This is musical blasphemy, of course, and cinematically dubious to boot. But this is probably the funnest double feature idea I’ve suggested in several months, and “fun” ought to be the name of the game when one is programming two films for the same night. Anyway, if you’ve seen both of these before you’ll know that they are based on pretty much the same concept: a heavily fictionalized “day in the life” portrait of a pop/rock band at the height of its fame. A Hard Day’s Night captures Beatlemania around the time that the British Invasion began in 1964. Spice World concerns a second, distaff British Invasion three decades later, when the Spice Girls had their brief moment in the sun.
I have no illusions of being an expert on music, and even so, I would never claim that the two groups under discussion are even close in terms of talent or creativity. Let me just say, regardless, that I really like the music in both films. If you, on the other hand, don’t, then maybe this double feature is a tough sell, but these movies have a surprising amount to offer beyond the obvious. They are unlikely successes in the long and discouraging history of pop stars trying their hand at acting. But just so we’re clear, I suggest starting with Spice World because it’s definitely the inferior film, and watching A Hard Day’s Night immediately afterwards will be even more of a revelation than it would otherwise.
Brightly colored, brimming with naïve enthusiasm, and awash in movie references and cameos, Spice World is made up of nothing but crowd-pleasing moments, very few of which fall flat in my estimation. The story consists of the girls performing, partying, toying with their public personae, musing winsomely on where they came from and where they’re going, and generally having good, clean fun. Along the way, they learn the importance of staying down to earth, prioritizing friends over fans. You’ll see more of this kind of thing in the second film, but the girls are more sentimental than the boys. There’s a prescient and funny moment when they imagine what it will be like when their fifteen minutes are up.
That said, it isn’t more than a few minutes into the thing when all doubt is removed from the viewer’s mind: This is a bad film. Bad, that is, in the Ed Wood sense — the kind of badness I find consistently enjoyable. Self-awareness is the key. The movie knows it’s bad and decides to have fun anyway. It came out one year after Scream and shares that film’s tendency to mock genre conventions while simultaneously embracing them. The “meta” elements of a documentary crew attempting to get the inside scoop on the girls’ lives, while a screenwriter cooks up outlandish plots for a fiction film, cheekily send up the two potential directions a Spice Girls movie could take. And in the end, we get both: these are just regular girls who can’t believe how lucky they are, and also they might meet some aliens today. This would all seem so fresh and unique, if another film hadn’t done essentially the same thing, only in less obvious ways, thirty-three years earlier.
A Hard Day’s Night could have easily been a bad film, too. While it ostensibly advertises for the Beatles, they hardly needed the exposure by the time the movie came around. As Keith Phipps of The Dissolve (a website whose “Movie of the Week” series inspired this post) put it, “to be a hit in 1964, it had to do little more than showcase the Beatles performing at feature length.” But it did a lot more. What the filmmakers crafted was a genuine work of art that captures the frenzy, and the joy, of the rock movement. It’s remarkably easy to watch, always energetic and yet always under control even as it follows uncontrollable characters. Heavily inspired by the French New Wave, with its vigorous deconstruction of filmmaking clichés, A Hard Day’s Night sees the world as “the Beatles” see it, while never denying that we’re only allowed to see idealized versions of real people.
As in Spice World, the main conflict turns on a Big Concert, as the band’s manager tries to wrangle up these free spirits so they show up on time. But sticking to schedules and following marching orders are for squares. The Beatles would much rather crack jokes, cavort in a field, maybe even just be regular people for awhile. There are two outside forces for them to contend with: their elders, who sneer at this whole rock-n-roll craze but will make some money off it if they can, and of course, the fans, who arrive in droves to get as close as they possibly can to their idols. The “screaming teen” stereotype has long been a familiar symbol of the era, but the overwhelming intensity of its portrayal during this film’s climax is something to behold. The film understands that the fans are themselves part of the show, perhaps an even more interesting part than the guys on the stage.
Obviously, the one factor that best explains how one of these films can be a guilty pleasure and the other a masterpiece is the music. As I said, I enjoy the Spice Girls’ music very much and am not ashamed to admit it, but it is merely pleasant. The songs in A Hard Day’s Night are immortal. With each passing year, the success of the Spice Girls looks more and more like a curio, but if anything, the Beatles’ reputation is even grander than it was fifty years ago. Additionally, one thing that Spice World absolutely fails to do is integrate the songs into the film in any kind of interesting way (“Viva Forever” kinda-sorta excepted). It’s puzzling to find that in the era of the music video, none of the best vignettes in the film involve the girls singing. By contrast, A Hard Day’s Night crafts unforgettable cinematic moments from “Can’t Buy Me Love,” “She Loves You,” and the title track, seventeen years before MTV. A cynical man would say that the Spice Girls (and really every pop star since) were more about the image than the music, and so this all makes perfect sense. But I say this is the one major misstep in a film that has its heart in the same place as the Beatles’ film. These are dream figures, musicians who have as much fun singing as we have listening to them. Sometimes it’s great to bask in the dream for awhile.