Richard Lester, The Beatles, and the Rock Musical Revised

By Zachary T. Finch
2010, Vol. 2 No. 04 | pg. 1/3 |

The Beatles Arriving at Kennedy Airport in 1964 A popular genre in Britain and the United States during the late 1950s and early 1960s was the rock and roll musical. As Susan Hayward points out, this type of film came about as Hollywood and record companies sought to cash in on the musical phenomenon known as rock and roll (248). Many of rock and roll’s legendary and not-so-legendary acts appeared in films created mainly for the record-buying youth. Prior to 1964 there were essentially two types of rock musicals. The first were films that focused on a single personality such as Elvis Presley, or in Britain, Cliff Richard. The other type was an ensemble musical featuring many musicians for a brief amount of screen time. Each type had several characteristics that were well established by the time the genre would experience a revision caused by A Hard Day’s Night (1964) and Help! (1965); both were directed by Richard Lester and featured the Beatles.

Lester’s films with the Beatles were revisionist rock musicals for several reasons. While they clearly sprang from earlier rock musicals, the two films also broke with generic convention in terms of their portrayal of the Beatles and their filmmaking style. In order to appreciate the revolutionary aspects of Lester’s films with the Beatles, it is important to define some of the major characteristics of the two types of rock musicals. In addition, Richard Lester was a fitting director for a new type of rock musical. The collaboration between Lester and the Beatles succeeded in creating a pair of films with a profound and lasting importance for rock musicals and, perhaps more broadly, film and music in combination. A Hard Day’s Night and Help! were extremely popular and critically successful in their own time, and the films continue to be visually quoted and significant today.

As stated above, before the Beatles there were two types of rock musicals. The first kind is what is referred to by Alan Betrock as the “personality rock musical” (29). Two of the most famous personalities to star in rock musicals in the late 1950s and early 1960s were Elvis Presley and Cliff Richard. Like all rock musicals, this type was designed to promote the artist and sell records. Film companies counted on the popularity of the singing star to generate box office profits and record companies counted on the success of the film to sell more records by their artist, in particular the soundtrack albums. It should be noted that rock musicals were not the first films to employ rock music—that was arguably accomplished by the film The Blackboard Jungle (1955, dir. Richard Brooks) and its use of Bill Haley’s song, “Rock Around the Clock” (Betrock 34)—but the rock musical would make the most extensive use of the music and its artists. One of the first major personality rock musicals was Love Me Tender (1956, dir. Robert D. Webb), a western starring Elvis Presley. Oddly, the only song that originated from the story’s late-1800s western period-setting was the title track. The fans did not care. The film was a major box-office hit, grossing $9 million worldwide, and giving the personality rock musical a foundation. Elvis’s next role was in Loving You (1957, dir. Hal Kanter), a film with a contemporary setting and it more fully developed many of the personality rock musical’s characteristics.

One of these traits was that the starring artists rarely, if ever, played themselves, but instead they played thinly veiled versions of themselves. In Loving You, Elvis played Deke Rivers, a struggling musician who gains fame after conquering inner demons. Britain’s answer to Elvis, Cliff Richard, played a character named “Bongo” Herbert in Bongo Expresso (1959, dir. Val Guest) who rises to musical prominence with the help of a scheming, small-time showbiz manager. In the personality films, the musicians’ characters were almost always the heroes of the films, essentially good at heart in spite of moments of angst and rebellion, and they reinforced heterosexual male roles usually by ending up in a committed relationship with the lead female character. These films featured the artists in a variety of guises, but nearly always as the main character and almost uniformly in a musical context to sell the artist’s image and his records.

Just as the artists did not play themselves in these films, the credits of the films indicate the songs they sang were not original compositions, either. While Elvis does share songwriting credit for several of his early hits, almost all of the songs in his films, including title tracks such as “Loving You” and “Jailhouse Rock,” were written by professional songwriters such as Jerry Lieber and Mike Stoller. Most of the songs sung by Cliff Richard in his films were written by songwriters like Robert Farnon, Norrie Paramor, and Ronald Cass. As sales figures showed, the fans again did not seem to care that the artists did not write the music performed in the film. By playing characters that were not explicitly themselves and singing songs they did not write, two of the personality rock and roll film’s characteristics were established. Creative freedom and ownership for the artist was a non-issue. The artist was a carefully controlled product to be marketed and sold. These principles would change somewhat with the films starring the Beatles as they would break both of these conventions and assert a considerable amount of creative independence.

Another prominent convention of the personality rock musical was its use of music for narrative functions. Most of the songs in the personality films were not only diegetic, but like the traditional Hollywood musical, they served to reveal character and/or drive the plot forward. For example, near the end of Jailhouse Rock (1957, dir. Richard Thorpe), rock star Vince (Elvis Presley) has recovered from throat surgery but is unsure if his singing voice will be the same. He sings “Young and Beautiful” to his female love interest and his performance of the song not only wins her heart but also confirms that his singing voice is undamaged. In Expresso Bongo, the Cliff Richard character’s first number occurs in a coffee bar in the presence of his soon-to-be manager. The performance sparks the idea to exploit “Bongo” Herbert. In Summer Holiday (1963, dir. Peter Yates), Richard sings a song entitled “Bachelor Boy” to explain his lack of romantic attachments; the song also sets up his romantic goals which are accomplished by the end of the film resulting in a committed heterosexual relationship. The Beatles films directed by Lester would also defy the convention of diegetic and narrative-supporting music.

