A Hard Day’s Night (Richard Lester, 1964)

What an exuberant, imaginative, exciting delight this movie was!  What a refreshingly original film to watch, especially given today’s day and age when you see so many music superstars getting milked for all they’re worth, being advertised as movie stars when they’re clearly not talented in that area and used as mere marketing devices.  “A Hard Day’s Night” is not a marketing device for the Beatles, who in ’64 were rapidly becoming music and cultural icons, nor is it a typical rock musical.  What it is is a wildly original piece of cinema, where the youthful, carefree energy of four burgeoning superstars can’t possibly be contained and the attitude of an entire era is chronicled in a single 90-minute film.  Does any of it make sense?  In terms of your typical beginning-middle-end, rising action-climax-denouement film structure, not for a second.  But that’s the point entirely: the Beatles were fast becoming a phenomenon and would later become the most successful musicians of all-time, and they themselves were caught in an absolute whirlwind of fame.  And “A Hard Day’s Night” captures that whirlwind perfectly.  You talk about a time capsule film, this is the time capsule of Britain’s young generation in the mid 60s, and I bought into it for every second.

I don’t think I could possibly explain in words the exact kind of glee that “A Hard Day’s Night” gave me, or for that matter the reason why I knew from the get-go that this was truly a great, great film.  The last film I saw that I enjoyed this much, to the point where I couldn’t put that enjoyment into words other than lots and lots of exclamation marks, was “Bonnie and Clyde.”  Ironically, that was another of what I’d call a time capsule film, perfectly capturing the Great Depression.  If the glorified, zany adventures of the screen’s Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow seemed exaggerated, that’s because that movie wasn’t an exact representation of an exact time and place, but rather a mindset: a subjective viewpoint of a terrible time in our history where a couple of crooks gave America hope as modern-day Robin Hoods.  That movie broke just about every cinema convention and to this day might be the best film in the genre of…what?  Crime?  Drama?  Dark comedy?  The point I’m making is that “Bonnie and Clyde” defied conventional genre to become something completely unique, and that’s exactly what “A Hard Day’s Night” does too (thought I completely forgot about the movie at hand, didn’t you? 😛 ).  It’s not a typical musical.  It’s not a straight-up comedy.  It’s not a mockumentary a la “This is Spinal Tap” (though “Spinal Tap” owes a hell of a lot to “A Hard Day’s Night”’s form).  It just…is.  I don’t know how to explain it better.  Thanks to its relatively plot-less structure and documentary-like feel, it really is like no movie before it, and just as “Bonnie and Clyde” was a snapshot of the mindset (if not necessarily the landscape) of Depression-era America, “A Hard Day’s Night” is a snapshot of the mindset of carefree, vigorous Britain on the cusp of the free-love generation.

For such a genre-bending film, the “story” structure is remarkably simple: it’s just one day in the lives of our fab four as they drift from one situation to the next, with the occasional narrative-stoppage or our boys to break into song.  What little “plot” there is involves Paul’s “clean” pest of a grandfather (Wilrid Brambell), the boys trying to keep the grandfather out of trouble, and the band’s two worrisome managers trying to keep everything in line.  But this isn’t a movie about “plot,” it’s a chance for we the audience to put the youthful, exuberant music to youthful, exuberant faces.  And what we get is a deeply personal-feeling film where we get right into the everyday lives of these four guys, despite so many wacky turns.  The cinematography and Richard Lester’s direction gets right in on the action with that herky-jerkiness you’d expect in a documentarian following a subject as closely as possible (like when they split up to look for Paul’s lecherous grandfather on a cramped train), but with enough professionalism (through excellent black-and-white cinematography, I might add) to remind you that this is after all a work of fiction, despite how real its larger-than-life subjects might seem.  But in that reality-bending world that Richard Lester (who’s claim to fame after this, sadly, was directing the woeful Superman sequels 😦 ) and his stars have created, something as mundane as The Beatles exploring a train becomes as compelling to watch as the final concert: a musical scene that’s as great as any concert film I’ve seen, where some of the best music ever sung combines with these guys’ incredible stage presence and the raw energy of the screaming, worshipful fans.

