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

!!! A+ FILM !!!

Richard Lester’s output would evoke thoughts of physically manifested arm-waving freedom even if he hadn’t early on unleashed something called The Running, Jumping and Standing Still Film. Taken from some perspective, it’s kind of tragic that the 1960s maverick who made stunning, sophisticated features like Petulia and The Knack is today remembered almost exclusively for his association with popular Liverpool rock & roll band the Beatles. To be troubled by this is to ignore that the two films he made with the Beatles are among the most richly evocative and innovative of all his works. That goes in particular for the first one, A Hard Day’s Night. Nearly everyone who sees it comes from the opposite angle; not seeking great cinema, they mean only to witness a piece of the puzzle in one of the great mythologies of our time. It’s a movie about the Beatles, made under their authority to whatever extent they carried such power in 1964. In some cynical aspects, perhaps this makes it “product” like the TV cartoon or the bottles of shampoo; legend has it (and chronology disputes) that it was primarily authorized by United Artists so that they’d make coin from the soundtrack album.

When talking about the band whose records he so famously shepherded two decades hence, George Martin would name timing as one of the great aspects of the Beatles’ fortune. Indeed, across every phase of their legacy the band ran into and collaborated with the right people, as though charmed. Injections of importance, prestige, hope and optimism came when needed in the form of people like Brian Epstein, Klaus Voormann, Astrid Kirchhnerr, Allan Williams, Mona Best and Martin himself — oddballs and artists all or at least well-connected and resourceful if not. When they became famous under Epstein’s leadership, this translated to a now-astonishing level of quality control; during a very prolific initial five years, they virtually never stepped wrong. When it came time for the Beatles’ story to translate to cinema, the band and Epstein made pains to form a partnership with a producer, director and writer whose work they would trust. Walter Shenson was the producer, Alun Owen — who followed the band during a day in their life — the writer. But Lester is the major force here; like Martin he’d worked with Peter Sellers and the Goons. They knew his work. He was perfectly in line with the Beatles’ sensibility. The prescience of the choice, though, goes beyond such camaraderie.

One factoid everybody’s sick of is how awful pop movies were prior to A Hard Day’s Night; it’s trotted out often because it’s essentially true, although as the decades wear on it’s less and less likely that most audiences come to this bona fide classic with an awareness of what came before it. Apart from the beach-party films of the teen idols, Elvis Presley’s movies are the most visible offenders; his management’s most artistically sound contribution to film art, Jailhouse Rock, is a curio at best with a detached Hollywood perspective on Presley’s might and relevance as a performer and musician. (Presley’s later films such as Blue Hawaii are insulting trifles.) Even a rock movie that had a profound effect on the Beatles themselves as young men like Frank Tashlin’s The Girl Can’t Help It feels now like a sharply condescending look in at youth culture. Its comedy comes across as hoary and ancient; the music and those performing it are all that sustain vitality now. There is nothing cinematic or artistically rich about these films’ understanding or depiction of rock & roll as music or culture. (The most genuine rock & roll Hollywood film of the ’50s is very likely Rebel Without a Cause, which has little to do with the actual music to which it’s associated but did much to establish its imagery.)

The likes of Tashlin and the executives who gave Presley, Frankie Avalon et al. the silver screen treatment shouldn’t be remembered derisively. There’s a simple reason those films don’t work now (and probably didn’t work all that well then): in the 1950s and early 1960s, there was no reason to believe pop music was not as disposable as it seemed. Nobody had any way of knowing that the bankable product in question would become so endearing thanks to a core humanity that must have been so easy to miss if you weren’t steeped in the culture then. On the outside of the whirlwind, it probably didn’t make sense. Why would it? If you were outside of the whirlwind, it wasn’t meant for you. The Beatles were in it, and they knew, and their music reflects that sensibility from the beginning.

Have you seen pictures of Richard Lester? He is not a rock & roller. A perpetually balding, vaguely smarmy-looking American transport to Britain who’s clearly the product of a world prior to rock & roll’s existence, he talks a lot of guff about requesting a paternity test when declared “the father of MTV.” But Lester changed everything in the way that pop stars are photographed and filmed, even thought of. The Beatles as he imagines them are not glamorous stars a world apart from their fans; they seem accessible, like people you could hang around with and reach out and touch. Necessary context is derived from two other sources, both also available on DVD; the first is the Maysles brothers’ fascinating documentary The First U.S. Visit, which a few months before A Hard Day’s Night followed the band on their heady first weeks on American shores and captured for eternity the chaos surrounding them. It’s telling that the four of them and Epstein seem as thrown and bemused by that chaos as we (the modern-day audience) are. The film is exhausting and straightforward; Lester and Owen make art of it. They make the already sharp wit unceasing, they deny the Beatles their scattered signs of breathing rationality, but they also make humans of the titans. The Maysles captured a moment, Lester made it sing.

Secondly is Robert Zemeckis’ wondrous film I Wanna Hold Your Hand, which is about the people who weren’t surprised by that madness because they generated it; though fictionalized with a touch of Hollywood screwball comedy, it follows a group of Beatles fans on the date of the Ed Sullivan performance with considerably less adornment than it may seem. On top of capturing the hysteria without exaggerating it, the film humanizes the screaming throngs who are chasing our heroes throughout A Hard Day’s Night. Lester’s film is a real-time dramatization, Zemeckis’ an explanation. But Lester does something neither of these other films can, even though they further investigate aspects of the same moment that provides his inspiration here.