The second type of rock musical in the era before the Beatles was what I will refer to as the “ensemble rock musical” (Alan Betrock calls them rock and roll films). These films were notable for their inclusion of many musical acts. They often contain extremely thin plots involving a charity benefit many of the artists perform at, a group of teenagers’ struggles against the older generation’s ignorance of rock and roll, or a “new act” on the rise in showbiz. Two examples of the rock musical are The Girl Can’t Help It (1956, dir. Frank Tashlin) and Richard Lester’s It’s Trad, Dad! (1962). This type of rock musical was also a venue for real-life artists and their rock songs, but in a much less concentrated form than the personality rock musical.

A key trait of the ensemble rock musical was that many of the artists appeared in the films as themselves. In The Girl Can’t Help It, numerous popular rock acts were featured for a short amount of screen time, including Little Richard and Eddie Cochran. Chubby Checker, Gene Vincent, and Del Shannon made appearances in It’s Trad, Dad!. These artists were introduced in the films as themselves, but rarely did they have many speaking lines. These short performances in the ensemble rock musicals were akin to the one-song-and-done type of treatment in variety shows. The intent was to promote several artists and several songs at once, and each artist’s screen time was severely limited. Due to this limited amount of exposure, audiences were and are unable to get much of a sense of the musicians’ personalities or traits beyond a one song performance. Like the personality rock musical, the multitude of artists in the ensemble films were not allowed to show their audience much of their real personae beyond musical performance.

One convention of the ensemble rock musical that may have given an advantage to the artists was the fact that many of the songs performed by the groups in these films were original compositions. Little Richard really did write “Long Tall Sally,” which he performed in The Girl Can’t Help It, and Eddie Cochran was the co-writer of “Twenty-Flight Rock;” which was the song he performed in the same film. In Richard Lester’s It’s Trad, Dad!, the Brook Brothers, Geoff and Ricky, wrote the song they performed entitled, “Double Trouble.” While not all of the musicians in the ensemble rock musicals wrote the songs they performed, there was definitely more of an opportunity for artists to showcase their original compositions than in the personality rock musicals. It is quite likely that film and record companies were more willing to allow artists to perform original material in the ensemble films because there were so many acts in the film. If one particular song or artist was a dud, the next one would perform a few minutes later and the previous one would be forgotten. Even the traditionally small budgets of the rock musical were too much of a risk to place on any one act’s original music. The solution was to dilute the risk by creating an ensemble piece, or to fill the personality film with songs by professional songwriters approved by the producers.

The two types of rock musicals shared many traits as well, including cinematographic techniques. The visual framing of the artists during their performance was unremarkable in most cases. The typical musical sequence from an Elvis film or ensemble piece like The Girl Can’t Help It featured a static, long shot of the singer with a few close ups edited in intermittently. If the act was a band, the lead singer would be shown in many more shots than the other members. For example, during Eddie Cochran’s performance of “Twenty Flight Rock” in The Girl Can’t Help It, there are thirteen shots in just under two minutes. All of the shots are static. Cochran is shown in eight of the thirteen shots with three long, one medium close up, and four close ups. The other five shots are reaction shots of characters watching his performance on television. There are no unusual camera angles or compositions within the shots. Interestingly, the musicians playing the other instruments are never shown. This example is very typical of how rock and roll was presented in rock musicals before the Beatles. It is important to note this relatively un-experimental visual style when contrasting the rock musical from its early period with Lester’s films and the films that would come after.

By the time Richard Lester would direct the Beatles in their first film, the conventions of the rock genre were well established. A review of his biography indicates that he was an ideal candidate to not only direct the Beatles in their film debut, but also create a pair of revisionist rock musicals. Lester, an American, was born in Philadelphia in 1932. He was only fifteen when he entered the University of Pennsylvania. He graduated four years later with a degree in clinical psychology and proceeded to get a job at a TV station where he became television director after a very short period of time (Sinyard viii). According to Neil Sinyard, Lester soon left his stable career to travel abroad. He supported himself by writing, tuning pianos, and busking. When he ran out of money, he fled to England and quickly got a job in television in 1955 (viii). His three years of television experience made him a seasoned veteran in comparison to the workers in the brand new English television industry. While working in television in England, Lester made contact with Alun Owen, and the “Goons” Peter Sellers and Spike Milligan. Lester’s biggest break came from collaboration with Peter Sellers when he was nominated for an Academy Award for the surrealistically humorous short, “The Running, Jumping & Standing Still Film.” Lester’s next major project was the feature length musical, It’s Trad, Dad (Sinyard 4-5). While largely a conventional ensemble rock musical, its use of a variety of camera angles and expressive editing foreshadows Lester’s musicals with the Beatles. It was these early works, in combination with his work on “The Goon Show,” that caught the eyes of the Beatles and film producer Walter Shenson. This led to Lester’s assignment to direct the Beatles in their feature film debut.

One key reason why Richard Lester was a likely person to direct a revisionist rock musical was that he was only 32 years-old when he directed A Hard Day’s Night, and thus not far removed from being a youth himself. Lester’s age is important as, according to Sinyard, the average age of Hollywood directors making films for the youth at the time was 65.6 years old (22). Sinyard concludes that Lester’s relatively youthful age made him sympathetic with the young (22). Lester was also willing to try new things and defy the conventions of the genre, a characteristic probably less likely to be found in a director 65.6 years old.

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