Celluloid Rock
By Andrew Loog Oldham

First posted: 5/14/01

The marriage of film and rock music
remained strained and spotty until Martin Scorsese nailed the art with his seminal Mean Streets in 1973. Being a serious rock hound himself, he knew how rock formed the soundtrack to our lives and intuitively fused music and film into a seamless rush of sound and image.

Ever since rock ‘n’ roll raised its pimply head in the mid-‘50s, pop fans have wanted to see their idols larger than life prancing on the big screen, and movie producers were happy to collide and oblige. Alas, in almost fifty years of celluloid rock, there are pitifully few great examples of this collaboration.

A Hard Day’s Night (1964) succeeds by not being a rock film at all in the usual sense. It pretended to be a documentary of a day in the life of the Beatles. And, seduced by their wit and cheek, we believed it utterly. Thus, it worked then, as it does today.

Why, given the apparent possibilities, are there so few other successful collaborations between rock and film? The first difficulty is fitting your average rock star into the Procrustean bed of the movies. Rock is not subtle; it’s larger-than-life, and your average rock star is a ringmaster of over-the-top histrionics. Conversely, the power of a great movie performance is in what the actor withholds.

You’d have thought—before seeing his films, that is—that the King would have made a pretty good movie star, but Elvis only managed to turn in three or four acceptable performances in a run of thirty some films. In his first three outings—Love Me Tender (1956), Jailhouse Rock (1957) and King Creole (1958)—all black & white, as was A Hard Day’s Night, he pulled it off. But after he got out of the Army, Elvis pilled-out, colored-up and acquiesced to the Colonel’s dopey assembly line of bland location movies.

Presley enjoyed a distinct advantage over most other performers in that, outside of America, he never performed live—so we only knew him from movies and records. At the time, we "in-the-know" all put this down to astute career planning by manager Colonel Parker, only to learn later that the real reason was that the Colonel, an illegal immigrant, couldn’t get a passport and would not let his boy wander off alone.

On the home front, Cliff got off to a fair start with Serious Charge (1959) and Espresso Bongo (1960), before following the Presley route of holiday romps to the accompaniment of naff-hack ballads. Adam Faith, with his mod Brad Pitt turn opposite Peter Sellers in the gangster-noir Never Let Go (1960), was the only performer of the day to effectively carry his weight on film. He pulled it off simply because his real job description had always been, first and foremost, an actor who also happened to sing.

The only film of the era that truly managed to cut the celluloid groove was The Girl Can’t Help It (1956), an audacious Hollywood romp that forever captured rock ‘n’ roll magic and a reason-to-believe in Little Richard, Gene Vincent and Eddie Cochran. It also managed, with comedic guile, to brilliantly pastiche the romantically corrupt art of American popular music.

Ah, I think it’s time for my cameo. In January of 1963, I starred in my own movie with the Beatles. I had left school at age 16 in 1960, window-dressed for Mary Quant, bummed around Europe and the South of France, hung coats at Ronnie Scott’s Jazz Club and finally ferreted my way into pop music by becoming press agent for Mark Wynter, a teen idol who’d scored big in the charts with "Venus in Blue Jeans" and "Go Away, Little Girl." One of my duties for Mr. Wynter involved my accompanying him to Birmingham for the filming of the top pop program of the day, ABC TV’s Thank Your Lucky Stars. Watching from the wings, I was held by this group—the Beatles—performing their new release and second single, "Please, Please Me" on national television. For me, it was a pop epiphany.

They weren’t that different in appearance from the other acts. They were all wearing suits and ties, but they exuded an attitude that was blunt, up and honest as they mimed to the soundtrack of their single. The sound was familiar, but this was no mere copy of the American music we all loved—it took it to another level and injected the Pentecostal joy back into rock ‘n’ roll. The group would bring this gospel of pop to America and take it from being a long-distance collage of dead Kennedys, wide-open spaces and doo-wop skyscraper opportunity into the brave new world of the ‘60s. And a few months after that, the Beatles had taken over the world.

I went over to John Lennon and asked him who their manager was. He stuck his thumb in the direction of an elegant-looking man standing in the hall. Brian Epstein radiated success in his expensive overcoat, paisley scarf and haughty demeanor; a younger Kevin Spacey would have loved to play Eppy in rep. I studied this unpop-looking hotshot for a moment and quickly decided he was worth a hustle. He was definitely a man obsessed, a man on a mission—and I wanted in. We took each other’s measure and passed the tests.

