Was the 1964 Beatles film classic "A Hard Day's Night," as is often theorized, the prototype for pop video as we know it? Comments director Richard Lester, "MTV gave me a very nice diploma at one time, or something on vellum, saying that I was the putative father of MTV. But I've insisted on taking a blood test."
Tonight's special "You Can't Do That: The Making of a Hard Day's Night" doesn't expend too much time or energy on pop-culture DNA results. The focus is well off the influence that the Fabs and even this movie had, and on to anecdotally re-creating the brief and shining moment that was Beatlemania, and how that blissful dementia got transferred to a big-screen exploitation a hundred times as terrific as it had any right to be.
The hour goes to great lengths to fully credit Oscar-nominated screenwriter Alun Owen--who wrote all the Liverpudlians' seemingly impromptu dialogue, but for a very few Lennon ad-libs--crafting personas for the four that quickly blurred with public perception. Points out host Phil Collins: "Forever after, the fictional Beatles in the movie is what the Beatles would be to the world." Here, that's cause not for ironic reflection but an unbridled anniversary celebration.
If "Hard Day's" was myth making, it was myth grounded in reality, as Owen did spend a telling day with the four at the height of their popularity, finding himself overwhelmed by the claustrophobia of superstardom.
"The only freedom they ever actually get" in the script, he says, "is when you start to play the music, and then their faces light up and they're happy. But, mostly, they are confined."
The special's interviews with behind-the-scenes principals err a bit on the side of producerly self-congratulation, which may be forgiven when dealing with the greatest rock film ever. And you might wish for more analytical minds than Collins' or Micky Dolenz's to be waxing eloquent here on one of the key moments of the '60s. But "You Can't Do That" does offer gratifyingly nostalgic glimpses of the undoable, of a landmark musical that was to tear your hair out over and to savor even after the end of the innocence.
* "You Can't Do That: The Making of a Hard Days' Night" airs at 8 tonight on KCET-TV Channel 28, interrupted by pledge breaks, followed by the film at 9:30 p.m. A slightly longer version of the documentary comes out on home video and laser on March 28.