article here: http://www.latrobe.edu.au/screeningthep ... fr18a.html
Act naturally: Elvis Presley, the Beatles and “rocksploitation.”
by Cory Messenger
I did twenty-nine pictures like that.
- Elvis, curling his lip during the 1968 “comeback special.”
Reporter: What do you think of the comment that you’re nothing but a bunch of British Elvis Presleys?
Ringo (swiveling his pelvis): It’s not true! It’s not true!
- the Beatles’ first US press conference,
February 7th, 1964.
...there’s only two kinds of people in the world: ‘Beatles people’ and ‘Elvis people’. Now Beatles people can like Elvis, and Elvis people can like the Beatles...but nobody likes them equally. Somewhere you have to make a choice, and that choice tells you who you are.
- Mia Wallace (deleted Pulp fiction scene)
For “Beatles people,” “Elvis people,” and—with all due respect to Quentin Tarantino—neutrals, the commercial and cultural influences of the “two poles of pop music superstardom” can be seen to intertwine in numerous ways. The impact that Elvis Presley had on Britain in 1957 looms large in Beatles origin mythology; for the four teenaged future Beatles, Elvis “turned the key,” with John Lennon once proclaiming, “Before Elvis, there was nothing.” As for Presley, the “King” himself appears to have had an ambivalent relationship with the “fab four”: their awkward first meeting has become the stuff of rock legend, as have Presley’s imprecations to President Richard Nixon that he be given official sanction to monitor the influence on American youth by the drug-taking, subversive, anti-American Beatles. Presley did, however, acknowledge the Beatles’ contribution to music by performing several of their songs; while the Beatles, although they recorded and released songs made famous by most of their idols—Buddy Holly, Little Richard, Chuck Berry, Carl Perkins and Larry Williams among them—shied away from reproducing the work of Presley.
Despite their shared cultural impact on industry practice, there appears to be no comparative analysis of any aspects of the work produced by Elvis and the Beatles, other than, of course, endless streams of internet-based fan debate regarding who sold more records and who had more number ones. This lack of comparison is perhaps not that surprising, as there is very little sustained analytical work examining either’s engagement with the music or film industries. This essay attempts to redress this critical oversight in some degree by placing the film careers of Presley and the Beatles into a comparative industrial context. In doing so, it seeks to shed some light on the distinctive qualities of two sets of similar-but-different performers, recordings, and—in particular—rock and roll movies, while describing the industrial and cultural systems that encouraged and profited from those differences. It proposes two models of synergistic film and popular recorded music production, and in the process examines facets of the interchange between two key cultural industries. These are the “Elvis model” and the “Beatles model”. The “Elvis model” of synergy features the all-round entertainer, whose recordings serve a film career to the extent that the musical output takes a backseat to the requirements of film narrative. The “Beatles model” is by contrast a more typical “rocksploitation” archetype a la the Sam Katzman teen films of the 1950s, but with a 1960s refinement: the Beatles’ film career was launched when United Artists Records realized that the rights to a Beatles LP—in the form of a soundtrack album—were there for the taking. Within this latter model, film narrative ostensibly takes a backseat to the primacy of the artist’s recorded music. Now the more common of the two, the “Beatles model” established a pattern for future film and recorded music synergy more suited to the demands of a youth market.
The Elvis oeuvre: “twelve songs and lots of girls”
The confidence shown in (Elvis) by the motion picture industry undoubtedly will rub off to the benefit of all of us.
- Colonel Tom Parker, letter to RCA vice president Bill Bullock, 20/1/61
They don’t need titles. They could be numbered.
- MGM employee
On the 3rd of December, 1968, NBC-TV broadcast Elvis, Elvis Presley’s first television special, which within Presley mythology has become known as the “‘68 comeback special.” A comeback usually implies that a performer has been “out of work”—without a record or film deal, for example—but in 1968 alone, Presley had starred in three feature films. This said, the television special—which claimed 42% of the audience in its timeslot—can in some ways be seen as a comeback in popularity: Presley’s movies were generating dwindling box office returns, and he hadn’t had a top-twenty hit record since 1966. However, the movies still largely covered their costs, and Elvis’s lucrative RCA Victor recording contract still had several years to run. Within rock criticism, Elvis’s “comeback” has always weighed heavy with connotation, carrying the implication that the King, having abandoned his rock and roll kingdom for Hollywood several years before, had returned triumphantly at the end of the 1960s to reclaim his throne.
Upon his return from the army in 1960 Elvis “went Hollywood,” which for many rock critics signalled the end of his importance as a musical artist, and the beginnings of “the black hole of Elvis’s career.” At the end of the 1960s Nik Cohn wrote of the once “great original”:
Most of his time is spent in churning out an endless series of safe and boring musicals—Kissin’ cousins, Clambake, Frankie and Johnnie, Harem scarum, Girl happy—and each one seems worse than the one before. His songs are drab, his scripts are formulaic and his sets look as if they’ve been knocked together with two nails and a hammer. He still makes a fortune but his singles sell patchily and his films break no box office records.
James Miller, in his rock and roll history Almost grown, presents an equally harsh assessment of Presley’s film career, lambasting the “mind-boggling mediocrity of almost all of his highly profitable films.” For Miller, Presley not only “squandered the best years of his creative life on drivel and kitsch,” but can also take credit for the “juvenilization” of cinema, from the 1950s to “Star wars and beyond.”