Brian complained that the Beatles record label, Parlophone, was not really helping him promote the group and perhaps, yes, maybe they did need somebody pounding the pavements for them in... London. He pronounced the word London like a man getting rid of phlegm. The London music business had not been very kind to Eppy and his boys. And Brian Epstein must be remembered as the man who persevered against all odds, valiantly soldiering over multi-rejection until he got his lads the record deal that changed the musical century.

In 1963 London was a long way from Liverpool, and the ‘60s were far from swinging. It was a world in which crooning was a safe-sex condomed exchange, in which long-distance phone calls were almost a vulgarity, save for the occasion of reporting a death in the family or, on less occasions, to announce a birth.

Brian liked my chops and agreed to a fiver per week. And so I went about heralding the birth of the Beatles. The group came down to London once every two or three weeks, staying for two days in a hotel on Sloane Square adjacent to the Royal Court. I got them lots of ink, which wasn’t too difficult. By the early spring, both "Please, Please Me" and "From Me To You" had zoomed to the top of the charts and the press were primed—they had already smelt pop blue blood.

Brian was rather snotty about the press so I got to be "manager for a day" when they came to town. As they greeted me in the lobby of that narrow hotel facing W.H. Smith’s, they were already utterly themselves—the Beatles already were.

We’d cab from Soho to Fleet Street, visiting the pop scribes of the day. We would ogle and fawn over Disc magazine’s Penny Valentine; trade vinyl with d-j Alan Freeman whilst he contemplated ogling Paul; the group would reveal exclusive recording and on-the-road secrets to the NME’s Keith Altham whilst I’d hustle Chris Hutchins for the same rag’s news page lead. Lennon was a cute lout, laconic and rude and already taking no prisoners. Paul bopped, weaved and almost curtsied. George was already to the manna born and Ringo nimble and droll.

Had I been a camera, I could’ve filmed my own hard day’s night any afternoon I was with them—the Beatles were always on. A few months later, I met the Rolling Stones and said hallo to the rest of that life, whilst the Beatles took the leap of faith from vinyl and screams to cinema seats and A Hard Day’s Night.

The Fab Four lucked out in this venture by being surrounded by yanks—producer Walter Shenson, United Artists UK topper Bud Ornstein and director Richard Lester—plus one of their own—Alun Owen, a Liverpool Welshman. Shenson, Ornstein and Lester were transplanted Americans, and therein lies the rub. I don’t think British movie-makers would have been capable of "getting" the Beatles—just as the majority of the British record companies had failed to "get" them—they’d have been dismissed with disdain.

Bud Ornstein made the first overture to Epstein about making a Beatles film and chose Walter Shenson to produce it. And hereby hangs a tale of pop biz serendipity. Shenson had produced The Mouse That Roared (1960) and The Mouse On The Moon (1963)—the former starring Peter Sellers, the latter directed by Richard Lester. Lester was a characteristic ‘60s blend of craftsman and free spirit. He’d studied clinical psychology at university (a definite plus in dealing with entertainers), composed music, sung with a vocal group and worked as a stagehand at a local Philadelphia TV studio. At twenty, he was a successful TV director at CBS. He, too, had bummed across Europe, playing piano or guitar for his supper (my specialty was chat) and, in 1956, settled in England, where he resumed his career as a TV director. A meeting with Peter Sellers led to a number of television assignments and Lester’s first feature, The Running, Jumping And Standing Still Film (1960), a fragmented, inventive, slapstick, sight-gag driven affair that featured (and was produced by) Mr. Sellers. And thus it came about that Walter Shenson proposed to Brian Epstein that Richard Lester direct A Hard Day’s Night. And Lester brought as mature and diverse a palette to the film life of the Beatles as George Martin brought to Abbey Road.

When the Beatles’ movie first appeared, critics drew parallels between the Beatles and the Marx Brothers. And whilst it is possible to see the wisecracking Lennon as Groucho and Ringo quasi-Harpo, the thread really belongs to Peter Sellers and the Goons. The mirth and ludicrousity of Sellers, Secombe, Milligan and Michael Bentine was the stuff we rock ‘n’ roll war babies had been weaned on. Sellers was a quiet but manic force behind the best of the British New Wave popular film movement of the late ‘50s that preceded the next cultural phase: the fusion of fashion into pop. He was also one of George Martin’s Parlophone recording artists, the EMI comedy-based label that finally gave the Beatles a home.

