The uniquely discordant strum of a guitar introduces the now-iconic image of the Fab Four careening down a London-as-Liverpool street, chased by a horde of screaming young fans. George attempts to sneak a glance behind him, then loses his balance and careens to the ground, bringing poor Ringo down with him. John looks back to witness the instantaneous mayhem and continues running elated with laughter.
This wasn’t a moment of acting or planning or choreography, but a purely spontaneous interaction between members of the most famous band in the world captured on film. The contrivance of the scene produced a “mistake” which then inspired a genuine, unpremeditated moment between the bandmates, a real glimpse at John’s interaction with (and affection for) his colleagues outside the trappings of unprecedented fame and millions of dollars in royalties.
Throughout A Hard Day’s Night, director Richard Lester toys with the obvious contrivances of filmmaking, a façade made ever more evident by the fact that this film was an out-and-out cash grab. The bandmates played themselves in quotation marks, taking the piss out of fame, rock ’n’ roll, Mod chic, mass media, the British aristocracy, and ultimately themselves, a caricature that ironically helped distinguish The Beatles’ individual members for American audiences. The manic irreverence of Lester’s brand of comedy regularly broke cinematic rules of continuity and logic, making for a less anarchic kind of Breathless.
But perhaps what most consequently made A Hard Day’s Night the essential pop musical it is today is the fact that nobody – from United Artists to Lester to the Beatles themselves – openly admitted to giving a shit about it.
The Beatles had been pursued for the silver screen since the onset of their popularity in England, but initial parts were offered along the lines of walk-ons or background singers in teen films. And with the prospect of a Beatles-centric film, John Lennon was wary of performing in the type of rock ’n’ roll movie that audiences had grown weary of by the early 1960s. In the US, the prototype for such a movie was the “Elvis film” post-Blue Hawaii: a carefree romp in a picturesque, touristy location featuring a paper-thin plot in which Elvis gets the girl between a few musical numbers. By this point, Elvis was exhaustively churning out three such films a year.
On the other side of the Atlantic, Cliff Richard pursued the same formula in films like The Young Ones and Summer Holiday, the latter of which was the second most popular film in Britain in 1963. Such “jukebox” films were still enduringly popular almost a decade after rock ’n’ roll exploded onto the Anglophonic consciousness, but for an emergent second generation of rock ’n’ rollers raised on American blues who began to form de-individuated groups and sought to write their own music, the rock cinema of Elvis and Cliff Richard looked downright square.
For someone looking to revive the groundbreaking sense of pop synergy on display in the previous decade’s The Girl Can’t Help It or Jailhouse Rock, there wasn’t much to hope for in the face of a derivative rock cinema as dangerous as cotton candy.
Less than a month after their US debut, A Hard Day’s Night was rushed through production in and around London’s Twickenham Studios. The film was produced as a result of United Artists executives pursuit of a loophole in the Beatles’ contract with Capitol Records, namely the label’s failure to mention anything about rights to film soundtrack albums. Thus, A Hard Day’s Night was produced with the express intent of releasing a hit album through the newly formed United Artists Records. The film itself was largely beside the point, as the soundtrack would be a guaranteed hit.
Producer Walter Shenson settled on Richard Lester, who worked with Peter Sellers on The Running Jumping & Standing Still Film and The Mouse on the Moon, to direct. Beyond this, it was the practice of United Artists to have minimal interference in the production of their films. And this practice combined with UA’s greater interest in the soundtrack, it turns out, was the perfect remedy to the tired rock movie formula. Other rock movies by this point resonated with the stench of the overmeasured production, of something calculated by an organization with the express purpose of selling as many records and tickets as possible. Knowing rock’s controversial history, this also meant taking all measures not to offend anyone.
Oddly enough, the express purpose of selling as many records as possible was what breathed new, unrestricted life into A Hard Day’s Night, allowing it to bust up the tired formula.
Gone are the beach parties and suspense-free romantic entanglements, here replaced by a cat-and-mouse chase between the boys and an ornery grandfather, capped off with an existential crisis by an underappreciated, Chaplinesque Ringo. When musical numbers appear, they exist either in the seemingly natural context of studio or live performance, or Lester simply embraces the absurd conceit of the musical rather than hide its trappings within genre convention, as when the band sings “I Should Have Known Better” in the animal car of the London-bound train.
The requisite numbers became as irreverent as the “plot” tying them together. And a plotless intermission featuring the band frolicking in a field to “Can’t Buy Me Love” is its centerpiece.
The Technicolor gloss of the traditional rock musical was replaced in A Hard Day’s Night by a handheld aesthetic that allowed for shooting in short corridors and within crowds, thanks to lightweight cameras and wide lenses that emphasized the cartoon energy. In fact, A Hard Day’s Night far more strongly resembled the Maysles’ documentary about their first US visit than the contemporaneous rock movies that demanded vast Cinemascope spectacle.
And the Beatles’ overwhelmed relationship to fame works in place of a romantic subplot. The playful chase scene that opens the film eventually gives way to a Beatlemania apocalypse during the closing numbers, a near-nightmarish depiction of rock fandom as the excited release of pubescent repression that adults most feared.
1964 was a rather big year for the rock movie. Elvis released Viva Las Vegas, his most successful film ever. But Elvis’s mid-movie-career success only demonstrated a less promising truth: that his formula had finally reached its peak on the silver screens. Elvis showed amazing chemistry with Ann-Margaret in that film, but as a result of rumors of illicit romance on set and Col. Tom Parker’s fear that she was upstaging his lucrative property, the pair never appeared on film together again. Experimentation, shared chemistry and risk could never be part of the micromanaged Elvis formula, and it almost destroyed his reputation.
By the end of 1964, Steve Binder’s The TAMI Show promised further change in the cinematic depiction of rock. Essentially a series of variety show pop performances made for a feature length presentation, The TAMI Show emulated the omnibus titles of the decade past (like Rock, Rock, Rock or The Girl Can’t Help It), but rid the perfunctory, number-dividing plots in favor of wall-to-wall performances by the likes of The Rolling Stones, The Beach Boys, Chuck Berry, Marvin Gaye, and a barnburner of a show by James Brown.
Together, The TAMI Show and A Hard Day’s Night not only announced a sea change for popular music, but they portended radical new possibilities in the rock ’n’ roll movie on the horizon.
A Hard Day’s Night is a document of the Beatles in 1964. Rather than merely exhibiting a vérité style, the film functions explicitly as a document of the Beatles’ experiences by their very staging and by (barely) exaggerating them. It’s a film about the dizzying experience of Beatledom from the inside. A Hard Day’s Night’s tenuously assembled “movie-ness,” full of missed marks and unscripted grins, frequently gives way to instances of direct, striking spontaneity, and evinces the human beings beyond the layers of floppy hair and the fetishizations of fandom.
In 1964, A Hard Day’s Night pulled off something of a minor miracle alongside The TAMI Show: it shoved off rock’s contrivances and formulas in favor of something more immediate, something that at least felt real.
A Hard Day’s Night is now available on DVD and a dual format Blu-ray/DVD set from Criterion.