'A Hard Day's Night' Reborn: Behind the Beatles Film's New Restoration
The classic Beatles movie returns to theaters for its 50th anniversary, and it's never looked or sounded better
By DAVID FEAR
JULY 3, 2014
"If you listen closely...there, right there. Did you hear that?" Ryan Hullings moves his mouse back to the play button and clicks, and the single most recognizable opening chord ever — a modified F chord, played against a Gsus4 and a D bass note (but don't just take our word for it) — rings out loudly from the computer in his office at the Criterion Collection. Faintly in the background of this fanfare, however, something that sounds like crying seagulls can be heard, as well as a slightly crunchy edge to the notes. "There's a slight distortion you get from something transferred over several generations of audio. I'll show you." Hullings, the Audio Supervisor for the Criterion's DVDs, presses another button, and the monitor is suddenly filled with bright, multicolored lines, zig-zagging up and down — a heat map, essentially, of the first sound you hear in the Beatles' classic film (as well as its title song) A Hard Day's Night.
"That green bit there is the crackles and pops you're hearing," Hullings continues, pointing a small cluster of green lines near the top of the screen. "The natural instinct is to go in and clean it up. But I thought, well, just to be safe, let me listen to a few other sources. So we compiled every single version of the song we could get our hands on: the original 1964 LP, the mono remasters, the stereo remasters, the remasters from the Nineties...we had it all. And that distortion is in every one of the recordings! It's part of the source, and the last thing we wanted to do was mess with the source. It adds a very human element to it. So we left it in."
And the seagull noise? Hullings shoots a look across the room at Peter Becker, the company's president, who laughs and shakes his head. "That's the sound of the crowd behind the Beatles screaming. Don't even get me started about the screaming."
Celebrating its 50th birthday on July 6th, Richard Lester's gonzo take on a "typical" day for John, Paul, George and Ringo at the height of Beatlemania still brims with a sense of urgency and lightning-in-a-bottle vitality; take out the period-specific details and early Sixties Pop Art references, and it could have been made this year. Having acquired the rights to A Hard Day's Night (it was a Miramax property through most of the Aughts), Janus Films turned to Criterion, its home-entertainment sister company, to produce a stem-to-stern 4K restoration for both a home-video and a theatrical release, one timed around the film's golden anniversary on July 6th. (The DVD/Blu-Ray is already on shelves; the film will be opening in over 100 theaters during the July 4th weekend.)
In terms of the picture materials, they were, according to Becker, "in pretty good shape. The bulk of the film was transferred from the original negative. The first and third reels are missing, but we were able to use preprint materials." Thankfully, when it came to cleaning up the visuals and getting all of the elements up to snuff for the Digitial Cinema Packages (DCPs) they would be sending out to theaters, everything could be handled in-house. And Becker already had somebody specific in mind for the audio remastering job: Giles Martin, the son of Beatles' producer Sir George Martin.
"The first phone call I got was from Criterion, some time around last July or August," Martin says, calling from Abbey Road studios. "The second was from Paul [McCartney] — he wanted to personally reach out and see if I was interested. I'd sort of talked to everybody about what I'd liked to do, saying Okay, we'll remix the songs, but I'd like to have a look at the audio and see what's there as well. And I could almost sense the phone being banged down and people thinking, 'Oh, no, what's he going to do? Don't let Giles touch it, he'll modernize everything. He's going to sample Ringo's drums, isn't he?!?'"
Instead, Martin — who'd already proven his mettle by doing a 5.1 surround-sound mix on Beatles music for the Love project and working on the George Harrison documentary Living in the Material World — expressed an interest in emphasizing the immediacy of four young men playing rock and roll at that exact moment in time. The idea, he says, was not to go against the you-are-there feeling of Lester's movie by cleaning up studio recordings; it was to retain the essential urgency of those early records and complement the movie's portrait of a quartet experiencing both forward momentum and a musical rush. "My thought with A Hard Day's Night was: Just make it sound direct," Martin declares. "Capture the energy there. It needs to sound very in-your-face…because the band was very in-your-face at that time."
"You watch that first scene and…there's George, tripping over his own feet," he continues, laughing. "There aren't a lot of rock movies where the lead guitarist falls down and the band just carry on. But that really epitomizes the Beatles at that point: They're running toward something and regardless of what happens, they're just going for it. That's what their recordings sound like — and that's what you want to capture. So when you're remixing a film like this, you really don't want to touch much. These were four guys who performed and sang really bloody well together. They are in their early twenties; they didn't do a lot of takes at this stage. You want to feel as if they're just bashing this out in front of you, not doing anything by halves."
Martin knew the musical aspects of the film were in good shape ("The tapes were all at Abbey Road Studios and they sounded fantastic"). As for the other elements, well... "The music was in the best condition, and let's just say it went downhill from there," the producer chuckles. "My engineer, Sam Okell, and I went on a research trip and tried to get the best sources we could. Elements like my father's underscore for the film...we had to hunt down the three tracks of that. The dialogue and effects recordings, we had to find those as well and then piece everything together. [Sound designer] Alastair Sirkett tried to track down all the original sound effects, so if we wanted to put a train sound in the surrounding mix, we could use the actual train sound used in the movie when it was released. So yes, it was a painstaking process. But worth it."
Once he'd assembled everything he needed and committed to doing a 5.1 surround mix, Martin dived into the process of turning the movie into a testament of the Beatles' ability to rock out — there was just one thing standing in his way. "Yes, the stereo mixes," he says, with a sigh. "The version I originally worked with, you're hearing John and Paul's voices coming out of the left side, when you're used to hearing them in front and center. So I used what you might call a mono stereo mix, in which I restored all of the vocals to the center speaker. For something like "A Hard Day's Night," which has a lot of splashy cymbals, it actually works better than with vocals coming out of one side and drums on the other. But 5.1 Surround is actually more mono than stero, so it's the ideal way of hearing the band. Our version of "Can't Buy Me Love" rocks more than it does in the original…he said arrogantly!"
The results, Martin says, were met with approval by both Lester and the surviving Beatles ("Otherwise, I wouldn't be talking to you...I'd be doing them over," he joked), as well as Becker, who's aching for audiences to see and hear the film in its spruced up form on a big screen. As Hullings had been in close contact with Martin during the process, he was well aware of the difficulties in syncing various elements up and how pieces of the puzzle had finally started coming together. But even he was surprised by hearing the end result. "Giles would say that he couldn't have done this type of mix a year ago, because the technology hadn't caught up yet," the audio supervisor says. "But when you listen to what he did, you don't hear the technology at work. You don't even hear Giles' fingerprints on the material. What you hear is the human element."
He cues up the opening chord and listens to it again, distortion and all. "If you ran this through a software program, it would have taken it automatically. But now, when this plays in theaters and on your DVD player, that crunch caused by someone in a studio manipulating that chord a long, long time ago will still be there."
Paul McCartney, George Harrison, Ringo Starr and John Lennon of the Beatles in 'A Hard Day's Night.'
United Artists/Courtesy of Getty Images