Even allowing for the narrow perspective of much rock criticism, the complaints aired by these writers are accurate in one respect: they highlight the thoroughness of the transformation of Presley’s musical career from creative innovation to acquiescent commerciality. Upon the release of the Presley film catalogue on video in the mid-1980s, future Rolling stone film critic Peter Travers complained that Presley’s 1960s movies were “no more than excuses for the sound track albums.” In fact, quite the opposite is true: Presley’s recorded output became a mere commercial by-product of his film career. The promise of the young Memphis singer’s early recordings—rough-hewed, high-octane hillbilly R&B—was largely subsumed to the dictates of studio musical directors and orchestrators, the narrative requirements of pallid romantic comedies, and the financial demands of his lucrative publishing arrangements.
Hal Wallis had signed Presley to a three-picture deal in the wake of the publicity generated by the performer’s television appearances in February 1956. Wallis, a former Warner Brothers veteran, had produced The Maltese falcon (Huston, USA 1941), Casablanca (Curtiz, USA 1942) and Now, voyager (Rapper, USA 1942), among many others. In the mid-forties, Wallis negotiated a production deal at Paramount, which, as he proclaimed in his autobiography, was “the first truly independent set-up in the business.” This arrangement meant creative autonomy for the producer (“All we had to do was deliver the finished negative”), plus the added benefits of major marketing and distribution, and access to Paramount’s production facilities. Wallis’s unit set out to develop their own roster of stars, achieving great success in the 1950s with Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis.
After Presley’s performance on the Dorsey Brothers’ Stage Show on CBS, Wallis contacted the singer’s manager, “Colonel” Tom Parker, and arranged a screen test. According to Peter Guralnick, the producer saw “clear potential to tap into the new youth market, which was crying for a successor to the late Jimmy Dean,” an impression confirmed once William Morris Agency head Abe Lastfogel urged Wallis to sign the singer. Such confluences had, of course, not been left to chance: Parker had chosen William Morris to represent Presley specifically in light of that agency’s access to, and influence in, Hollywood and television.
The March 1956 screen test was comprised of two parts: first Elvis mimed to “Blue suede shoes,” in order for Wallis to ascertain if “the ‘indefinable energy’ that had showed up on television would translate into film.”  Then the singer performed two scenes from the Wallis property, The rainmaker (“. . . just trying to act as naturally as I could.”) Wallis’s description of the screen test highlights how he saw potential to mould the Memphis “hillbilly cat” into a classic male Hollywood star:
When I ran the test I felt the same thrill I experienced when I first saw Erroll Flynn on the screen. Elvis, in a very different, modern way, had exactly the same power, virility, and sexual drive. The camera caressed him.
The producer then entered into what he described as the toughest negotiations of his career: the Colonel extracted a three picture deal, with Presley receiving $100,000 for the first picture, rising in $50,000 increments to $200,000 by the third. These figures, impressive for 1956, undermine assumptions that his films were merely excuses for soundtrack albums. Ernst Jorgensen points out that during Presley’s film heyday, when Presley averaged three pictures a year, the star made more money from each film than from his combined annual royalty cheques.
Parker developed a synergistic formula through which the films could stimulate Presley’s publishing interests. This formula would ensure a significant stream of revenue, but it would also severely limit the range and quality of material available to the performer for recording. In 1956, Presley’s deal with music publishers Hill and Range guaranteed that he received a co-credit—plus one third of the royalties—on any new songs he recorded, an arrangement that apparently embarrassed the singer. Parker’s insistence on a substantial share of the publishing for every song recorded by Presley would mean that an increasingly limited pool of songwriters would be prepared to submit material. By the mid-1960s, Presley’s film release schedule called for up to forty songs a year, “tailored for a movie script, on which the writers would accept substandard royalties”; under the circumstances, it is perhaps inevitable that the quality of songs featured in these films would suffer.
Initially, however, the quality of the soundtracks was not problematic. Jailhouse rock (Thorpe, USA 1957) and King Creole (Curtiz, USA 1958) are often cited as Presley’s best films, in no small part due to the songs on offer, mostly supplied by R&B producers Mike Leiber and Jerry Stoller. Apparently contracted under duress to supervise the music for Jailhouse rock, Leiber and Stoller were eventually won over by the young singer’s “idiot savant” knowledge of obscure R&B recordings. After King Creole, however, the songwriters became frustrated at having to work within the musical formula established by Hal Wallis. According to Leiber, “...you had three ballads, one medium tempo, one up-tempo, and one break blues boogie, usually for a production number. It was too friendly boring...those friends only wanted to make another nickel the same way.”
Leiber and Stoller bowed out of future Presley film projects, leaving the singer often at the mercy of Hollywood music supervisors either unconcerned with—or openly hostile to—the nuances of rock and roll. For Wallis and Parker, the songs were largely inconsequential, as it was Presley’s star power that made audiences want to return for more—whether he was singing “Heartbreak Hotel,” “Don’t be cruel” and “All shook up,” or “The bullfighter was a lady,” “Do the clam,” and “Queenie Wahine’s papaya.” As a result of Parker’s conviction that the music was only there to serve the movies, Presley’s record label RCA Victor was effectively removed from the creative and decision-making processes. As RCA publicity officer Anne Fulchino put it, the Wallis deal marked the moment “‘when we really lost control’.”
