by Matt Levine
Welcome to Beatlemania, a glittering, madcap alternate universe where reality is permeated with lunacy and everyone seems to be in a constant state of wry amusement. The Fab Four's first cinematic appearance, A Hard Day’s Night caught the Beatles as they were well on their way to becoming a cultural phenomenon. Even United Artists (which originally distributed the film) expected nothing more than a tagalong vanity project—they were more concerned about releasing the soundtrack as quickly as possible. Perhaps not even the group’s most rabid fans (and there were millions by this point) expected A Hard Day’s Night to be the masterpiece it is: a joyous, invigorating dose of comedic and stylistic adrenaline that somehow encapsulates the Beatles’ amiable iconoclasm and youthful energy (as of 1964).
Film Society of Minneapolis/St. Paul
Director: Richard Lester
Producer: Walter Shenson
Writer: Alun Owen
Cinematographer: Gilbert Taylor
Editor: John Jympson
Music: John Lennon, Paul McCartney
Cast: John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison, Ringo Starr, Wilfrid Brambell, Norman Rossington, John Junkin, Victor Spinetti, Anna Quayle
US Theatrical Release: August 11, 1964
US Distributors: United Artists, Janus Films (rerelease)
The plot is nearly nonexistent by design. We meet John, Paul, George, and Ringo as they race through the streets of London, chased by mobs of screaming fans (who were not paid extras—they were, indeed, fans enraptured by Beatlemania). The opening titles play over this spirited prologue, edited to accompany the titular song—named after a droll Ringo malapropism and written in one night by Lennon and McCartney. This opening sequence was one of the first instances of onscreen imagery and titles being carefully timed to correspond to the soundtrack, positing A Hard Day’s Night as one of the original music videos (its influence can be readily seen in the videos that premiered on MTV about fifteen years later).
After escaping their hordes of zealous fans, the Beatles make it to a railway station and board a train en route to their hometown of Liverpool, where a prominent television appearance awaits (though the capricious lads hardly seem to care or notice). Tagging along is Paul’s conspicuous grandfather, regarded as “a real mixer” by the Beatles’ watchful producers; he delights in ridiculing the four beloved pop idols, eventually convincing Ringo that he should be “parading” outside and enjoying life rather than reading books and associating with these ruffian delinquents. The fictional John McCartney is played by Wilfrid Brambell, who was well-known to British audiences from the popular sitcom Steptoe and Son (which was eventually remade in America as Sanford and Son); the character’s inclusion in A Hard Day’s Night is likely an attempt to attract a wider audience who may not care about Beatlemania, but Grandpa McCartney’s sneering, over-the-top duplicity is a hilarious counterpart to the Beatles’ goofy precociousness.
The boys do, of course, arrive in Liverpool (though not before regaling an audience of schoolgirls with a performance of “I Should Have Known Better” on the train). Amid rehearsals and preparations for that evening’s performance (allowing for several renditions of classic Beatles songs, beautifully shot in black-and-white), the Fab Four flirt with practically anyone in a dress—one woman flutters when she thinks she meets John Lennon, only to conclude a moment later that he looks “nothing like him”—and trade absurd quips with charming insouciance. At one point, freed from the hotel in which they’re cooped up, they retreat to a field and blissfully run around to the strains of “Can’t Buy Me Love,” one of A Hard Day’s Night most exhilarating sequences. The aerial shots in this scene, presumably shot from a helicopter (though the cinematography seems to soar through the air in impossibly tight patterns), resemble a perspective unmoored from the forces of gravity—you’d have to turn to Michael Snow’s La Région Centrale (1971) for similarly airborne camerawork.
A Hard Day’s Night is clearly more concerned with capturing the essence of the Beatles’ zestful energy than telling a compelling story (although the attempts to bring Ringo back to the studio in time for the climactic performance are surprisingly suspenseful). Screenwriter Alun Owen (who was raised in Liverpool, and was thus brought on board to supply the Beatles with appropriately mod lingo) followed the band on tour for several weeks, gradually conceiving the distinct character types which have come to represent the four Beatles in our cultural imagination: John, the devil-may-care smartass; Paul, the cute, “proper” gentleman; George, shy, handsome, and quiet; and Ringo, alternately daffy and forlorn. Whether or not these personalities truly define(d) the Beatles in real life is another matter; their movies have firmly entrenched such distinct personas, a case of life imitating (or at least reinforcing) art. Owen wrote a fairly detailed script just in case the Fab Four were poor actors, but (as we know by now) they are in fact natural performers, and A Hard Day’s Night gives us the opportunity to watch them ad-lib, goof around, and inspire one another.
