One of my top five favorite films, A Hard Day’s Night was released fifty years ago on July 6th, and it’s one of those happy accidents of cultural history. Designed merely to be an exploitation of what most thought to be a passing fad, it has instead endured to be one of the best musical films of all time, as well as being a trendsetting piece of art that helped redefine film and music.
The Beatles, as well all know, struck it big in 1964. Less than a month after their groundbreaking appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show, they began shooting this film in March. Four months later the film was released. The writer was Alun Owen, who hung around the band and got used to their Liverpudlian rhythms of speech. The director was Richard Lester, who had worked on The Goon Show, a forerunner to Monty Python that featured Peter Sellers. What resulted was a combination of British music hall, the French New Wave, with a dash of the Marx Brothers.
The plot is so simple it hardly matters. The Fab Four, trapped by their own fame, are chased by screaming teens wherever they go. They are headed to a TV studio in the south of England to shoot a special, and tagging along is Paul’s grandfather (Wilfrid Brambell), “a villain, a real mixer,” who is also described as being “very clean.” (This was a joke referring to Brambell’s best known role, as the old man on the TV series Steptoe and Son, where he is constantly referred to as a “dirty old man” [Steptoe and Son was the source for the American show Sanford and Son]).
The Beatles just want to have fun, but their stern manager Norm (Norm Rossington) tries to keep them out of trouble. But the Beatles, as this film shows, were metaphors for the enthusiasms of youth. A Hard Day’s Night is all about motion. The boys are always in motion, as is the camera. There are numerous hand-held camera shots, quick zooms, and bits of surrealism. The best is that scene in the train car when they are confronted by the representation of the “establishment,” the man who “rides this train twice a week.” When the Beatles leave him in the car, we then see a physically impossible shot of them then outside, running after the train. That shot indicates that nothing we see can be taken as reality.
Lester, who had a made a short film called The Running Jumping and Standing Still Film, can be said to have created the modern music video format. This can be seen especially in the “Can’t Buy Me Love” scene, in which the Beatles run, jump, and stand still in a field. (Again, in a bit of anti-establishment, they are run off by a stern man who tells them they are on private property).
Lester introduced many other innovations, such as the use of multiple cameras, quick cuts, and out of focus shots. In one scene in the TV studio we see the action play out in the TV monitors.
The film, of course, capitalizes on the immense appeal of John, Paul, George, and Ringo. Not really actors, they are limited mostly to one-liners. I love this line by New Yorker critic Brendan Gill: “Though I don’t pretend to understand what makes these four rather odd-looking boys so fascinating to so many scores of millions of people, I admit that I feel a certain mindless joy stealing over me as they caper about uttering sounds.” Their barely controlled anarchy is reminiscent of the Marx Brothers, though they are only given the slightest of personalities. The strongest comes from Ringo, who has the most screen time. He has the longest “soliloquy,” when he wanders off into town and manages to get thrown out of a pub and leads a woman into a deep mud hole.
But my favorite solo scene is when George, who has always known as the “Quiet Beatle” gets his moment in the sun. He wanders into the office of a marketing man, played devilishly by Kenneth Haigh. Haigh is supposed to know everything about teens, but doesn’t recognize the Beatle. He offers George a chance to give his opinion about some shirts, and George says, “I’d be quite prepared for that eventuality.” When George later tells Haigh that his spokesperson, a girl called Suzy, is “a drag. A well known drag,” Haigh wonders if it’s time for the new movement, but sees that that is three weeks away.
That’s the great thing about Owun’s script–it satirizes the Beatles and youth culture, but without being melodramatic about it. Yes, they are prisoners of their own success, but they don’t brood about it. When they are chased by fans they smile and act as if its a lark. In the very opening, while being chased, George takes a header, but pops up beaming. These guys are having fun, and by osmosis, so are we.
A few other things worth mentioning: the performance of Victor Spinetti as the supercilious TV director with the ridiculous sweater (Spinetti would appear in all three Beatles films). He is just so right as the man who is given a little power and goes crazy with it. I love this exchange about him:
George: There he goes. Look at him. Bet his wife doesn’t know about her.
John: If he’s got one. Look at his sweater.
Paul: You never know, she might have knitted it.
John: She knitted him.
As mentioned, there are some hints of the sixties counterculture, such as the man on the train, the man in the field, and the very quick shot of John miming snorting a Coke bottle (Coke, get it?). There are some wonderfully absurd displays of visual humor, such as when George teaches Shake, the roadie, how to shave, or when John disappears in the bathtub.
Of course, the film can’t be remembered without the music. What one has to remember is that these were new songs–the film was really shot to support the soundtrack album. And none may be so well-remembered as the title track, with an opening chord that has echoed through fifty years. The title, which came from a Ringo malapropism, was only decided on during filming. The band had to write a song with that title, and John did so, in one night. Ah, genius!
A Hard Day’s Night, for me, is an impossible film to watch without putting one’s self in a good mood. It is the surest form of chasing the blues I know. It managed to capture lightning in a bottle, and continues to be as fresh and wonderful as the day it was first released. I like to think of youngsters, whose parents weren’t even born when the Beatles were together, discovering them through this film. I expect it will happen for fifty more years.