Perhaps because of their soundtracks, certain film and music critics do not classify Elvis’s films as rock and roll movies. In Risky business: rock on film, R. Serge Denisoff and William D. Romanowski label Presley’s film output “personality pics,” rather than rocksploitation. Whereas the authors attempt to analyse in-depth all of the key 1950s “jukebox musicals” and juvenile delinquent dramas featuring rock and roll, Presley’s films garner no such attention; for the most part Risky business avoids any mention of Presley’s career. Certainly, unlike Bill Haley—or, later, the Beatles—Presley’s film career was conceived in the conventional popular star crossover tradition, with Parker taking inspiration from the popularity-sustaining precedents set by Al Jolson, Bing Crosby, and Frank Sinatra. It is only through Presley’s reputation that the soundtrack of his film debut, Love me tender (Webb, USA 1956), is associated with rock and roll: the lilting title song was adapted from the Civil War ballad “Aura Lee,” while “Let me,” “Poor boy” and “We’re gonna move,” were conducted in classic studio orchestra style by Fox veteran Lionel Newman.
The Hollywood style of scoring would prove problematic for Presley. Love me tender was originally a B western titled The Reno brothers. Elvis—who had been eager to tackle a straight acting (i.e., non-singing) role—was disappointed find that that the studio had arranged to include the three songs for him to perform. Eventually Parker—who argued for even more (Presley-published) songs—would also convince Twentieth Century-Fox to re-title the picture in order to enhance its cross-promotional scope. The recording session took place on Fox’s cavernous Stage One on August 21st, 1956. Up to this point, Presley’s recording sessions had either been held in the tiny Sun studio in Memphis, RCA’s slightly-less modest McGavock Street studio in Nashville, and that label’s state-of-the-art New York facility, all in the company of his band, guitarist Scotty Moore, bassist Bill Black, and, later, drummer D.J. Fontana. For these sessions—which produced the recordings that established Presley as a popular music phenomenon—Elvis had worked with the largely sympathetic ears of A&R men Sam Phillips, Steve Sholes and Chet Atkins, whose production methods often consisted of letting Presley run the session himself.
The Love me tender session, however, was for Presley a hostile and unfamiliar environment. Already uncomfortable on the huge sound stage, the singer was further troubled by the fact the studio had refused permission for Moore and Black to participate, instead utilizing their own regular studio musicians. Presley himself was not even permitted to play guitar; this was not necessarily stubbornness on Fox’s part, as the Los Angeles branch of the American Federation of Musicians was a powerful presence in Hollywood, and film studio recording sessions were closed shops to non-members. Also, despite the fact that the resulting recordings were scheduled to be released by RCA, no one associated with the label appears to have been present, and the film sound technicians were not up to the task of creating recording-quality sound. Although Presley was enthusiastic about the title cut, the other two Ken Darby songs—including the “silly up-tempo hillbilly number” “Let me”—were obviously the work of the man who had scored the likes of There’s no business like show business (Lang, USA 1954), Daddy long legs (Negulesco, USA 1955), Carousel (King, USA 1956) and The King and I (Lang, USA 1956).
The commercial wisdom of these working methods, however, was confirmed (for Parker at least) with the success of the “Love me tender” single. The song was publicly debuted by Presley on CBS’s The Ed Sullivan show on the 9th of September, with Elvis making sure to plug “‘our brand-new Twentieth Century Fox movie’” (still shooting and set for a late November opening). According to Peter Guralnick, this appearance “really boosted Presley’s stock with an adult audience for the first time.” RCA received almost one million pre-orders for “Love me tender,” despite the fact that they had not originally intended it to be a single. For Parker, it showed the way of the future: Presley’s first ballad—courtesy of the Hollywood studio system—had managed to sell three million copies, one million more than his previous biggest hit, “Heartbreak Hotel.” In the process “Love me tender” handily promoted the movie while broadening Elvis’s appeal to a family audience, many of whom had been wary of the controversy surrounding his generation-dividing rock and roll performances. By the end of 1956, film would become the key medium for Parker’s charge, circumventing any reliance on what Parker perceived as the dead-end niche market that was the fickle and faddish teen record buyer, and helping to transform Presley into an all-round—and potentially longer-lasting—family entertainer.
Parker and Wallis were not alone in this view of the limited youth market. On the eve of Love me tender’s release, Variety expressed doubts that an Elvis movie could make money outside the relatively small teenage audience, wondering whether “strictly juve appeal—as contrasted with ‘family’ appeal—can really pay off....” The film was released at Thanksgiving with a saturation booking campaign consisting of 575 prints sent to 551 theatres, the most in Twentieth Century-Fox’s history thus far. Such a campaign can either be seen as a sign of the studio’s faith in the drawing power of a new star, or of a major studio attempting to cash in as quickly as possible on what might have turned out to be only the latest in a string of pop music fads. This latter theory is supported by the fact that, long before the success of Jaws (Speilberg, USA 1975) established saturation booking as the cornerstone of blockbuster promotion, youth and rocksploitation films were commonly introduced in this manner. American International Pictures used this strategy in the 1960s in order to strike quickly before today’s surfing fad was left high and dry by tomorrow’s British beat boom craze.