The film might seem like an amiable lark, but there is real intelligence and subtext here. While the Beatles’ follow-up film Help! (1965) is mostly Dadaist nonsense (which is actually the reason I slightly prefer that film—it’s like a Marx Brothers comedy on LSD), A Hard Day’s Night is clearly a satire on Beatlemania and the growing rift between young and old generations. The unfathomable fame of the Beatles in 1964 (before they even reached their Jesus-like zenith) is slyly depicted, not only in the scenes of armies of rabid fans screaming after the lads, but also in a hilarious scene in which the boys are interviewed at a posh press conference by a gaggle of reporters. Asked whether he’s a mod or a rocker, Ringo replies that he’s a “mocker”; when John is asked what his hobbies are, he scribbles something on a notepad and shows it to a female reporter, whose aghast reaction says it all. At times, the rigors of preparation and behind-the-scenes hassles threaten to dampen the Beatles’ seemingly perpetual joy, as when a beautiful performance of “If I Fell” ends with an atypically mundane conversation about a particular drum beat; but the sincerity and zeal of the music always restores a feeling of euphoria, a tribute to the stirring liberation of art in general.
The most prominent subtext in A Hard Day’s Night, though, is its comment on the tension between young and old generations in postwar Britain—an especially pertinent theme given the hedonistic vibe of swinging ‘60s London. In addition to the central tension between Paul’s grandfather and the young musicians, the Beatles’ shaggy haircuts are repeatedly ridiculed by clean-cut reporters; at one point, George is asked “What do you call that hairdo?,” to which he smirkingly responds, “Arthur.” (As Roger Ebert wonderfully wrote in his review of the film, “untold thousands of young men walked into the theater with short haircuts, and their hair started growing during the movie and didn't get cut again until the 1970s.”) One scene in which the Fab Four blithely dance at a London nightclub to the tune of “And I Love Her” brings 1964 London to eye-popping life; it’s like a mirthful counterpart to the mod modernity so drearily evoked in Antonioni’s Blow-Up (1966).
Of course, in a film where everything is subject for ridicule, this concentration on the cultural power of youth is undermined repeatedly. At one point, George stumbles into a meeting at a high-powered fashion company, where (as an authority on British baby boomers) he is asked to comment on their new line of wardrobes. Clearly the haughty fashion designers are out of touch with reality, as George can only describe their creations as “grotty” (supposedly, this is when this British euphemism for “grotesque” entered the modern lexicon). Later, Paul’s grandfather tries to convince Ringo that the British police are a band of murderous despots (a perception common among younger generations throughout the world in the 1960s), but it turns out the Liverpudlian constables are inordinately polite: having detained Ringo and Paul’s grandfather, the cops graciously offer them tea. A Hard Day’s Night’s mockery of the young-versus-old conflict in 1960s England is gentle and chiding, achieving a balance of satire and optimism that defines this joyous film as a whole.
These thought-provoking undercurrents, though, are merely added bonuses for a film that's already so exhilarating and laugh-out-loud funny. Only four years after his cinematic debut, The Running Jumping & Standing Still Film, Richard Lester was tasked with visualizing a band with almost unparalleled popularity and youthful exuberance. Lester and his cinematographer, Gilbert Taylor, opted to utilize the lightweight 16mm cameras then giving rise to the vérité movement, which allowed filmmakers to shoot spontaneously on the streets without elaborate setup. We truly seem to be right there amongst the Beatles, jostled by fans and passing the time by goofing off in cramped hotel rooms. A Hard Day’s Night is, in other words, the first madcap vérité comedy-musical-documentary, an uncategorizable hybrid that uses the aesthetics of realism to emphasize the ludicrous surrealism of the Beatles’ existence. Later gonzo chronicles of ‘60s and ‘70s mayhem, from Bob Rafelson’s Monkees oddity Head (1968) to Otto Preminger’s notorious flower-power satire Skidoo (1968), can be traced indirectly back to the Beatles’ inaugural film.
Finally, and maybe most importantly, A Hard Day’s Night is hilarious—one of the best British comedies of the 1960s. Lester takes full advantage of the opportunity to indulge in visual puns and absurdist sight gags. At one point, John appears to slip down the bathtub drain only to reenter the room from another direction; later, at the television studio, Paul’s grandfather accidentally appears in an opera rehearsal by stumbling onto the trapdoor and raising himself onstage. A Hard Day’s Night provides a cinematic playground for Lester and the Beatles to run rampant, and the result is one of the most euphoric and unique musical comedies ever made, with a soundtrack to match. Though the Beatles had already stunned the western world with their appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show, it took A Hard Day’s Night to crystallize the band in this unique first wave of superstardom. As we witness a montage of still photographs animating the Beatles into motion over the end credits, we seem to witness a legend being created before our very eyes.