Keith: We often kick off these forums with a discussion of style, but with A Hard Day’s Night, it seems like the only place to start. Richard Lester is one of my favorite directors, one I feel consistently doesn’t get his due these days. On that front, it probably doesn’t help that with A Hard Day’s Night, his breakthrough film, he can’t help but be overshadowed by his stars. But Lester’s teaming with The Beatles is a case of the right collaborators finding each other at the right time. Lester worked with Spike Milligan and Peter Sellers of The Goon Show, a comedy institution The Beatles grew up adoring; its surrealistic silliness influenced the band’s in-jokes and comic instincts. In Lester, they found a similar sensibility. In The Beatles, Lester found the perfect subjects for his youthful, throw-out-the-rulebook filmmaking style, which shared more than a little with the French New Wave. The style of the film—with its handheld cameras, quick cutting, and reality-bending visual gags—was so widely imitated that it’s worth remembering how much of it started here. With A Hard Day’s Night, Lester was helping to create the vocabulary of what rock ’n’ roll looked like on film.
Scott: The brilliance of Lester’s conception of A Hard Day’s Night would be confirmed later, too, in the film that immediately followed, The Knack… And How To Get It, which extended Hard Day’s Night’s cultural comedy (and just plain silly comedy), and his 1968 masterpiece, Petulia, which extended a daring, free-flowing editing style. A Hard Day’s Night is a pretty radical piece of filmmaking, but it has The Beatles’ songs to give it just enough structure to let Lester and The Beatles scribble and sketch as much as they’d like. And within the songs themselves, there’s opportunity for standalone sequences of the type we’d later know as music videos, like the famous fast-motion doodle of the Liverpudlians playing around to the tune of “Can’t Buy Me Love.” The film is liberated yet accessible, serving as both an image-making tool and art.
Matt: What impresses me most about A Hard Day’s Night’s aesthetic is how elastic it is. Some scenes could be pulled from a documentary on Beatlemania (those screaming and crying girls don’t look like they needed much direction), while others are like something out of a Looney Tunes cartoon, like when The Beatles pester a grumpy square on the train by magically transporting out of the compartment window to run alongside the tracks. Somehow, Lester seamlessly marries the two halves together.
The flashes of style—helicopter shots, slow-motion, super-speed—also make for an interesting contrast with all of the images of television cameras and monitors. When The Beatles are performing or rehearsing for their appearance on that variety show, Lester puts the TV equipment in front of his film cameras, even shooting into the eyepiece of a TV camera at one point to record its tiny, grainy image. These shots underscore the importance of television in The Beatles’ success, while simultaneously emphasizing how A Hard Day’s Night goes behind the scenes to show the band members in a different way than fans were used to seeing on TV. It may have also have been Lester proselytizing for film—which is depicted as a wild medium full of experimentation and fun—over television, which looks fairly staid and stiff, dominated by touchy directors and, except for The Beatles, old-fashioned forms of entertainment.
Noel: The style is sort of quasi-documentary, isn’t it? Like Matt says, for all the jumpy edits and whip-pans—so, so many whip-pans—A Hard Day’s Night is like an early form of cinéma vérité, with Lester and his crew acting as though they just happened to have their equipment turned toward The Beatles as the band went about its ordinary business of getting ready for a TV gig. The scenes in A Hard Day’s Night that I find the most effective today are the ones where The Beatles barely seem to be play-acting, and Lester seems to be scrambling to keep up with the boys’ free-flowing smartassery.
The Music and musicals
Noel: Scott mentioned all the exaggerated running and jumping (and standing still) of the “Can’t Buy Me Love” sequence, and as I watched that scene, I thought, “Boy, this is pretty much The Monkees’ opening credits, isn’t it?” I don’t want to say Lester’s anarchic approach was completely new, because American International Pictures’ similarly cheeky Beach Party series launched a year earlier (and was itself partly influenced by some of the Sam Katzman-produced rocksploitation movies of the late 1950s), but for the rest of the 1960s, if a movie had a rock band in it, an overwhelming majority of the time, that movie would be frenetic and tongue-in-cheek. What I find interesting, though, is that those movies didn’t directly reference or spoof A Hard Day’s Night—at least not like Lester and The Beatles spoof old-fashioned youth-oriented musicals when Lennon sarcastically says, “Hey kids, I’ve got an idea! Let’s do the show right here, yeah?” A Hard Day’s Night was like the gold standard of hip: something to aspire to, not to mock.