Whatever Fox’s motivation, the plan worked, and by the following week Variety conceded that the film had received “sock grosses,” citing one ecstatic studio executive’s boast that the picture had done “‘two weeks business in one.’” The report was entitled “Presley’s pointer for films: get the teen trade,” and was in effect a complete turnaround from the week before, proclaiming that the success of Love me tender had “underscored the need for the industry to develop players and subject matter to bring out the juvenile audience sector,” a growing audience that, perhaps most importantly, bought enough popcorn and Coke to keep exhibitors happy. The article goes on to note that Giant (Stevens, USA 1956) was at the same time proving to be a “double draw” for both adults and teenaged fans of the late James Dean. Variety thus highlighted a dilemma that would plague Hollywood until Bonnie and Clyde (Penn, USA 1967) and The graduate (Nichols, USA 1968) “discovered” the lucrative youth niche audience in the late 1960s. In a state of denial about its changing audience, Hollywood of the 1950s and early 1960s still pursued the ideal of “all-things-to-everybody” family entertainment as it had in the 1930s and 1940s, before television and rock and roll began to carve the leisure industry into segments. The result was that Hollywood maintained its commitment to bland, big budget family pictures aimed at a fast disappearing audience. In trying to please everyone, it ultimately did not please enough of anyone. This was the beginning of an era of uncertainty and financial peril; the parallels between Hollywood’s strategies for family entertainment in the 1950s and 1960s and Parker’s crowd-pleasing plans for Elvis Presley are palpable. The actual career metamorphosis would, however, not take place until after Presley’s two-year stint in the army, which began in March 1958. His induction was seen at the time as a major set-back in the singer’s career trajectory; in truth, it gave Parker and Wallis the necessary breathing space to properly formulate the plan to transform the “hillbilly cat” into an all-round family entertainer. The new Elvis would be a versatile song and dance man who, by then having performed his patriotic duty, would have new-found respectability. In the meantime, there would be three more pictures before Presley’s enlistment, Loving you (Kanter, USA 1957), Jailhouse rock and King Creole.
Together, these films form a triumvirate of what are perhaps Presley’s only true rocksploitation movies. All three deal in some way with the machinations of the popular music—that is, rock and roll—industry, while playing on extra-textual references to Presley’s rise to stardom. They also incorporate elements of the conventional backstage musical, a common trope in 1950s rock and roll movies. Of course, in many of his other films Presley portrayed performers, but these were invariably small-time nightclub singers, or pilots/soldiers/race car drivers who indulged in a spot of amateur—and diegetically incongruous—singing (see Appendix 1). Unlike the three pre-army films, musical career aspirations were never again to be the focus of either the narratives or the characters in Presley’s movies.
The first of these rock and roll pictures, Loving you, was the only script Presley worked with constructed specifically around his persona. Originally titled Lonesome cowboy, it was written by director Hal Kanter who, after having spent some time with the singer in his home town of Memphis, loosely based it on Elvis’s own experiences. Such methods were common within the world of rocksploitation, with Sam Katzman’s Bill Haley films, and those associated with Alan Freed, similarly exploiting real life rock and roll success stories. United Artists would duplicate this process in late 1963 for their latest rock and roll movie, when Liverpool-based writer Alun Owen was commissioned to write a script for the film debut of the Beatles. Owen—nominated for the job by the band—accompanied the group on a sort of ethnographic field trip during a brief tour of Ireland in November. With these rocksploitation similarities in mind, a comparison of Loving you and the Beatles’ first film A hard day’s night (Lester, UK 1964)—their production histories, narratives, soundtracks, and critical receptions—will demonstrate confluence and divergence between the emblematic rock film careers of Elvis Presley and the Beatles.
“Their first full length, hilarious action-packed film”
...you went to see these movies with Elvis or somebody in it when we were still in Liverpool. And they’d all scream when he came on the screen, right. So we thought, “That’s a good job.”
- John Lennon
Despite the critical reputation it enjoys, the production origin of A hard day’s night—and thus the film career of the Beatles—is somewhat less salubrious than the courting of Presley by Hollywood eight years before. Whereas Paramount, Twentieth Century-Fox and MGM sought to tap into emergent star-power—and hoped to find the next Bing Crosby or Frank Sinatra—United Artists were simply looking for a quick hit record. For United Artists, the Beatles represented a chance to rescue their floundering record division. The fact that a film would be made was an irrelevance. United Artists hoped to capitalize on an oversight in the group’s June 1962 contract with their record company Parlophone (an EMI label), which did not include soundtrack rights. EMI’s apathy may have had its origins in the lackluster history of rock and roll movies in Britain; several had been produced in Britain in the preceding seven or so years, but none had achieved significant box office success.
In offering the Beatles a film contract as a means to secure a soundtrack LP, United Artists initiated a business strategy that had not been attempted before: preconceived commercial film and rock music synergy. None of the studios involved in Presley’s films—MGM, Fox, Paramount and United Artists —had a direct financial interest in the tie-in RCA soundtrack albums, nor the associated publishing revenues;  only Elvis and Parker profited simultaneously from both mediums. The concept of producing a movie as a means by which to procure an LP was new indeed. In fact, United Artists had very low expectations for the film itself, and provided only a modest ₤200,000 budget—one-tenth of the average UK production—obviously expecting a Sam Katzman-style cash-in quickie. By the end of 1963, the Beatles’ record sales accounted for almost half of the entire British record market, so United Artists was confident that it would cover the film’s budget through sales of the soundtrack album alone.
