A Hard Day’s Night (1964) is so many things – joyous, silly, endearing, and riotously funny, to name a few – that it’s easy to miss just how heart-stoppingly beautiful it is. I’m not kidding. There are images in this movie, which is shot through in glorious black and white, that are as mesmerizing as anything the movies have ever given us. To me, it’s most evident in the sequence where The Beatles, preparing for a live TV event (a la their Ed Sullivan Show performance), perform “And I Love Her” in the under-lit, empty TV theater. As Paul sings the melody, his youthful, boyish face is captured on distorted video monitors in the control room show, eventually dissolving into a silhouetted image of his real face. The effect is hypnotic, almost otherworldly, like all of time has frozen just so Paul can sing his song. Time didn’t freeze, of course, and the beauty of that sequence, and of A Hard Day’s Night, would eventually give way to the tumult of the ‘60s. Eventually, the Beatles would break up. But what they created with this film was some kind of magic, and no matter how many times you watch it, that magic is still there.
It wasn’t really supposed to happen this way. This was supposed to be a cash-in, a quick and easy way to capitalize on the growing wave of Beatlemania (incidentally, the film’s original title). Released just four months after the Ed Sullivan Show performance, it was conceived as another entry in a long assembly line of rock n’ roll musicals (which reached their commercial zenith with the Elvis pictures), a publicity tool to help sell records and introduce the Beatles to a wider global audience, and who cared if it was any good? But that’s just the miracle of it. It was good. Marvelously good. So good, and so fresh, and so alive, and so new, that it became a cultural earthquake the impact of which we’re still feeling today.
Yes, but why was it so good? That has to do with the Beatles themselves, director Richard Lester and screenwriter Alun Owen. You see, the four lads from Liverpool weren’t content with making just a publicity tool. They hated that kind of movie, and instead wanted to make something they would want to watch. Working with Lester and Owen, they concocted a scenario that would showcase their songs while letting their individual personalities shine through. Taking place over the course of an imaginary – but not too imaginary – day in the life of the band, the movie would follow them as they prepared for their performance while fleeing from crazed fans, rebelling against their handlers (Norman Rossington and John Junkin) and battling Paul’s mischievous (but very clean) grandfather, played by Wilfred Brambell. The film would mix in the musical numbers organically, so they wouldn’t feel out of place with the anarchic, rebellious spirit but instead contribute to it and, in some places, provide refuge from it.
Boy did it ever work. Part of the genius of A Hard Day’s Night, and the thing that makes it such a pivotal film in the modern cinema, is the way it weaves in so much of what came before it while being savvy enough to create new conventions of its own. In the same way that the French New Wave was a rebellion against a “Certain Tendency of the French Cinema,” A Hard Day’s Night takes years of British and American musicals, lifts bits and pieces of them and throws out the rest to create something that feels almost entirely new. As already mentioned, it was shot in brilliant black and white at a time when many rock musicals were in color. It followed a fairly conventional musical structure. And the “plot,” as it were, wasn’t all that different from a Busby Berkeley picture from the ‘30s (e.g., Gold Diggers of 1933), with most story threads resolved in time for the whiz-bang closing musical number.
Beyond that, though, almost nothing in the film felt like anything that came before it, and it still feels unique among musicals. It’s filmed in a semi-documentary style that would be right at home with that of other New Wave directors (especially Godard), who in the years prior took it upon themselves to revolutionize the medium by eschewing all cinematic convention and creating their own. It simply doesn’t look like any other British or American film from 1964 (The Sound of Music would win that year’s Best Picture Oscar, giving a sense of just how radical the departure was). At times it seems more like a series of sketches than a cohesive whole, with comedic invention that forecasts Monty Python and Benny Hill. And the musical numbers – particularly “A Hard Day’s Night,” “I Should Have Known Better” and the famous “Can’t Buy Me Love” sequence – are edited so as to look ahead 20 years to the MTV generation and the modern music video.
How does one explain the singular appeal of this incredible movie now that it’s 50 years old? After all, A Hard Day’s Night is as old now as D.W. Griffith’s films were when it was released. Yet nothing about dated, and from the moment it bursts onto the screen, every frame is alive. Though carefully scripted, it has an on-the-fly quality that feels entirely improvised. This isn’t how the Beatles really were, but it’s how we like to imagine them.
Perhaps that’s it. Perhaps the answer has to do with the Beatles themselves, and their own anarchic, rebellious spirits. They weren’t great actors, but they didn’t have to be, because it was all a big joke, you see, and they were all in on it. The lack of self-seriousness in their performances is disarming, and while they’re clearly basking in the hysteria swirling around them, it’s obvious that they’re really just here to have a good time. Their aloofness helps us relate, and their individual personalities, which are exaggerated versions of their real-life personas, give every audience member a Beatle to identify with. Ringo is self-conscious and introspective. John is a troublemaker not altogether different from Bugs Bunny. Paul is exasperated but cheerful. And George, my own favorite, is snarky and at times downright disdainful (the scene where he befuddles an advertising exec looking to him as a barometer for teenage fads is among the funniest in the film). They talk, they flirt with girls, they mess with reporters, and they do everything they can to break free from the prison of their fame. But they love to sing together, and when they do, their performances are as joyous as anything Stanley Donen, Vincent Minnelli or Fred and Ginger ever put on screen.
A quick note about the songs. There are many music fans who regard the Beatles’ early work as fluff, or typical boy band material, and believe that they didn’t become great until they began expanding into more experimental work (and drugs). I think these people are wrong, and A Hard Day’s Night backs that up. Along with those already mentioned, songs like “If I Fell,” “I’m Happy Just to Dance With You” and “She Loves You,” though simple in their construction, are still beguiling pieces of pop songwriting, with near-perfect harmonies and enough musical invention that they helped pave the way for bands like The Byrds, The Kinks and countless others. As featured into A Hard Day’s Night, they’re as beautifully evocative as any pop songs ever written, and people mistaking their simplicity for fluff need to take another look – and listen.
I’m telling you, it’s a joy, this movie, and it moves like nothing else that’s come before or since. Heck, I’ve watched it twice in the last month and would watch it again right now without hesitation. The Beatles would try to replicate its success in more films – including the following year’s Help!, which adds more plot but loses the simple magic – to diminishing returns. But A Hard Day’s Night endures, untarnished, continuing to win over new audiences 50 years after its debut. The new 4K restoration of the film, recently released in theaters and now available on Criterion Blu-ray, is utterly breathtaking, and I’d urge anyone who’s never seen it to buy it sight unseen, as I can’t imagine anyone not being completely swept up by it. For as long as the Beatles remain popular, I have to imagine A Hard Day’s Night will be there to remind us how one time four lads from Liverpool got together, sang some songs, put them in a movie, and changed the world.