Owen was a seasoned television writer with a gift for the grit and the word. In writing the screenplay, he had the good sense to follow the Beatles around, record what he heard, write it up and let it be. Steven Soderbergh (the same guy who just won an Oscar for directing Traffic), in an interview with Richard Lester, asked: "Who exactly decided it should be ‘A Day In The Life’?" [The film’s original title before Ringo came up with A Hard Day’s Night] "I’ve heard Owen say it was him, and I’ve heard you say it was you following Lennon to Paris once."

Lester replied: "Well, Alun, Walter and I all went and stayed in the George V when they played Paris. They were on the same floor, they had room service, we got into the cars, there was this screaming, we were backstage with them. The film was writing itself in front of us. It would have taken an idiot not to say ‘Let’s do this.’ I don’t think there was any discussion at all about an alternative way of doing that film."

Ah, the great stabilizer—room service.

In the first week of July 1964, A Hard Day’s Night got a royal charity film premiere at the London Pavilion Cinema, followed by a swank party at the Dorchester Hotel. We’re a year away from M.B.E’s, and the ‘60s would seem to be swinging—at least none of us have had to get a regular job. One of my lively lads, Brian Jones, attended the Dorchester bash and was welcomed by the Beatles. Mick, Keith and I didn’t go—perhaps we had the celluloid blues, or maybe Tony Hancock was on the telly.

In any event, at home we were playing well—away in America was another matter. The group was scoring in the urban and informed big cities, but beyond the bright lights we were struggling. It would be nearly a year before the Stones cracked the U.S. Top Ten with one of their own songs and got that national anthem. So perhaps that was the night I locked Mick and Keith in the loo with orders to write—and if we had any film, we smoked it.

The Rolling Stones would not fare well on the celluloid trail—schemes did not come true. We never made a movie-movie, and perhaps it’s just as well. Oh, I went the rounds, made all the noises and we met all the sacred monsters. I first tried to get the rights for A Clockwork Orange, but Anthony Burgess had been, very prematurely, told he was dying and had sold the movie rights to Stanley Kubrick for a tawdry five grand, and Mr. Kubrick didn’t reckon Mick. We settled for a second best novel called Only Lovers Left Alive. And after that too came to naught, the Rolling Stones’ film career was dead.

Mick and I took meetings with writers Willis Hall and Keith Waterhouse—it’s amazing, in retrospect, how a few years’ difference in age and a bit of success can cloud one’s altitude. We thought they were old farts, and they thought us young farts and inane. We next met with B-actor turned (almost) A-director Bryan Forbes, took tea and lusted after his missus, Nanette Newman. All I remember Mr. Forbes asking was whether Mick or I could confirm whether Elvis was gay. The final pit stop was a dark mews house off Marble Arch where we met with Rebel Without A Cause director Nicholas Ray. Little did we know it then, but 55 Days At Peking (1963) was to be Ray’s last film. He was only in his mid-fifties but looked a bad eighty and a day. I can still recall the unnerving silence as we sat there with the ghost of James Dean past hovering over the gloom. As we walked away from this encounter, Jagger had me promise never to put him through that hell again. I didn’t.

Mick went on to his own cinematic hell, with films as needy as Ned Kelly (1970) to Freejack (1991), whilst confirming that most pop stars, upon opening their mouth in a movie, lose whatever rhythm, charisma and aplomb they walked on the set with. Jagger is rightly praised for his role in Performance (1970), but, perhaps because I thought he was playing me, I found James Fox’s performance more riveting. Performance is symptomatic of late-‘60s ennui. Part of its sinister appeal is that it is an ode to excess, drugs, sloth and an inability to produce. Our audience had grown tired of rock and it’s poperatics and now wanted see its participants fail, get busted and go to jail.

When Soderbergh asks if the Beatles were high while filming, Lester answers: "A Hard Day’s Night was a film, by and large, that wasn’t performed under the continuous use of dope." But then they didn’t need to be, did they? By and large, they were high on the first giddy roller coaster of the ‘60s that they had built for themselves—and for us.

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