United Artists was right: the album sold 1,500,000 copies in two weeks, reaping a two million dollar profit for the studio, and recouping the negative cost many times over before the film was even released. The band’s success in the US in early 1964—before filming began—was an unforeseen bonus for United Artists . After battling for almost two years to get their US subsidiary Capitol interested in the Beatles, EMI finally convinced the label to release “I want to hold your hand” at the end of 1963. The single sold 250,000 copies in three days—10,000 an hour in New York City alone—and by mid-January it was number one. Their appearance on the Ed Sullivan show on the 9th of February was watched by seventy-three million people, the largest television audience to that time. Nine days after returning to England, the band reported to the set, and by the third week of filming the Beatles learned that they now held numbers 1, 2, 3, 4, and 5 on Billboard’s US “Hot 100” chart (as well as 31, 41, 58, 65, 68, and 79). In preparation for A hard day’s night’s August US release, United Artists initiated a saturation booking campaign, announcing that they would release 700 prints to North American cinemas alone, more than for any other film in history. This strategy, combined with the Beatles’ popularity, enabled the film to gross $1.3 million in its first week; after 6 weeks, it had made $5.8 million, and by 1965, $10 million.
A day in the life: Loving you and A hard day’s night
...I got out there and just tried to...act as naturally as I could.
- Elvis Presley
Well, it’s as good as anybody that makes a film who can’t act...
- John Lennon
As John Mundy argues, in the 1950s English pop music existed under the shadow of the conservative BBC light entertainment and British music hall theatre traditions. Thus, so too did the British pop music film. Each new UK “Elvis”— Cliff Richard, Tommy Steele, Billy Fury et al.—was quickly signed to star in a cash-in movie. For Andy Medhurst, the Cliff Richard vehicle Expresso bongo (Guest, UK 1960) ranks as perhaps the only pre-Beatle British pop movie of any merit, but in truth it differs little from a standard Katzman-style exploitation film. Even when these films featured popular British rock and roll stars, they tended to be critical of the music itself, treating it at best as a passing fad out of which the better performers would graduate into “proper” all-round entertainers, or, at worst, as aurally emblematic of the sleazy world of teenage exploitation. This attitude was largely forged in Hollywood. In even the three Presley rock films, rock and roll was implicated in both social discord and unsavoury business practices: in Loving you Deke Rivers runs foul of a town committee attempting to block his “lascivious” performance; in Jailhouse rock music (and movie) stardom corrupts ex-con Vince Everett; in King Creole, music brings Danny Fisher into contact with the New Orleans underworld. In stark contrast, throughout A hard day’s night, the four Beatles simply get on with the job of rehearsing and performing rock and roll. The narrative implicates their music in little more than fun and youthful exuberance; indeed—for perhaps the first time in the 1960s—it implies that pop music can be the key to personal expression and, thus, freedom. The only downside appears to be the band members’ loss of anonymity and the odd annoying press conference; even the (hardly sinister) attempts by Paul’s grandfather (Wilfred Brambell) to exploit the Beatles’ popularity are of limited scope and thwarted at every turn.
Another key departure in Richard Lester’s film from previous rock and roll films of both the UK and Hollywood was the representation of generational conflict. Previous rock and roll movies set the generations against each other: the kids want to rock, but the town elders disapprove; the kids then put on a show and convince the grown-ups that rock and roll is just good clean fun. This device did not die in the 1950s; it was still in use at least as late as Rock ‘n’ roll High School (Arkush, USA 1979) and Footloose (Ross, USA 1984). And it is, indeed, the narrative mechanism that brings Loving you to its climax. In a scene that could have been lifted directly from a Sam Katzman film, Deke Rivers’ press agent, Glenda Markle (Lizabeth Scott), pleads her client’s case to the town elders of Freegate, Texas, after pressure from the local “mothers’ committee” leads to the cancellation of his concert. Glenda vehemently defends rock and roll by citing precedent:
You cannot blame the behaviour of young people—or old people—on music. Why, you’re the same people who were doing the ‘Charleston’ and the ‘Black Bottom’ twenty years ago. Thirty years ago people were alarmed at what they thought jazz was doing to the country. Why, some of our leading magazines were printing articles like, ‘Is jazz the plot of disaster?’, ‘Unspeakable jazz must go’, ‘Does jazz put the “sin” in “syncopation”?’ Now you’re adopting the same attitude toward rock and roll, because your kids use it to let off steam.
Citing every US citizen’s right to a fair hearing, Glenda proposes that they let the public decide, via a live coast-to-coast television performance by Deke Rivers. Despite the fact that thus far in the film Rivers is still an un-recorded, purely regional success, Glenda announces that a national network has committed to telecasting this proto-American idol cultural experiment from the Freegate Civic Hall that very evening. Won over by Glenda’s charm, the elders agree to let the concert proceed.
The broadcast commences with a presenter intoning solemnly, “America—judge for yourself,” before Rivers appears, dressed from head-to-toe in denim. In an explicit reference to Presley’s groundbreaking family-friendly Ed Sullivan performance of “Love me tender” the previous September, Rivers opens with “Loving you,” a string-laden ballad designed to transgress generational borders. With the old folk in the audience visibly won over by this display of sincere, non-threatening entertainment values, Rivers takes his cue and introduces them to his brand of rock and roll, with a full hip-swiveling, pelvis-swinging, lip-curling performance of “Lotta livin’.” Not only does rock and roll gain immediate social acceptance, but the feel-good, classic Hollywood musical narrative resolution provided by the concert segues into even more conventional “formation of the nuclear family” closure: the orphan Deke asks both Glenda and his musical mentor Tex Warner (Wendell Corey) to be his co-managers. (They themselves have only that moment reunited as a couple after tensions caused by Deke’s success had led to estrangement.) This shot takes the form of a family portrait, with Deke and his newly adopted “parents” bonded together in the foreground; in the background, eager to join this trio of domestic harmony, is the singer’s promising future, in the form of Susan (Dolores Hart), who has Deke’s heart, and a television producer (Vernon Rich), who has Deke’s lucrative contract.
