Many Years From Then

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The Beatles arrive in New York City in Feb. 1964

Spare a thought today for Dr. Leonhard Prinz. I know that you won't have heard of him. But if you're a baby-boomer, you probably knew someone just like him as you grew up in the '60s. Dr. Prinz was the music teacher at my elder brother's school. A booming, opinionated Austrian with mid-European charm, he was a frequent guest at my parents' dinner table in the '60s, where he would hold forth on the merits of Mozart and the contributions of Chopin.

But of all his opinions he was never more vociferous than when he was declaiming about the Beatles. The loud cacophony produced by this new quartet was fractured mosaic to his ears. Not only were they talentless and tuneless, he would say, they were transient. "Zey vill never last!" he cried. "Zey make noise and zen zey are forgotten!"

That was approximately 35 years ago, and I was thinking of him this morning as the Beatles new compilation "1" hit the No. 1 spot in more than 20 countries (including the U.S.) and the Beatles' first movie, "A Hard Day's Night," was reissued in America. Dr. Prinz was certainly not alone in his beliefs. The studio that originally produced "A Hard Day's Night," United Artists, commissioned the film only because they divined (correctly) that they would make money from the soundtrack album. So unconvinced were they that the film itself would have merit that they ordered producer Walter Shenson and director Richard Lester to have the film written, shot, edited and released within 20 short weeks because they were certain that the Beatles craze wouldn't last beyond the summer of 1964.

How could an eminent music professor and a film studio be so wrong?

Well, the law of averages was on their side. Most music that pleased teenagers was produced by entertainers with a notoriously short shelf life. Pop singers came and went swiftly, leaving no trace on the shoreline of popular culture.

To their followers, the Beatles were clearly different, even in those early days. There was an exuberant life-force emanating from the Beatles that transcended all the platitudes about teen fads.

The film of "A Hard Day's Night" was a pivotal moment in the group's meteoric rise. When it was premiered in July 1964, the Beatles were already a worldwide phenomenon. But the film projected them into a heady stratosphere. And, defying the usual laws of celebrity physics, they have never left that orbit. Where other entertainers ebb and flow in popularity, perhaps enjoying the occasional revival, the Beatles have become evergreens in the cultural garden.

The movie was an improbable proposition. When it was commissioned in 1963, most films featuring music stars had been creaky vehicles, cranked out to satisfy the undiscerning fans. Jukebox musicals for kids who would lap up anything on celluloid.

But the forces behind the film were a curious mixture of talents who eschewed such a cynical approach. It started with the Beatles' manager, Brian Epstein. An urbane, failed drama student, he had found his metier with the Beatles. He discovered them brash and raw, and without changing their music he shaped them and made them presentable for a mass audience that suckled on the television tube. No TV show in Britain (let alone America) would have embraced the leather-clad Beatles. The foppish suits and Olde World charm of that little bow at the end of each set sugar-coated the Beatles' jagged pill and made them irresistible.

Epstein was quietly convinced that the Beatles had a remarkable talent that would enable them to eclipse the popularity of Elvis and last for an eternity. At the time, this was seen as a ludicrous boast about a loud, scruffy group from an unfashionable English province.

But such was Epstein's conviction that he was picky about every thing the group did. He turned down several film offers for the group before accepting the approach of one Walter Shenson, an American in London. Shenson's best calling card was that he had worked with Peter Sellers on a 1959 film "The Mouse That Roared."

Unlike most pop musicians who regarded a sullen look as a statement of cool, the Beatles were giddily exuberant and naturally humorous. They were huge fans of the Goons, a British comedy ensemble featuring Sellers and Spike Milligan, whose anarchic radio and TV shows were a '50s foreshadow of Monty Python. Just as they took to their record producer, George Martin, because he had produced comedy records with Sellers and the Goons, so they felt a kinship with Shenson. At this point, Shenson could have easily opted for a standard pop film formula. A sitcom writer could devise a fluffy story involving the boys, leaving space for a few jaunty numbers. And a competent TV director could shape it up into a palatable confection. The studio and fans would have been content.

But that was not Shenson's style. With the studio already happy that it would make its money back from the soundtrack album, Shenson struck bold notes. He hired a talented fellow American-in-exile, Richard Lester, to direct the film. Lester had worked with Sellers and Milligan and was a swift-witted TV and film director, alert to the strains of the New Cinema, including the naturalism of handheld cameras and kinetically paced shooting and editing.