Scott: I’m going to go out on a limb here: The pop songcraft here is pretty solid. Not to take anything away from Lester’s innovations, but it’s the songs that make them possible and palatable. They bookend the film with equally famous opening and closing sequences, and give the audience the occasional buoy to cling to as they’re swimming in a free-form, semi-experimental narrative. With all the complications that later entered their lives and music, it’s so pleasing to see these charming, happy-go-lucky men play pop songs that are this untroubled and perfect. Of course, it’s unlikely that even then, The Beatles took to stardom that cheerfully—A Hard Day’s Night lets them control how they manage their image, and they manage it as impeccably as a studio album—but they succeeded in defining their early career with this movie. I can’t listen to “Can’t Buy Me Love,” “All My Loving,” “If I Fell,” or any of those hits without it all coming back in black and white.
Genevieve: While the opening “A Hard Day’s Night” sequence and the iconic “Can’t Buy Me Love” goof parade are rightly the most-remembered musical moments from this film, my favorite number is a smaller one, and, perhaps not coincidentally, the one that feels most like a traditional movie-musical number. Now, this is probably attributable at least in part to “I Should Have Known Better” being one of my all-time favorite Beatles songs, but that scene of the boys playing cards in the cramped luggage compartment of the train, which transforms without pretext or comment into a jam-session-esque performance of that song, always sticks out as one of my favorite moments of this film. That unapologetic transition from everyday activity into the heightened state of musical performance is something usually associated with traditional musicals, and I like the low-key spin on it Lester takes here. It’s also the musical performance where the four Beatles’ personalities shine through brightest, as they interact just with each other, Paul’s grandpa, and the three random schoolgirls pawing at them through the cage. It’s a smaller-scale version of the hysteria-fueled television performance at the end of the film—during which this song is reprised, to slightly different effect—but it’s as succinct and charming an expression of the guys’ undeniable charisma as any of those more famous scenes.
Keith: I love that scene, too, especially the way an already-crowded space suddenly accommodates a full drum kit. It feels like an acknowledgment that, as different as it is, A Hard Day’s Night is still very much a musical, with songs coming out of nowhere, realism be damned, and characters expressing feelings through music they won’t let themselves say with mere words. The songs from A Hard Day’s Night don’t really have that much to do with the action surrounding them, but they still serve some of the same function. The boys rarely give a straight answer to even a simple question. But then the music starts, and it’s hearts-on-sleeves time.
Matt: My one gripe—and this is the nittiest of the pickiest of nitpicks—is that I wish the live performances felt just a bit more live. The Beatles are probably the greatest band of all time, but as lip-synchers go, they’re strictly adequate. There are a few times when there are words being sung and nobody’s mouth is moving; the most egregious example is during the reprise of “I Should Have Known Better,” when John is playing the harmonica and “singing” at the same time. But, again, this an incredibly minor complaint. We can now go back to giddily squealing like the audience in the final scene.
Matt: There isn’t a lot of conflict in A Hard Day’s Night, but all The Beatles’ minor antagonists share one thing in common: They’re old. The war veteran on the train who gives them a hard time about playing their radio; the guy who shoos them away from the field where they dance to “Can’t Buy Me Love”; the obnoxious television director; the marketer who tries to teach George what’s hip; the cops who arrest Ringo; Paul’s “mixer” of a grandfather—every “bad guy” in the movie is at least 10 years older than anyone in the Fab Four. You might say the only villain in the movie is “responsible adulthood.”