Whereas in Loving you intergenerational strife is resolved in a conclusion that brings together family and entertainment on a number of levels, in their dealings with the establishment the Beatles take quite another tack. During the train compartment sequence at the beginning of A hard day’s night, for example, the four Beatles are already making little attempt to win over the older generation; in fact, they are openly dismissive. This small hint of animus—directed at a bowler-hatted middle-aged city commuter (Richard Vernon) who objected to their presence in his regular compartment—is, however, not the same type of generational friction usually present in, say, a juvenile delinquent film. John, Paul, George and Ringo are portrayed as victims, not of society or broken homes, but of staid tradition. Rather than ultimately conforming to social norms (as with Gregory [Sidney Poitier] in The blackboard jungle), or earning societal approval via a demonstrable work ethic (as with Deke Rivers), the Beatles, after a brief attempt at cheerful amiability, become contemptuous of the commuter’s arrogant propriety. Tensions escalate when the older gentleman turns off Ringo’s transistor radio, this film’s version of a City Hall ban on rock and roll. Lennon taunts the pompous, upper middle-class war veteran by questioning his masculinity (“Give us a kiss.”), then simply gives up: “You can’t win with his sort, after all it’s his train—isn’t it, mister?” They leave the compartment, but not before McCartney gets in one last jibe: “Come on, let’s go and have some coffee and leave the kennel to Lassie.”
The difference between these two versions of generational conflict is not simply a matter of altered content and tone. If Loving you suffers through critical comparisons to A hard day’s night in any department, it would be acting. Presley is far less convincing in dramatic scenes, struggling to maintain a consistency of style when called upon to register anger or remorse. He does, however, command the screen when the script allows him to display his (apparently) natural charm, whether it be within a musical performance, or character interaction. The script of A hard day’s night, on the other hand, was tailored around the affable natures of the four protagonists—displaying charm is really all the Beatles have to do. Even the confrontation noted above was more cheeky than churlish. For Robert Murphy, Richard Lester’s directorial style both relied on and amplified this charm, portraying
the four good-natured Beatles trying to live out their lives in a world restricted by idiotic and outdated prohibitions. Lester presents this world with a detached, quizzical surrealism which matched the Beatles’ stoical Liverpool humour....
Thus, film form works to encourage and aid the Beatles in their mission to undermine the conventional and tweak the establishment. The altercation is presented in a series of disorienting hand-held close-ups and whip-pans. Lester also toys with verisimilitude: jump cut edits allow the four Beatles to appear in “impossible” positions, as when they run and cycle alongside the train, taunting their foe. Apparently the Beatles will never see the error of their youthful ways; the older generation—if they appear in the band’s sights at all—are there to be tolerated, or mocked until the Beatles become bored and move on to something else. In its non-sensational representation of generational difference, this is arguably the first film made by young people for young people.
Lester created an “odd, metatextual creature,” combining British kitchen-sink naturalism, cinema verite-style probing, Godardian structural playfulness, and a surrealist interest in the plasticity of the image. In this way, A hard day’s night finally “removed the filter of condescension and contempt” associated with the teen film market. Jeff Smith singles out the “Can’t buy me love” sequence—in which all four Beatles burst forth from the confines of a television studio and cavort uninhibitedly in a field—as a defining moment in the history of the previously restrictive relationship between rock and film, a relationship that had thus far shackled pop music to a purely commercial, diegetic novelty function:
Mixing fast and slow motion with a series of unusual camera angles, director Richard Lester created a rapid montage sequence that was a unified aural and visual whole. [A hard day’s night] proved that rock music could be used as an underscore for filmed action; a director simply had to use the music in a proper context or treat it as an element equal to the image.
The footage of the band frolicking to their most recent single was given the full, fragmentary Godardian jump-cut treatment. While the rest of the film featured the Beatles lip-syncing to their hits in classic “jukebox musical” fashion, the song in this sequence had no diegetic justification. The camera work itself consists of remarkably shaky and disorienting aerial and hand-held camera shots. Acknowledging the camera, the Beatles grab at it; at one point, one of them appears to be in control, tilting down to shoot his own boots. An anarchistic narrative non sequitur though this sequence may be, the steady two-step country-rock beat of the song itself provides all the textual unity required. This formal liberation of pop music from the diegesis would serve film well over the next decade and beyond.
Presley, too, has an eye-catching musical set-piece in Loving you, albeit one that draws on notably different influences, influences that further highlight the similar generic tropes—yet very distinct formal qualities—of these two rock movies. Midway through the film, Deke Rivers is set to headline the Grand Theatre in Amarillo, Texas. It is a crucial juncture in the narrative: not only is it considered a prestigious booking for a country singer on the rise (“A city!” crows Tex, “They have sidewalks, cops who wear shoes.”), but it will be the first time Deke receives equal billing with Tex. Before the concert, however, Deke must weather some dramatic tension: he is involved in a fight—provoked by a jealous Amarillo hood—that could damage his reputation. Instead, it enhances it. Appropriately for this conventional Hollywood trope, Deke’s triumphant performance of “Teddy bear”—to a full house, thanks to the publicity generated by the fight—is afforded a deliciously glossy and stylized widescreen mise en scene . Presley, shot from below (as if from the audience), is presented as a commanding presence with a broad, confident stance. Unlike the energetic performance intended to appease the bully the night before—and the one designed to win over the older generation at the end of the film—here Deke tosses off a seemingly effortless, loose-limbed display of his talents, an un-strummed acoustic guitar slung casually over his shoulder. Across the rear of the stage, in shadow, Tex and the Rough Ridin’ Ramblers form a straight “chorus line”,  bobbing rhythmically before a large sparkling purple backdrop, as the looming shadows of two guitars criss-cross majestically above them. Overly-colourful and stylized, it is a hillbilly concert as seen through the visual imagination of the Hollywood musical.