Rather than tread the sitcom writer route, Shenson and Lester selected Alun Owen, an acclaimed Liverpudlian playwright, to write the script. Owen was finely attuned to the nuances of the rough working-class humor indigenous to Liverpool, and rather than impose artificial comedic personas on the Beatles, he simply constructed larger-than-life interpretations of traits he observed in the individual Beatles.

At first Lennon was resistant to Owen's skills. "You're just a professional Liverpudlian," sniped the cynical Beatle. "Better than being an amateur one," was Owen's smart-aleck response. Lennon was sold in that moment.

Shenson, Lester and Owen decided on a comedic day-in-the-life film and spent a few days on the road with the Beatles as they prepared for their upcoming American debut. Within a week of that momentous "Ed Sullivan" debut, British TV was showing a slapdash documentary of the Beatles on that landmark February 1964 visit. The instant documentary was shot by Albert and David Maysles (later to find fame with their Rolling Stones/Altamont documentary "Gimme Shelter." Lester saw it and instantly grasped its significance. If he could capture that crackling energy in a fictionalized form the film would have its heart. He elected for the vérité of black and white to reinforce the notion of reality.

Viewing the film 36 years later is a giddy pleasure. The Beatles' charm is easy and still disarming. The visuals exactly match the springily monochromatic music that the Beatles were creating at that time. Each Beatle was defined with a persona that became enshrined as the capsule version of their true-life characters. John the irreverently impish rebel; Paul, self-aware and cute; George laconic and Ringo the down-to-earth lad next door. (It was Ringo who prepared himself for the spiritual trek to India by shipping out crates of English baked beans.)

Early on the film signals that nothing is real. The Beatles appear running alongside the train they're actually riding to mock the stuffy businessman in their compartment. But Lester slips it in as a casual piece of business. The audience is now prepared for anything.

The film broke down barriers in the '60s. Hardened film critics went in expecting pop schlock of the beach-movie variety and came out exuding raves for both the film and the Beatles. Thirty years later the cinematic grammar invented by Lester is still a staple of pop videos. MTV once sent Lester a citation proclaiming him the "father of music video." The waspish Lester thanked them — and requested a blood test.

But what of the prognostications of United Artists and the hapless Dr. Prinz? Why did the Beatles defy their predictions and last? In a word, it's the music. What threw the music professor was the delivery system. To lovers of classical music, guitars and drums were the tools of peasants. It never occurred to such critics that the essence of music is the blend of melody, harmony and rhythm, irrespective of how it is performed. And in Lennon & McCartney the Beatles had songwriters with intuitive gifts for song creation. Record producer George Martin instinctively understood that his pupils were gifted, and nurtured their nascent curiosity rather than smothering them with Tin Pan Alley rules.

Ultimately the Beatles represented a spirit. Music was the medium but the message was even more important. The Beatles engaged with the noblest part of the human spirit, the part that yearns for things to be better. And their music, humor and energy were all directed to that simple aspiration.

The most prescient words about the Beatles were written some 36 years ago by their legendary publicist, the late Derek Taylor. At the precise time when the executives of United Artists and Dr. Leonhard Prinz were convinced that the Beatles were a passing fad, he wrote the liner notes to their 1964 U.K. album "Beatles For Sale" and actually referred to the year 2000, an impossibly futuristic date to envisage in the mid-'60s. Taylor speculated about a "radio-active cigar-smoking child picnicking on Saturn" asking us to explain the Beatles. Taylor recommended playing them the album. And he explained why: "The kids of A.D. 2000 will draw from the music much the same sense of well being and warmth as we do today. For the magic of the Beatles is, I suspect, timeless and ageless. It has broken all frontiers and barriers. It has cut through differences of race, age and class. It is adored by the world."

Those were heady words to utter in 1964. Long before the quantum leaps of "Rubber Soul," "Revolver" and "Sgt. Pepper," Taylor had sensed the essence of the Beatles and the secret of the group's appeal.

How I wish that Derek Taylor had been the frequent guest at my parents‚ dinner table. He was so much smarter and so less prejudiced than Dr. Prinz. On the other hand, the immense pleasure I still derive from the Beatles is enhanced every time I think of Dr. Leonhard Prinz and his stunningly inaccurate prediction.