The key to A Hard Day’s Night‘s genius is that it succeeds at being many things at once. A document to the Beatles life at the height of Beatlemania. An absurdist comedy of working class Liverpudlian dialogue. A beautifully shot concert movie. The prototype for the modern music video aesthetic, and an uncontroversial candidate for the greatest rock movie ever made. But above all that, A Hard Day’s Night is just pure joy. From the music to the writing to the direction, even fifty years later there is a tangible energy that simply does not let go from that first iconic shot of the Beatles running from screaming fans to the photomontage that makes up its end credits.
What is all the more remarkable about that is that there was no reason that this movie even had to be good. It was meant to be a cash grab, a quick, cheaply made piece of marketing designed to capitalise on the Beatles phenomena (not that it still isn’t that of course), a phenomena some thought was only going to be contemporary. Enter Richard Lester, simultaneously one of cinema’s most influential and overlooked auteurs, whose films have recently been championed by directors as high profile as Steven Soderbergh. His work on The Goon Show and his own shorts had impressed The Beatles so much (particularly Lennon) that they wanted him on the project, and with that all those budget and time constrictions worked to the film’s advantage. Shot with handheld camera in beautiful black and white, which at some points looks like it’s meant to be replicating the With the Beatles cover, the film was a combination of beautiful scenes written by Alun Owen and scenes that are just pure style, taking inspiration from both Lester’s previous absurdist short films and the French New Wave that was happening around thirty miles off the England coastline. Though this was at the height of their pop power, A Hard Day’s Night is one of the biggest examples of the band’s tendency to recognise an artistic trend and go at it full force. Also, for a film specifically made to market The Beatles, their name is never used once.
Like most Beatles’ films this is light on plot, but of all their films this is the strongest, the setpieces linked together by the MacGuffin of Paul’s grandfather played by the great Wilfrid Brambell (always referred to as “very clean”, particularly funny to those familiar with his character on Steptoe and Son). It’s structured enough to be enjoyable pop entertainment, but full of so many bizarre sequiturs (like the band running next to the train or John disappearing ) and stylised detours that it ends up presenting the art/commerce divide the latter half of Beatles’ career is pretty much defined by. The documentary like style of the shooting is the key to this merging, blurring the line between Beatles the band and Beatles the constructed characters of this movie.
Speaking of which, both Beatles the characters and Beatles the actors have amazing onscreen charisma. Considering by this time Elvis had done a dozen films to no avail, and Frank Sinatra attempts tended to be mixed, this is not as immediate a feat as you would expect. The group are no thespians by any means, but their ability to work off each other radiates in all their scenes together, and carries on when they split off to their individual sequences. It certainly helps that they are given some of the most quotable dialogue in any music movie next to This is Spinal Tap (” I fought the war for your sort”, “I bet you’re sorry you won” to give one of countless examples), but both the lines and the script help to reaffirm each member’s role in the band.
John Lennon is the surreal smart-ass and designated Groucho Marx of the group. Paul McCartney is the cute laid back one, typified in the party scene where he is just sitting around with the girls looking suave. George Harrison is quiet and deadpan, with a serious strain perfectly highlighted by the scene with him talking smack in the market meeting. Then there’s Ringo Starr, who many see as playing the sad clown, particularly in the sequence on the river bank that was shot when he was hung over, but on this watch I’m struck by the way the movie makes him out as sort of a comic intelligentsia, from his philosophies on love and music to musing on the positives of reading.
As for that music, for a movie that was meant to be made to string up the songs, the songs end up being the emotional counterpoint to the movie. As A Hard Day’s Night the album is the peak of early-Beatles, so to it needs the right visuals to suit. Much has been said on that opening sequence set to the titular song (with the iconic opening chord), and watching the “Can’t Buy Me Love” sequence of the band running around the field is like watching the next fifty years of music video culture be born. But the most striking moments to me are when the band are on screen with their instruments. There is “I Should Have Known Better” played in the guards van, and the band setting up with “If I Fell”. But the most straight straight up gorgeous segment has to be “And I Love Her”. Already considered by Paul to be the first truly “great” Beatles song he had written, with the shots of television creating screens within screens (just like the A Hard Day’s Night album cover), and the long pan that shows the lights shining on the band’s face, it becomes transcendent.
This all builds up to that final concert scene, with the band’s harmonic chemistry and the as by now cliche shots of screaming girl fans. In more transparent documentaries for boy bands made after the Beatles, these moments of exultance and reverence can come across as unearned, but the artistry of both the music and the movie itself earns those final screams. Through the lens of this camera here it is made charming and almost kinda of poignant (like the girl crying and just mouthing “George”). And, if first hand accounts are to be believed, the movie is definitely a more enjoyable way of experiencing it; just more than a year later the band would give up touring because of crowds like this.
The only thing really wrong with this movie is that there are no live recordings. A big missed opportunity, as The Beatles are not the best lip syncers in the world and when you can hear an instrument in the song that is not onscreen it can be distracting. Fortunately they make up with that with alternate versions of tracks that sometimes win over from the versions on the album. Other than that, the fact that A Hard Day’s Night still works as cultural artefact today is breathtaking. Perhaps even more than originally intended, it allows you to get lost in pop optimism and cheer that so made up the band’s myth and legacy. Within a couple years the image would be very different, and by the end of the decade they would be no more. But thanks to Richard Lester and his team, we have it all here in a piece of visual art.