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January 19, 2007

Some thoughts on Richard Lester on his 75th Birthday

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Richard Lester was the first director I really seriously admired. While other people around my age saw A Hard Day's Night and wanted to be rock and roll stars, I wanted to be the guy who directed the movie. If I couldn't be the director, I wanted to at least be the cinematographer which in this case was Gilbert Taylor. As I had seen just a short time before A Hard Day's Night, Taylor was the person I had hoped I was emulating at the time I was the cinematograper on a 16mm film in junior high school. My idolization of Lester included keeping a profile written about him in the New York Times magazine. I had only seen one other film that he had done, Mouse on the Moon, and that was simply because it was part of a double feature with The Great Escape. But the film with The Beatles gave me a glimpse of very different kind of filmmaking.

What Lester did was not entirely original, but in some ways A Hard Day's Night reflected Brian Epstein's advice to The Beatles. I am paraphrasing here, but Epstein had encouraged The Beatles to be aware of new trends in music in order to stay a step ahead of their audience, while somewhat behind their more avant-gard peers. What Richard Lester did was use some of the techniques from films and filmmakers that while known to cineastes, would be unknown to most teenagers. Parts of A Hard Day's Night owe something to the cinema verite documentary Lonely Boy, about the then popular Paul Anka, as well as the French New Wave, particularly Godard. While Richard Lester may not have created a new cinematic language, he took the elements and served them to an audience that didn't know it was looking for a new kind of movie musical, and an audience looking for an alternative to the traditional Hollywood narrative.

That Lester has chosen to make films that disregard certain audience or film executives' expectations, in spite of popular success, seems to have been a curse as well as a blessing. In 1973, I was working as the Assistant Manager of a Greenwich Village movie theater that was closed one night in order to be used as the location for a short film. Jack Gilford, who starred in A Funny Thing happened on the way to the Forum, had a role in the short. When I asked Gilford about his exerience working with Lester, he complained about Lester not respecting the stage show. Lester's seeming disregard for his source material has caused him to be unfairly maligned by the fanboys for his role in the Superman films starring Chistopher Reeves.

I didn't know that Lester was an uncredited producer on the first film in the series until I had read Steven Soderburgh's interview with Lester. I may be wrong about this, but when I saw the first Superman film, one comic scene in particular looked like something from one of Lester's films. I also suspect that Richard Lester had a far greater hand in the actual direction of the first film than either he or Richard Donner are willing to admit. And while I won't begrudge Richard Donner his Superman II DVD with his director's commentary, I have to wonder why there is no DVD with Lester discussing his work. I also was bothered that when Bryan Singer was about to shoot Superman Returns, he sought out Donner's blessing but not Lester's. What is often overlooked is that Richard Lester was the first choice to direct Superman. While Lester seems to have chosen to maintain distance from his films, a detailed, impartial examination of what the two Richards did on the first two Superman films would be a helpful cure to what sometimes degenerates into partisan bickering.

The overdue release of Petulia on DVD has reminded people of what a great filmmaker Lester was during his first peak of activity. With cinematography by Nic Roeg, one can look at the fractured narrative of Lester's film and make a straight line to Roeg's co-directorial debut, Performance. Without either Lester's jump cuts back and forth in time, or The Beatles paving the way for The Rolling Stones, there arguably would have been no Performance.

Soderburgh's book is frustrating in reading about the films that Richard Lester was not able to make in spite of the success of the Superman films. One of the most vital English language directors forty years ago is now remembered, if at all, for a handful of films. It wasn't overnight, but Hollywood movies changed following the release of A Hard Day's Night. The Beatles starred and sang the songs, but when it came to filmmaking, Richard Lester knew how to rock.

******

Richard Lester's first feature, It's Trad, Dad is scheduled to play on Turner Classic Movies on January 29. I expect to still be in Thailand where I don't get TCM. If anyone out there can record the film for me, preferably on DVD-R format, I will send in exchange a "rare" Asian DVD. There is a gray market version available online, but I the quality is unknown.

Also, Performance is to be available on DVD on February 13. Make sure to check out Tim Lucas' article on the soundtrack (check the Video Watchdog link at the right). Having seen the original film five times theatrically, I have to wonder how completeness of the DVD version. The original film was rated X and Warners has since then had a policy of not releasing films harder than R, although they did release an unrated DVD version of True Romance. Also, the last time I saw Performance, on the Independent Film Channel, it was slightly edited. Significantly missing were a couple of very brief shots that hinted that the characters played by James Fox and Mick Jagger had been together in bed.

Posted by peter at January 19, 2007 03:29 AM

Comments

I just saw Petulia a couple of months ago and was really impressed by it (and quite surprised at its relatively low rating on IMDb). Very nice work.

Anecdotally about Mick Jagger: I remember a story about Mick Jagger's (ex)wife supposedly being sued for saying that Jagger was gay. She amended her story to say that he might not be gay, but she had seen him and David Bowie in bed together.

Posted by: Tuwa at January 19, 2007 08:31 AM

Ah, I should have looked that up before I related it. It was Bowie's ex, not Jagger's, and of course his lawyer denies it (and Angela Bowie herself offers a very strange non-retraction).

Snopes covers the brouhaha here.

Posted by: Tuwa at January 19, 2007 08:38 AM

Peter, I saw a bit of It's Trad, Dad on TCM over the holidays. Not great, but it shows that Lester had a fresh eye for filming musical acts. Beyond A Hard Day's Night, I've never been a big fan of his. But I want to see Petulia again. By the way, are you living full-time in Thailand now? How come, if you don't mind saying? Feel free to e privately if you prefer. If nothing else, I'd be curious on your thoughts on the whole cinema scene there. I'm sure others would, too!

Posted by: tlrhb at January 19, 2007 09:19 PM

My significant other is studying Thai massage and encouraged me to see Thailand for myself. My current plan is to be here through mid-March, afterwhich I will be back in the U.S. although I'm not sure which city is my ultimate destination. I will discuss filmgoing in Thailand in my next post as my response to your question became quite large and detailed.

Posted by: Peter Nellhaus at January 19, 2007 11:49 PM