The first musical sequence in A Hard day’s night appears, on first glance, to also hold to musical convention. Crammed into a “depressing” train luggage compartment with Paul’s grandfather and a dog, the band begins a game of cards. The opening harmonica riff from “I should have known better” fades in non-diegetically and, despite the fact that musical convention would have it that the band are about to burst into song, the card game continues. The slight rhythmic nodding of George and Ringo’s heads, and a shot of Paul “singing along” to half a line, are the only acknowledgments that they are aware of this music. Suddenly, at the beginning of the second verse, there is a jump cut and the diegesis alters: in a close-up profile shot, Lennon is now playing the harmonica riff. He then begins to sing (itself a technical impossibility, as the riff and vocal overlap) and a further cut reveals that the rest of the band also have their instruments. We have thus reverted to quite another musical convention, that of the mimed diegetic performance (as opposed to the mimed non-diegetic performance wherein a performer “sings” to an invisible, pre-recorded orchestra that the fade-in originally hinted at). As the coda begins, we cut back to the card game and the song fades out. With this musical number Lester establishes a narrative model for what is to follow: French new wave-styled verite realism (working class northerners playing cards in a dingy space, shot in grainy, hand-held black and white) meets (almost) conventional surrealist musical fantasy.
The concept of a Godardian/cinema verite hybrid is the key to fully appreciating A hard day’s night’s commercial influence, popularizing as it did styles of filmmaking that previously had only been seen by a relatively small art house audience. Associate producer Dennis O’Dell has confirmed on several occasions that their brief was to capture a Godard-inflected style of cinema verite realism, a style that United Artists had neither requested prior to nor appreciated after completion of the film, but which was an important factor in its influence. Note, for example, the train scenes, which necessitated 2500 miles of rail travel. Likewise, the sequence featuring Ringo “parading” along the Thames towpath was hailed at the time for both its realist sensibility and Starr’s engaging performance. By contrast to the verite realism in A hard day’s night, the aesthetics of Loving you are straight Hollywood. In addition to the conventional musical set pieces, the dramatic chase scene in the Presley film employs standard, ill-matched (yet technically proficient) back-projection in keeping with the film’s high production values. In this way the Hollywood styling of Loving you endeavours to tie Presley to a safer, more traditional past, even as its narrative focuses on the resolution of generational difference; A hard day’s night’s documentary style, location shooting and nouvelle vague leanings, however, signals that this is a rock and roll movie unafraid to locate the fab four in a realistic, unfixed present.
Despite such formal differences, the climaxes of both films are remarkably similar in that they each rely on a standard backstage musical trope: “will the show go on?” Both narrative climaxes are governed by pressing temporal forces: a live television broadcast is imminent, but the star(s) has/have gone missing. Deke, emotionally tormented by the love triangle, roars off in his jalopy—with Glenda in pursuit—minutes before his telecast, visibly testing the nerves of the program’s producer. Similarly, in A hard day’s night Ringo, feeling unappreciated after Paul’s grandfather “fills his head with notions,” absconds from the studio, only to be arrested for “malicious intent” while the program’s director (Victor Spinetti) also grows suitably apoplectic (Lennon: “Control yourself. You’ll spurt”). With less than half an hour until the telecast, the rest of the band attempt to liberate Ringo in a fragmented chase sequence which is once again anchored by “Can’t buy me love.” The different styles of these chase sequences go beyond the obvious generic differences associated with Loving you’s drama and A hard day’s night’s comedy. In its way, the Loving you chase is also played for laughs as Glenda, finding Deke prostrate under his crashed jalopy, assumes he is dead; he is merely repairing the damage (Deke’s anxious, sweating producer is also intended to elicit laughs). Lester’s chase sequence, on the other hand, is yet another excuse for formal stylistic display—in this case, a playful adaptation of the techniques of slapstick silent film comedy.
Stylistically different though the two films are, they both demonstrate their debt to the backstage musical and use that trope in order to replay the role that television had in both performers’ careers. In the “thrilling conclusion” of each film, we can see that Loving you and A hard day’s night crystallized marketable images at crucial stages in the careers of Elvis Presley and the Beatles. Through the conventional rocksploitation climax of the live television performance, these movies drew on the mainstream audience’s familiarity with each act’s career-defining variety television performances, for the Dorsey Brothers, Milton Berle, Steve Allen, Ed Sullivan, Val Parnell and the Queen Mother. Each film thus narratively memorialised the trajectory of its stars’ careers. In the case of Loving you that representation is rich with cozy, family-friendly associations. For Presley, these domestic associations were deemed necessary, as Parker was concerned about the bad publicity often resulting from “violent” rock and roll concerts. By contrast, no stentorian-voiced announcer heralds the arrival of the Beatles, and certainly no one invites the audience to pass judgment. Although there is likewise a reunion of group and family, Lester does not emphasise this resolution in the same manner as Loving you. After the comically pointless chase scene, the band members casually stroll into the studio from the street, unperturbed by all the fuss. The mise en scene places so little emphasis on their just-in-time reappearance, that the audience must strain to locate them amid the foreground clutter of film equipment, dancing girls and crew members. Then, appropriate to the youth- and fan-orientation of the film, the focus in its conclusion rests on the group and its music. Suddenly they are onstage, belting out “Tell me why” to an almost grotesquely enthusiastic crowd. This denouement is easily the most conventional portion of the film, consisting of ten minutes of standard rock and roll performance, with only the odd verite touch: a quick zoom into a screaming face here, an unconventionally extreme low-angle shot of Lennon there.
