Richard Lester

By Lancaster, David | Film & History, Spring 2012 | Go to article overview

Richard Lester


Lancaster, David, Film & History


Neil Sinyard Richard Lester Manchester University Press, 2010; 202 pages; $90.00

The Beatles' first two films-A Hard Day's Night (1964) and Help! (1965)-are not only delightful reminders of the band's music, style and humor; they are also, perhaps, the finest examples of the British film musical. Seen today, these archetypal evocations of the Swinging Sixties still seem fresh and innovative, MTV some twenty years before the fact. In addition, they are expressed in what was then a "pop style"; George Melly once defined this as "a sophisticated innocence, a brilliant technique... and a shameless magpie-like eclecticism." According to Neil Sinyard, the director of these films, Richard Lester, has been defined by that style and that era for far too long. This book, which is an updated version of a text first published in 1985, is an eloquent attempt to rescue the filmmaker from charges of superficial trickiness and to show that he is a neglected modern master.

Richard Lester was born in Philadelphia, but he first made his mark in British television. His film career began when he directed The Running, Jumping and Standing Still Film in 1959, an eleven-minute home movie that featured Peter Sellers and Spike Milligan. In time, this jeu d'esprit found its way to the Edinburgh Film Festival and was later nominated for an Academy Award. Lester's career was made. For the next thirty years, he directed films in a wide variety of genres, from Broadway adaptations like A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (1966), to surreal comedies such as The Bed Sitting Room (1969), historical romances (The Three Musketeers [1973]), and blockbuster spectaculars (Superman Il [1981] and Superman III [1983]). Yet this disparate range of work does not mean that it was haphazard. This book makes a detailed case for Lester as an acute social critic, a master of pessimistic laughter and an artist of real eloquence.

Still, for Sinyard, the director is a prisoner of what the author calls his "youth trilogy," his two Beatles films and The Knack (1965), an irreverent sex comedy set in swinging London. These productions were notable for reflecting the iconoclastic spirit of their times. For instance, A Hard Day's Night sees the Beatles as chirpy working class heroes, enjoying the modern phenomenon of pop stardom and cocking a snook at establishment figures and outmoded attitudes. Yet the approach is not superficial. Sinyard shows how Help! contains a criticism of celebrity's essential emptiness. In this film, the lads from Liverpool may look like cheerful representatives of their class, but they are also seen as being trapped by stardom and losing touch with their roots. …

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