Directed by Richard Lester. Written by Alun Owen, featuring songs written by John Lennon and Paul McCartney. Photographed by Gilbert Taylor. Edited by John Jympson. Art direction by Ray Simm. Starring John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison, Ringo Starr, Wilfrid Brammell, Norman Rossington, John Junkin, Victor Spinetti.
In its own special way, A Hard Day’s Night captures a specific moment in time with crystal clarity. This 1964 film about The Beatles, still young rock stars, is technically not a documentary, but it does many of the same things that a documentary would do: follow the band around, listen in on private conversations, and supply evocative images to support a great soundtrack. And it replicates, with an effortless grace, what it must have felt like to be alive during that time. Key word: alive. There’s a feckless joy that runs throughout A Hard Day’s Night, making manifest the mantra of many rock and rollers: be young, do what you want, don’t be cowed by authority. And most of all, be happy. If you cannot find it within you to find happiness within a movie with a rocking Beatles soundtrack, then I understand, although I cannot relate.
In another way, A Hard Day’s Night is a perfect experiment in that favorite Beatles pastime: subverting expectations. This small British film was made for little money, shot in old-fashioned black-and-white, arguably has no plot, features four leads who had no previous acting experience, and was an entry into a burgeoning genre, the rock-and-roll-celebrity-musical, which perhaps mostly deserves its low reputation. It somehow transforms itself into a success, not despite these limitations, but because of them, and also because it makes prudent use of the Beatles’ personalities in a way that is so charming that we forgive that the film was made primarily as a tool to sell The Beatles to a wider audience. Although the group was in many ways a precursor to today’s pre-packaged pop stars that are designed to be synthetic, likeable and disposable, The Beatles were different, because they came from a time that valued being smart over being marketable. They were able to stand outside their celebrity, at times, and comment on it. And also comment on topics that showed them to be worldly and, if not wise, willing to do what it took to become so. In A Hard Day’s Night, the Fab Four have pithy dialogue, find humor in unexpected places, never take themselves seriously, and have moments of modest (but real) profundity. Can you imagine any of that coming from a Justin Bieber? I didn’t think so.
Of course, the music is great. They were great musicians. But the unexpected strength of the film is the separate performances by John, Paul, George and Ringo, who inhabit stylized version of their stage personas with on-screen charisma that is impossible to fake. The film supplies them with a few supporting characters (two managers and Paul’s grandfather) that are clearly included as safety measures to focus on in case the boys couldn’t act. But they could, and they do, and they enforce a cheerful comraderie that feels genuine. Playing yourself on screen is actually more difficult than you think, and the young stars nail it.
The film’s structure follows the four young gents around England, constantly hounded by adoring fans who stampede through train stations, cluster expectantly on street corners, and pack good-sized auditoriums in order to just get a taste of The Beatles’ magic. Internally, the Beatles have their own problems, constantly feeling hemmed-in by their handlers. Wanting to go out and have fun like young men do, but instead they’re sentenced to answer fan mail their first night in London. That’s the “conflict,” if you will, but it’s not really a big deal—just by describing it I make the film sound more labored and less fun than it is. The boys are never depressed for very long, because the opportunity to do what they want instead of what they are told is never distant. There’s a wryness to the way they slip out of a hotel suite mere moments after their manager leaves. Or, notice Ringo’s elegant solution when the group is banished to the dressing room: instead of turning right towards their prison, he turns them left towards the fire escape. Freedom! That’s the way genius works, isn’t it? By its own rules.
The antagonist, if there even is one, is Paul’s grandfather, John McCartney, played with teeth-gnashing perfection by Wilfred Brammell. Described by the boys as “a villain—a real mixer,” but he’s not a bad guy, just an aging hedonist who has a weakness for drink, women, and gambling (he bumbles through a game of baccarat despite the fact that he knows not one word of French, and is expected to). The boys are constantly getting him out of trouble, and while he is a leech, sucking off the charity and kindness of the band, hatching schemes to forge their autographs and make a mint by selling them to the adoring public outside. But he’s an entertaining leech: libidinous, scheming, excitable, and he scampers through London gentlemen’s clubs with glee. Even his most villainous move, to plant a seed of doubt within Ringo about what he’s doing with his life, is done with a trace of genuine concern for whether singing about life should replace actually living it. This sends Ringo into a bout of lonely despondency, so he wanders the streets of London in a haze, as the boys try to find him before their big performance live on TV that night. Ringo’s depression is not severe, however, and is instead just a simple, wistful attempt to get back to his roots. Even when chased by bobbies over innocent misunderstandings, it never seems that he’s in any real danger.
