assembled from material recorded by Lewis at the time.
We also get Lester's famous 11-minute 1960 short, "The Running Jumping & Standing Still Film," which was surprisingly nominated for an Oscar and had been included on MPI's original DVD of "Help!" The hourlong 30th anniversary TV production "You Can't Do That: The Making of A Hard Day's Night" (which MPI put out as a standalone disc) is narrated by Phil Collins, who gets to point out his face in the audience for the concert footage at the end of "A Hard Day's Night." Even if you know a lot about the Beatles and the film, it's packed with interesting info.
Even more informative is "The Beatles: The Road to A Hard Day's Night," a new interview with biographer Mark Lewisohn who gives the band's history year by year from its earliest incarnation in 1958 until the movie's 1964 release, all in under a half hour; for a scholar, he's a remarkably engaging storyteller.
There are several more newly produced extras, of which by far the best is the half-hour "Picturewise," narrated by Rita Tushingham (who starred in "The Knack," which Lester directed between his two Beatles movies). It presents a quick history of Lester's career, including a cleverly written list of nine reasons why he was the perfect choice to direct the film.
A Hard Day's Night (Criterion, Blu-ray/DVD combo pack, $39.95; DVD, 2 discs, $19.95)
--ANDY KLEIN is the film critic for Marquee. He can also be heard on "FilmWeek" on KPCC-FM (89.3).