By the standards of modern boy bands, The Beatles weren’t spring chickens in 1964; John was already a married father of a baby boy (though you wouldn’t know it from this film, where he’s the most incorrigible flirt of the bunch). But there’s an undeniably youthful energy to the band, one that becomes more pronounced every time they’re placed into opposition with joyless taskmasters who dare to ask them to adhere to a schedule, answer their fan mail, or keep their voices down.
Did anyone else get the sense, though, of something ever-so-slightly menacing beneath the giddy surface of Beatlemania? John, Paul, George, and Ringo all come off as charming stars, but their fans are so needy. Their delirious screams and cries during the final performance are so intense, they verge on terrifying. A Hard Day’s Night loves The Beatles and their music, but it seems a tiny bit ambivalent about their audience.
Genevieve: Ah, Matt, clearly you’ve never been a teenage girl. Beatlemania set the template for teen-girl hysteria, but subsequent generations have rendered it a cliché, one that gets shriller and more alarming to outsiders with every new iteration. Speaking as someone who’s emerged from the belly of that particular beast relatively unscathed, and with a good bit of nostalgic affection for it, I never get tired of seeing those young girls—and, yes, a fair number of boys, including a young Phil Collins—scream their fool heads off. I’ve often likened the sensation of giddy teenage hysteria to being high, and witnessing it from the remove of adulthood—be it the era of The Beatles or One Direction—always brings back a little rush of excitement. It isn’t just me, either: When I told my mom I was re-watching A Hard Day’s Night, she instantly went moony-eyed remembering waiting in line to see the film when she was 13, and not being able to hear the movie over the screams in the theater.
I can see how someone without this particular baggage, and with the hindsight of knowing The Beatles would eventually come to hate and flee this hysteria, could read some menace into those screams, but frankly, I don’t buy it, at least not based on what’s onscreen in Hard Day’s Night. Those dudes are loving it, or at least doing a damn good job of pretending to—witness their gleeful laughter during the opening chase—and I don’t think the cliché of teen hysteria had solidified enough at this point for Lester to be exhibiting anything more than simple fascination with those shots of sobbing fans. But that could just be the former sobbing teenage girl inside me talking.
Noel: As someone who’s never been a teenage girl (except in my heart… sniff), can I say how impressed I always am by how non-teen-idolish The Beatles look in A Hard Day’s Night? I mean, they’re cute and all, but they aren’t generically good-looking. They weren’t assembled by a casting director, in other words; they’re just four ordinary blokes whose attractiveness has as much to do with their personalities as their shaggy hair and soft eyes. I can only imagine what it must’ve been like for young Beatles fans to see their crush-objects on a giant screen, singing romantic songs and cracking wise. It’s also surprising how wolfish The Beatles are in this movie. They check out “the talent,” and Paul’s grandfather (a fairly dirty clean old man) admires one bombshell’s cleavage, saying, “I bet you’re a great swimmer.” There’s often a certain sexlessness to teen idols, but I don’t know that you’d want to leave your daughter alone with these boys.
Scott: I was unexpectedly moved by the Beatlemania in A Hard Day’s Night, particularly those cutaway shots to the screaming, flailing, crying fans in the theater during that TV performance at the end. We tend to mock the young for this kind of unbridled enthusiasm—often because the object of their rapture is undeserving, like Justin Bieber and the many Biebers of generations past—but the fact is, The Beatles are up there playing some of the best, purest, most infectious pop songs ever made, so we can’t get as much distance. There’s something so affecting about kids responding to music (and handsome young performers) with such unabashed enthusiasm—and the thought that two of the four band members are no longer with us, and those screamers, if they’re still around, are now senior citizens. It’s nice to have this electric moment in teen culture preserved for all time.