In other words, the stakes are low in A Hard Day’s Night. There’s very little sense that the tour will be delayed, that the Fab Four will miss the TV performance, or that Ringo will spend time in jail. But that’s not a problem, because the film’s pleasures are not about tension. They are instead a vindication of the things we hold dear: first and foremost, doing the thing that gives you the most joy. And it exists primarily in sequences, songs, and flashes of low-burn screwball comedy. (The moment where they find a man in his underwear hiding in their hotel room closet is a perfect example of how an actor can play a moment of unfazed curiosity). And there are great little skits where the boys seem just pleased as punch at their own good fortune (when interviewed, Paul playfully grabs the reporter’s notepad so that he can answer his own questions). Perhaps the nicest little scene is where George, lost, wanders into a marketing agency that doesn’t recognize him, and is confused for a potential model. He meets an ad executive who is confident in his ability to dictate what people will wear and like, and George giggles at him, calls his clothing ugly and his top model a dummy. It’s a nice little mini-indictment of manufactured popularity, which of course The Beatles kind of were, but they knew it, kidded it, and never let it control them (as we see in the film). For many artists, their own publicity is a straightjacket, but for the Fab Four, it was more an uncomfortable pair of shoes that they wanted to kick off as frequently as possible.
The film plays in black and white, with gritty, handheld camera work. These were not choices, but necessary measures to save money on a cheap production that several had severe doubts about. They create a compelling aesthetic, however, because it enhances the illusion of a documentary, seemingly improvised, catching The Beatles on the fly as they roam London streets which seem foggy, poetic, beautiful. It successfully blurs the line between fiction and reality, making one reflect how the second MTV generation, with its constant thirst for content and “reality-show” fakery, has devoured the lessons of A Hard Day’s Night without internalizing any of its sweetness. A Hard Day’s Night attempts to get unrestricted access to The Beatles as people, and while it is little more than posturing (with everyone getting an urbane, witty, idealized version of themselves), it is enjoyable posturing, and you still get a sense of a real person underneath it all. Today, stars are so guarded, with every second either on screen or hounded by paparazzi, that we’ve reached an apex of shallow celebrity: it’s always obnoxious, unenlightened posturing, all the way down. Sigh. I’m getting depressed, aren’t I? Let’s forget all that.
Then there’s the music, which includes songs like “Can’t Buy Me Love,” “And I Love Her,” “If I Fell,” “Tell Me Why,” “She Loves You,” and, of course, the title tune. I can only add pithy commentary on songs that have been analyzed to death in the past 40 years by people much smarter than I am. They’re lovely, they’re wonderful, sweet, infectious fun. What I can also say is that the movie adds another dimension to the soundtrack, because it depicts the inspirations, exhultations, and rewards that the songs hint at. During a closing montage of screams of fans (mostly women), the Beatles sing with unbridled love for their artform. You can see it in how their eyes dance, how they look at each other, how their musical trance isn’t a whit tarnished by the sweat that washes their faces in brine. To see this movie today I think is to understand better a few things about life: not just the joys of popularity, but also how wonderful it is to be loved, and the ecstasy of friendship. We should all be so lucky. Critics have described A Hard Day’s Night as “life-affirming,” and it is, because although not all of us can sing, play, and sign autographs like the Beatles, many of us are lucky enough to have friends as good as Ringo, John, Paul, and George. The movie, when you boil it down, is about four friends enjoying each others’ company, having fun, and being blissful. If the secret of life is not buried within there, then I’m not sure where else it could be.
All movies are time capsules, but ones like A Hard Day’s Night are special ones, because they document a specific cultural instance with a keen eye, and while they may not represent their subjects with stubborn realism, they create and shape a universe that suggest emotions and feelings that link back to reality, and resonate with it. I have my doubts that A Hard Day’s Night is the best way to learn the cold facts of what exactly happened during The Beatles’ early days, but it is persuasive in establishing a mood, and a tone, and making you appreciate what it must have felt like to be there. This is an important distinction, because A Hard Day’s Night, even though it is technically “fake,” goes beyond fact, beyond fiction, and evokes an experience. It is a perfectly recorded, idealized slice of history, preserved for all time. I myself did not live during the Beatles’ rise to fame, but with movies like A Hard Day’s Night, a small part of me feels like I was. That’s special.
We now live in age where children growing up will have never heard of The Beatles, or may have, but have grown so accustomed to their music, regarding it like sonic wallpaper, that they won’t understand why they were important. Maybe one day they will ask, and a parent will have to decide how to answer. Describe them? List their songs? Or maybe…watch A Hard Day’s Night with the child, and everything may become a bit clearer. We don’t have access to the personalities of the Beatles now. One died not too long ago, and another was cruelly stolen from us. Ringo is still hugely prolific, and Paul is active as ever, but they will never again be the group that made them famous, and they will never be that young again. Someday, all of them will be gone, but they will have left their mark on the world, and done so in a way that we can share with each other forever. In A Hard Day’s Night, the Beatles still live, and smile, and laugh, tell jokes, sing great music. They are happy, and they will be forever, because A Hard Day’s Night is not going anywhere. Aren’t movies wonderful?
NOTES: George met his future wife, Patricia Boyd, while filming this movie. She plays one of the schoolgirls he charms on the train.
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