A Hard Day’s Night, 1964, 4 ½ stars

The Beatles’ influence on film and culture

as seen through A Hard Day’s Night

HDNstrip1Exclusive to MeierMovies.com, written in 1994

It hardly seems like an event that would shape film history. An American film director with three little-known movies to his credit was being hired to shoot a documentary-style comedy/musical about a British rock band. Filming would take place over less than two months, much of it on a train that was rented for 600 pounds a day. But this unique 1964 “day in the life” chronicle was to feature the Beatles, and therein lies the revelation.

Producer Walter Shenson chose the 32-year-old Richard Lester to direct the Fab Four in A Hard Day’s Night, their first film, and it was the combination of the group and Lester, in addition to the crisp, comedic script of Alun Owen — handpicked by the Beatles — that made the film what is often regarded today as the Citizen Kane of juke-box musicals, according to film historian Neil Sinyard. The “boys” were even compared to the Marx Brothers by the British press after the premiere of the movie on July 6, 1964. The phenomenal popular success of the film is easy to understand. After all, the Beatles had, by the summer of 1964, broken most musical chart records in Britain and the United States and become a worldwide sensation that would surpass the group’s closest musical rival, Elvis Presley. However, the lasting critical acclaim and cultural impact of A Hard Day’s Night and, to a lesser extent, the Beatles’ other films, is more difficult to explain and appears to rely on four distinct explanations.

The most basic explanation is the revolutionary style of the work, which helped bring about music video montages and MTV-like promotional films. Second, the Beatles’ charm and Lester and Owen’s ability to capture it were crucial. Third, the social statement of the new “youth freedom” of 1960s Britain was featured more successfully in A Hard Day’s Night than perhaps any other film. Finally, the fact that any film the Beatles did was not seen just as a film but as a piece of the Beatles legacy cast all their work in a different light than other artists’ work. They were not just films starring the Beatles; they were the next installment in the Beatles legacy. Thus, even the worst of the bunch, arguably Magical Mystery Tour, lives on.

When one watches the group’s first film today, the style makes it seem fresh. But in 1964, the style was revolutionary. The fast-paced juxtaposition of shots and thrown-together look of much of the action captured audiences and critics alike. But it was the musical sequences that would have the most impact, and it was here that Lester shone, along with the new Lennon-McCartney music. The director had had experience staging musical numbers before in It’s Trad, Dad, but in A Hard Day’s Night, he hit upon a style, reflected well by photographer Gilbert Taylor, that broke new ground.

HDNstrip2Rock music had had a place in film since The Blackboard Jungle in 1955 and then The Girl Can’t Help It. And, of course, the endless array of Elvis movies provided audiences with a steady stream of staged rock numbers. But none of these had the carefree, natural feel of the Beatles sequences. In addition, only the Beatles’ music segments can today stand alone from the movie itself when shown on, say, MTV or VH-1. Without knowing it, Lester and the Beatles were creating what many regard as the first music videos. They do compliment the loose narrative of the film, but they also seem as if they could slip in or out of the movie with ease.  The freedom expressed in the fire “escape” episode, with “Can’t Buy Me Love,” the tune of choice, is probably the best sequence. Not only does it capture the youth freedom theme and the clash between the older and younger generations — the gentleman’s reprimand of “this is private property” — but it is the most original stylistic segment, certainly on par with much of what is created in both film and music video today. The second “Can’t Buy Me Love” sequence also stands out along with the intimacy of the “I Should Have Known Better” number, the simple beauty of “And I Love Her” and the wild abandon of the “A Hard Day’s Night” opening and closing.