Genevieve: Matt mentioned feeling a menacing undercurrent to A Hard Day’s Night, and while, as I said, I think that’s a perception based more in hindsight than what’s on the screen, the machinations of celebrity that would wear The Beatles down in just a few short years are apparent in this film, even if the guys are still approaching it with relative good humor at this point. (Compare the cheeky frivolity of this movie to the more dour Help!, released just a year later, which sees The Beatles escaping into a strange plot that keeps them separated not just from their fans, but from any real indication that they’re famous.) There’s a recurring visual theme of confinement vs. freedom, with Lester alternating cramped, crowded scenes of the boys amid a scrum of admirers/vultures (the train, the press conference, the dance club) and scenes where they break out and away from their handlers (the “Can’t Buy Me Love” sequence, Ringo’s journey). The press-conference scene is probably the most telling, with the guys dutifully answering one inane question after another with jokes—because as Ringo says, they aren’t mods or rockers, they’re mockers. At this point, The Beatles were still playing the fame game, not exactly unwillingly, but with an obvious insolence that presages their impending rejection of it.
It’s also interesting that, for all the film’s images of Beatlemania in full force, the Beatles themselves rarely interact with or talk about their fans directly in A Hard Day’s Night. They’re always either running from them or playing in front of a horde of them; the closest we get to seeing them interact with fans on a human level, rather than as a screaming mass, is with the schoolgirls on the train (including the future Mrs. George Harrison) and in the dance club, and it’s probably safe to say they have other things on their minds in those moments than mere fan appreciation. Modern pop idols are unfailingly dutiful about praising and glad-handing their fans, whatever their actual feelings toward them may be, so it’s interesting to see Beatlemania portrayed as an isolating phenomenon, one that separates the idols from the people who love them.
Scott: I wonder how much A Hard Day’s Night reflects the reality of being The Beatles at the time, and how much they were putting a shine on the torments of celebrity. Genevieve’s point about Help! makes me believe that the boys’ “cheeky frivolity” is legitimate, and that they were untroubled by their confinement, which was just a natural trade-off of being a genuine pop phenomenon. At the same time, Lester, The Beatles, and their handlers would likely be disinclined to show the dark side of celebrity in a movie like this, which may be a work of art, but exists in part to fan the flames of Beatlemania. Those flames singed them pretty good in the years to come, but the film invites younger fans to share in the excitement, secure in the knowledge that John, Paul, George, and Ringo are happy to deal with the ceaseless, isolating hassles that greet them wherever they go.
Noel: I’d say A Hard Day’s Night’s view of celebrity isn’t dark so much as cynical. To me, one of the key scenes in the movie is when the TV bigwig hears George say “grotty” and tells his secretary to jot it down for his teen superstar “Susan,” then tells George, “You have to love her, she’s your symbol.” George laughs him off, saying he and the lads only watch Susan’s show to make fun of her, but the bigwig doesn’t take George seriously, because “The change isn’t due for three weeks yet.” That take on fame—as something fleeting, and engineered by money—is refuted by Beatlemania, which was more of a grassroots phenomenon. Still, the scene is a reminder that no one should take any of this celebrity stuff too seriously.
Keith: If anything, I think the portrayal of fame here feels aspirational. Everything pointed out above about the hassles are all fair points, but the screaming fans and waves of adoration leave the strongest impression. If you’re a kid with even the faintest musical aspirations watching this in 1964, do you have any choice but to start a band? The downside appears manageable, and the rewards considerable.
Matt: I found it interesting to note the limits of The Beatles’ fame in A Hard Day’s Night, the places where they still aren’t recognized (like by the aforementioned TV bigwig who tries to tell George what’s cool and hip and has no clue who he’s lecturing, or the boy who pesters Ringo on his walk, or the cops who arrest him a little later). Among their die-hard fans, they’re clearly huge stars, but A Hard Day’s Night almost depicts them as an underground phenomenon. The kids love them, but a lot of the adults in the film remain aloof or downright ignorant. It’s another way to play to A Hard Day’s Night’s audience of teenagers: flattering their good taste while making the older characters look utterly unhip and out-of-touch for not recognizing The Beatles for the musical gods they were.