So, they could sure as hell sing (millions upon millions of albums sold to this day tells us that much), but could these four guys who look and dress the same actually act?  Actually, “A Hard Day’s Night” doesn’t answer that question, because it doesn’t even seem like they’re acting at all.  This is, after all, a “day in the life” of Paul, John, George and Ringo, so of course they needn’t do anything but, well, be themselves.  And needless to say, they excel at that.  They’re four of the most convention-bending “performances” I’ve ever seen, as they just drift from situation to situation in one wild day, with not a care in the world and with the occasional sarcastic/apathetic quip here and there (“What would you call that hairstyle you’re wearing?”, a reporter asks Ringo, and practically in an aside, he responds, “Arthur”).  And on-screen, they’re naturals.  Half the time when they were together I had absolutely no idea what they were talking about, but I suppose that’s the point.  They know each other better than they know themselves, and it shows.  They’re in on all of each other’s jokes, they know how to finish each other’s sentences, they carouse with showgirls like it’s second nature, and even when disaster looks like it’ll rear its ugly head mere minutes before the big show, there’s a uniform kind of calmness bordering on sarcastic indifference emanating from each of them.  It’s just as you’d expect them to be in real life, talking about everyday nonsense that 99% of the time would have no business being in a feature film (and kudos to writer Alun Owen for having the gumption to make his screenplay seem so improvised and unconventional, which would eventually earn him an Oscar nomination), so naturally that makes for perfect on-screen chemistry. 

And it’s that chemistry that’s absolutely vital to our buying into the absurd plausibility of “A Hard Day’s Night.”  When the camera catches something as trivial as George and his manager playing around with shaving cream in front of the mirror while John fools around in the bathtub behind them, we buy into it.  When they drop everything to all of a sudden break into “If I Fell,” we buy into it.  This is the world as they see it, and at the same time we see them the way millions of screaming fans would expect to see them.  It’s their world, so anything they do seems natural.  They might as well be one being inhabiting four bodies with how comfortable they are around one another, which is why it’s so jarring for both the remaining guys and the audience watching the film when Ringo strikes out on his own after Paul’s grandfather goats him into doing something with his life.  What follows is an incredibly touching and poignant, as well as joyous and carefree, scene where we watch Ringo wander the streets and the countryside, avoiding the gaze of adoring fans, and just observing some kids playing.  You can just sense in Ringo, and in the others throughout the film, that they’re just normal guys who want to hang out and have fun, and yet when one cog gets misplaced, the well-oiled machine that is Beatlemania is on the verge of collapse.  What appears as simply a day-long romp becomes something more, as four relaxed, innocent attitudes suddenly collide with the thrill ride of fame and adoration.

They’re never actually referred to as The Beatles in the movie (other than the logo stamped on Ringo’s drumset), and I suppose it woudn’tve been necessary to identify then as such since they were about to become four of the most famous men in the world.  But really, would it even matter to call them The Beatles?  Hell, in real life they were the symbol of an entire era, an in the wild world of “A Hard Day’s Night,” they really are the symbol of everything that the youthful, carefree generation of the 60s stood for.  It makes perfect sense, then, when the boys’ partying, set to “All My Loving”, is juxtaposed with grandfather and the other old squares, off gambling in relative silence.  When you put aside the performances of these all-of-a-sudden singers-turned-actors (for their performances are just about the only natural ones in the entire film), it’s the music that separates the life-loving youth from the no-fun grown-ups.  In a movie already bursting with energy as all four of the guys can’t sit still for a second, it helps when you include perhaps the best movie soundtrack of all time (which is pretty much a given since it’s just songs by the fucking Beatles 😛 ).  Obviously it’s not “realistic” when everything stops for an impromptu performance, but in a movie with no plot, there’s nothing to stop, so really it just makes for more opportunity to put these guys in this idyllically exciting mindset they find themselves in.  I mean, could you possibly get more wonderful and exuberantly joyful moments as when they frolic on a field after a practice session and later “rescue” Ringo from the police station, being chased by about a dozen policemen, all set to “Can’t Buy Me Love”?  Would you expect such a miracle of spontaneity to occur on any given day of somebody’s life, even if those somebodies were Britain’s superstars to end all superstars?  Probably not, which is why “A Hard Day’s Night” is indeed nothing more than a documentary-like work of fiction.  But you look at that throng of screaming teenage girls waiting to rip these guys to pieces outside their train or an even bigger mob of teary-eyed fans screaming their heads off during the big performance (and the complete exuberance in the faces and body language of the boys on stage), and I dare you to tell me that that adoration, that heavy a reaction to a culture-changing phenomenon, is fiction.


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