A hard day’s night was in effect a film class pointing to the potential for formal expansion in popular cinema. Lester and the Beatles had creative leeway to incorporate cinema verite and nouvelle vague touches because United Artists saw little reason to be concerned about the qualities—narrative, formal, production value or otherwise—of the finished film. Thus, in contrast to standard rocksploitation fare, A hard day’s night was able to draw on a range of film styles that previous examples of the genre had neither the time nor the inclination to be concerned with, and it used these playfully but unapologetically to present the pleasures of Beatle music in a youth-oriented film. Yet this was an unlikely site of formal innovation: the Beatles had initially feared they would be forced to appear in a standard Katzman-style quickie exploitation movie. They had seen the types of movies Bill Haley had made, and they had also watched in horror as Hollywood had turned their idol Elvis Presley into, they felt, a poor man’s Dean Martin. Instead, just as they had begun to assert their power in the recording studio, so too did they take a critical interest in the film deals that were offered to them. By contrast, recording and film selection were, as we have seen, the two areas in which Presley himself had quickly lost control.
With four, you can associate with one of us and still like the rest of us. If you didn’t like Elvis, that was that.
- Ringo Starr
The uneventful meeting between Presley and the Beatles in 1965 was the result of a compromise between Colonel Tom Parker and Brian Epstein. If Parker had had his wish, these entertainment colossi would have met on a Paramount soundstage, with the Beatles performing as Elvis’s backing band in Paradise, Hawaiian style. What could have been Parker’s greatest publicity coup was ultimately prohibited by the group’s United Artists deal. According to Peter Guralnick, at this time Elvis Presley both admired and felt threatened by the Beatles,
... he was envious of the freedom that they evidently seemed to feel and to flaunt. He, too, had once enjoyed that freedom, he, too, had once been in the vanguard of the revolution, and now he was embarrassed to listen to his own music, to watch his own films.
The Beatles’ career differed from Elvis’s in two important ways. Firstly, film always remained a secondary concern to the Beatles, and after A hard day’s night the band increasingly came to see their (hardly demanding) contractual commitment to appear in films as an irritant. Presley, too, came to see movies as a distraction—quite understandably, as during the 1960s he churned out twenty-one features. The Beatles made five, one of which was a cartoon in which they only appeared briefly, the other a documentary. But Presley’s manager bound the singer to a film contract that changed the entire focus of his career. This led directly to the other significant distinction between the Beatles’ and Elvis Presley’s working methods: Presley’s recordings became no more than a means to compiling a film soundtrack—not even Presley’s record company, RCA, had a say in the material recorded. A roster of professional (but less than first-rate) Tin Pan Alley songwriters hired by the film studios kept the king of rock and roll supplied with songs custom-made for his movies. Presley hated these songs, but was obligated—both contractually and through his loyalty to Parker—to record them.
Appendix 3 illustrates how thoroughly Elvis’s film career dominated his post-army recorded output. Between 1960 and 1970, of the twenty-eight Elvis Presley LPs released, sixteen were soundtrack albums. After Pot luck with Elvis in 1962, Presley did not record another critically regarded rock and roll album until the post-comeback From Elvis in Memphis in 1969. In an era when the Beatles, Brian Wilson and others were establishing the long-playing rock album as both the aesthetic and commercial flagship of the record industry, (pushing revenues over the one billion dollar mark for the first time) Colonel Tom Parker had ensured that Presley’s musical career was at the mercy of his increasingly poor-quality films. With Presley singing songs about harem holidays, papayas and clams, record sales slumped accordingly. In a further irony, it was during this period that rock LPs first began to outsell the previous mainstay of the album market—the film soundtrack.
The Beatles had a career in film because United Artists was one of the first record companies to recognize the value of the teen LP market, a recognition largely located in the early 1960s success of the soundtracks for G.I. blues and Blue Hawaii. For A hard day’s night, however, the Beatles, only recorded material that met their particular professional standards: their own. At their second recording session in 1962, producer George Martin forced them to record “How do you do it,” a Tin Pan Alley version of the Merseybeat sound. The band purposely recorded an inferior version, ensuring that Martin deemed it unreleasable; he never again attempted to force a song on them. While the A hard day’s night LP did have a specific utility, and was thus—like the majority of Presley’s LPs in the 1960s—a record tailored to the demands of their film contract, the actual recording sessions appear to have been conducted no differently than their previous two albums. Indeed, the LP was a clear progression from Please please me and With the Beatles, both of which relied on cover versions to fill out the track listings. All the songs on (and in) A hard day’s night—and all of their subsequent films—were written by the Beatles. Never before had the stars of a film written all the music in that film. Even the incidental score—arranged by George Martin—was based on Beatle originals. For the Beatles, films were never any more than an adjunct to the practice of creating music—but for most of Elvis Presley’s career, Hollywood called the tune.