Another reason for the film’s success was the Beatles’ personalities, and Lester and Owen’s ability to bring it to the screen. From their earliest press conferences, it was clear the boys had intelligent, witty personas that would endear them to their audience. The lines they spouted at actual press conferences bear a striking resemblance to the movie script itself:


“There’s some doubt you’re cancelling?” “No, we need money first.”
“Which one of you is bald?” “We’re all bald... We’re deaf and dumb too.”
“Are you going to get a haircut at all?” “We had one yesterday,” George answers.
“Is it true you’re just another Elvis?” “It’s not true, it’s not true,” says Ringo
as he imitates an Elvis hip thrust.
“How did you find America?” “Turned left at Greenland.”
“Has success changed your life?” Deadpan and monotone: “Yes.”
“What would you call that haircut you’re wearing?” “Arthur.”
“Are you a mod or a rocker?” “No, I’m a mocker.”

 

It’s not so obvious that the first four lines are from actual press conferences and the latter four from the film. Owen’s script was just that well thought out. And, of course, ad libs and spontaneous comedy did not hurt either, such as John’s “Rule, Brittannia” bathtub scene. The Marx Brothers comparison seems reasonable when the boys’ elderly train companion spouts, “I shall call the guard,” and Paul responds a la Groucho, “Ah, but what; they don’t take kindly to insults, you know.” No one could carry off that oddball humor in the 1930s like the Marx Brothers, and the Beatles seemed to have captured some of that magic in their film debut.

The third element of A Hard Day’s Night and its impact that deserves attention is the social system the movie reflects. The class structure in Britain in the early 1960s appeared more flexible than ever, and the youth culture was promoting a new freedom, with the Beatles at the helm. And at no other time did the Beatles seem as carefree as in this film. That aura fascinated the American public, in addition to the strange new British culture that few American teenagers were familiar with. But that mystique did not last long. Even Help! , a year later, seems to find the group more confiined, more a prisoner of their predicament. A comparison of the two title songs shows how the first film captures the group’s, and the period’s, innocence more successfully than their 1965 movie project. “And now these days are gone,… I’m not so self-assured,” John sings in ‘65. But the group did appear self-assured in 1964, enough to turn the tension between generations — the old men on the train and in the field — into comedy and send up the typical musical genre while they were at it,  John’s “Hey, I’ve got an idea, let’s do the show right here. Yeah!” being a perfect example of the latter.

HDNstrip3The final legacy of A Hard Day’s Night and even Lester himself will be that they were part of the greater Beatles legacy, the event that reflected and shaped the ‘60s. The 1964 project, which fittingly got its title from an offhand Ringo remark, rather than from any formal screenwriter’s meeting, was the first in a chain of five. Help!, another Lester project, showcased the building mayhem in the group’s life and their inability to escape. Taking it without any larger symbolic meaning, which is fine, especially for such a crazy British comedy, it is simply another way to present the Beatles to their fans, this time in a more Monty Pythonesque way. Magical Mystery Tour, in 1967, captured the psychedelic phase. And if it seems as if it has a thrown-together, as-it-happened feel that surpasses even A Hard Day’s Night, it is because it was literally thrown together, with no experienced director looking on. It was the Beatles’ first project after Brian Epstein’s death and the first with no supervision, although Paul was basically in charge. Looking back, the bad reviews were unfortunate, for when seen today in color, as originally intended, it does have some striking musical scenes, ones that continue the Beatles’ tradition of developing music videos. They also released two promotional films the same year, one for “Penny Lane” and another for “Strawberry Fields Forever,” perhaps the first stand-alone music videos when judged by today’s standards. Yellow Submarine, from 1968, and Let it Be, from 1970, would follow, both strikingly different from their predecessors, the latter being the group’s truest and most painfully honest documentary-style film, winning them an Academy Award.

So, A Hard Day’s Night is not just a movie: It is a part of this film legacy, which is, in turn, part of the larger legacy of Beatledom. No other musicians have had this type of impact on contemporary culture, whether it be music, fashion or film. And the 1964 collaboration of Lester, Owen and the Fab Four was a crucial part of establishing that impact, and for that reason will continue to be seen as a revolutionary piece of cinema.