I'm kind of obsessed with Richard Lester's films, which may be all I have in common with Steven Soderbergh, but at least it's something.
Having achieved an Oscar nomination for the short The Running Jumping & Standing Still Film (1960), shot in a field over a couple of weekends with a cast of friends including comic geniuses Spike Milligan and Peter Sellers, Lester shopped his can of film around and was told, basically, "Very nice: when we want a feature length version of that we'll let you know." Since the film was a plotless, abstract series of surreal jokes, Lester quickly surmised that the phone might not ring anytime soon.
But a fellow American in London, Milton Subotsky, offered Lester the job of making a low-budget pop musical, and the rest would have been history if this had been A Hard Day's Night. But that was two years away: Lester's first movie was the less distinguished It's Trad, Dad! (1962), a.k.a. Ring-a-Ding Rhythm, which starred not the Beatles but a bunch of jazz acts, who were more hip at the time than pop artists. The movie was shot in three weeks on a tiny budget and with a shooting script just twenty-three pages long: the rest was musical numbers. It's pure teen exploitation, but using only songs, rather than sex or violence or rebellion, and it has no real reason to exist except to contain a bunch of songs. But Lester used it to show what he could do.
With A Hard Day's Night, Lester could address the state of the nation, in a way, and examine a real cultural phenomenon, with four stars who might not be exactly actors but who were more than capable of holding the camera's eye. It's Trad Dad! stars a couple of minor pop stars, Helen Shapiro and Craig Douglas, personable but not required to do more than embody the British teen. The film isn't really about anything, it's just noodling, but Lester can noodle extremely inventively. Devoid of a spine, the film wiggles about freely, and is arguably even more imaginative in terms of visual tricks than its more celebrated follow-up.
Here are a couple of numbers:
The Temperance Seven, playing here, still exist, I believe, though I'm uncertain how many of them are the originals.
Lester must've been filming several songs a day, shuffling them past his multiple cameras (a strategy borrowed from his live TV background) and serving up largely static numbers that create movement by editing. This is the strategy used by every TV pop show presenting "live" performances at the time, but Lester freshens it by jettisoning continuity and rearranging his band members at will. The throwaway jokes are good too, and the lugubrious Seven make adept participants.
Acker Bilk and his band get to star in a fumetti adventure, with slightly surreal interpretations of the lyrics of Frankie and Johnny. Much-commented-upon: the screens Lester shoots through, which break up the image into newsprint dots like a Roy Lichtenstein pop art painting.
Many of these songs are only a couple of minutes long, and we get not only jazz but a little dated pop, and Gene Vincent rock 'n' roll and Chubby Checker doing the twist—Lester flew to America at his own expense to capture the latest dance craze, then "opened the can and threw the footage in more or less at random."
Everybody smokes cigarettes, even while singing.
The Forgotten is a regular Thursday column by David Cairns, author of Shadowplay.