Keith: It’s worth noting that as well as A Hard Day’s Night captures the height of Beatlemania, it also documents a chapter in the Beatles story that was about to close. The film hit theaters in summer 1964. In December of that year, American audiences got an album inaccurately titled Beatles ’65, consisting mostly of tracks included on the U.K. album Beatles For Sale. The real ’65 Beatles pushed their sound in directions only hinted at in 1964, first on the soundtrack to the follow-up film Help!, then on the following December’s Rubber Soul, which confirmed that Beatles fans, and music in general, would soon be following the band into terra incognita. In some ways, A Hard Day’s Night’s assertion that fashions faded, to be replaced by new looks and sounds, is dead on. Only in this case, The Beatles did the replacing.
Noel: I’ve often wondered how American audiences dealt with A Hard Day’s Night’s high level of Britishness. There’s an article in last month’s Rolling Stone about the long process of introducing The Beatles to the States, and how it took a while for the Capitol Records execs to overcome their certainty that the band’s charms wouldn’t translate. I guess by the time of A Hard Day’s Night, the demand for all things Beatles was so high that the band and Lester could mix in dry wit and high camp in that now-familiar Britcom way. Did A Hard Day’s Night soften America up for all that?
Keith: If you want a sample of what The Beatles were up against, at least from the established media, check out this clip of Jack Paar mocking the silly new music from England on The Tonight Show (which doubles as the band’s first appearance on American TV):
Matt: I think we should give a little credit to The Beatles for being such good actors in their first feature film. True, they’re playing “The Beatles,” but the list of musicians that tried and failed to play loosely fictionalized versions of themselves in movies is long and covered with glitter (which, as we all know, cannot overpower the artist). Their comedic timing (aided, no doubt, by editor John Jympson) is impeccable. A Hard Day’s Night inspired a million ripoffs; they all lacked The Beatles’ music, but they might have suffered even more for lacking The Beatles’ screen presence and charm.
Scott: To speak to Noel’s question about how American audiences might have dealt with the Britishness of A Hard Day’s Night, I offer this anecdote from my childhood. When I was a youngster, I had two passions: the player piano in our living room, and The Beatles. When my parents eagerly encouraged my passion by arranging for piano lessons, I was initially excited to learn more than single-handed renditions of “Joy To The World” and “The Entertainer.” But I disappointed them later when I decided to quit my piano lessons because the time conflicted with the Beatles cartoon’s TV timeslot. The cartoon, for anyone who remembers it, was silly, crude, bottom-of-the-barrel stuff, but the songs kept me tuned in. I don’t want to speak for all Americans here, but I think the music in A Hard Day’s Night makes up for estrangements of any kind.
Genevieve: For an illustration of how essential The Beatles’ comedic/acting chops are to this film, I point you to a relatively recent example of those rip-offs Matt mentions: 1997’s Spice World, a sort of dark inversion of A Hard Day’s Night that may have put the nail in the coffin for this particular form of the pop-phenom movie, which now trends toward the more glossy, concert-biopic format favored by your Justin Biebers and One Directions. The absolutely terrible Spice Girls movie (and I say that as someone who was really into them as a 13-year-old) is modeled explicitly on A Hard Day’s Night, but is absolutely tanked by the five Spices, who display none of the charisma or self-awareness The Beatles have here. (As Roger Ebert put it in his hilarious review of the film, “The huge difference, of course, is that The Beatles were talented—while, let’s face it, the Spice Girls could be duplicated by any five women under the age of 30 standing in line at Dunkin’ Donuts.”) It seems ridiculous in hindsight to compare the two movies, given the chasm in respectability between the acts at their centers, but at the time each was made, they were meant to function the same way, as an extension of a brief, intense worldwide phenomenon. The fact that A Hard Day’s Night stands up outside the context of that phenomenon is what makes it so remarkable, and why we’re still talking about it today.
Don’t miss yesterday’s Keynote on A Hard Day’s Night’s skeptical but not cynical view of stardom. And tomorrow, Noel Murray revisits the curious trend of making Beatles movies without The Beatles.