That’s where we come back to the sense of liberation. A Hard Day’s Night owes more than a little to the French New Wave but especially to Truffaut’s The 400 Blows, another film about youth, exuberance, freedom and eventually the power of physicality. The two films are both shot in black & white with a kind of scrappy, fast-cut intensity that feels more mobile and alive than the staid normality of Hollywood filmmaking. A potential inspiration goes back further still, to Robert Donat’s ambling through Europe in The 39 Steps; these three films, to all of which the idea of constant movement and agility is crucial, couldn’t be more different in terms of their subject matter or even their respective genres. But all three come as close as any film to somehow capturing the impossible sensation of being alive.

And it’s a lofty claim to make for a feature film, but if any can handle it it’s this one — A Hard Day’s Night is a damn good reason to be alive. It’s still extraordinary for all the same reasons it always was. Its energy, humor, warmth, abstraction, quickness — the thing is heaven. And the music helps, capturing the best rock band of all at the specific moment when everything was right. It’s hard not to wish this — the Beatles as they were then, the early ’60s as captured here, the quick-thinking creativity of everyone who made this movie and particularly Lester — was a moment eternal. We should always be grateful that somebody captured it. If somehow you have not seen it, descriptions can’t really suffice. In gritty but winning documentary-like structure it captures a 24-hour day in the Beatle life as they rehearse for and record a television appearance.

Among vignettes about the group’s witty rejoinders during a press conference, their gallivanting about gambling clubs and empty baseball fields, John Lennon discovering that he doesn’t look like “him” at all, George Harrison confronting the stuffy architects of manufactured youth culture (“she’s a drag — a well known drag”) and heated run-ins with gentlemen on the train who “fought the war for your sort” (“I bet you’re sorry you won”), vague strands of a plot finally emerge. Paul is courting his grandfather around; he’s a very clean old man but he gets into lots of trouble with women and money throughout the band and their entourage’s journey through a room and a car and a car and a room and a room and a room, culminating in his placing of nefarious influence upon one Ringo Starr. As Ringo tries to read and does his best to supervise the old bloke, the latter (Wilfrid Brambell) convinces him to go out and “live” — that is, chase girlies, make menace, cause a commotion — which in Ringo’s case translates to his mostly gazing at the ground and wandering around introspectively, getting picked up by the police for extremely idle mischief and briefly befriending a young boy. The loose climax comes about when the other Beatles scatter around town in search of the erstwhile drummer, just in time for everyone — the four Beatles, caricatures of their roadies Mal Evans and Neil Aspinall, and dear old grandfather — to show up to play for a cranky TV director (Victor Spinetti) and throngs of adoring fans.

Owen’s dialogue, generated largely from his day of journalistic research spent hanging around with the band, adds up to one of the wittiest scripts ever penned; the Beatles were compared upon release to the Marx Brothers, Starr specifically to Charlie Chaplin, and their charisma, goofiness and sexual magnetism as performers carries them through every moment the film crafts around them. Lester too meets and lives up to Owen’s sparkling, sharp, irresistible humor with the tense contrast in his direction: the surreal clashing with cinema verité. Lester’s striking visual style (opening and closing with the iconic, stylish title sequences by Robert Freeman), mimicked mercilessly in all media today, brims with power in every frame but is also consistently accessible. He dares to find the art in a form of pop still in its infancy, years before journalists would truly recognize it, and he creates a new film vocabulary in the process — forecasting years to come of freeform comedy but also of the cinematic treatment of rock & roll, in which manner he was ahead of everyone.

The only proper film of 1964 that comes even close to being as much an absorbing encapsulation of its awe-inspiring era — the peak year of popular music — is Steve Binder’s The TAMI Show, a concert feature with multiple luminous artists that was only released into theaters for one day. It now stands as a magnificent companion to Lester’s film but it does not share its prescience. A Hard Day’s Night moves beyond such unfettered documents above all else in the manner that Lester approaches the Beatles themselves and their music. That stands beyond the comedy, the realism, whatever else. You can sense it in the scene that includes a rehearsal of “”And I Love Her.”” Watch the way Lester shoots this and you can tell he knows how important it is, not just in terms of the current vitality of the band’s music but in his awareness of how iconic they would become. He arguably knew before almost anyone, save perhaps Brian Epstein (and a lot of fervent teenagers). Much like Klaus Voormann’s drawings of the band, Lester and the great Gilbert Taylor’s photography suggests he understood not only the cultural event that was happening but the reasons for it, and in one particular stunning shot of Paul McCartney — a 180-degree pan from one side of his face to the other with a stage light shining into the camera lens — an entire world of immense potential is captured. The moment defines everything, and in the same way Jonathan Demme would later photograph Talking Heads playing their instruments as if it were a momentous occasion, Lester shows us the Beatles’ whole (scripted) world with every movement magnified. In both cases but especially Lester’s they were right to exaggerate; whatever possibilities may have been squandered, there was a reality, warmth and breadth to the Beatles and their work that meant something larger, something that can only be defined by seeing the film and witnessing the band.

The Beatles’ importance to this film’s legacy goes without saying; already the finest, wisest and most consistent of all rock bands in any period of their seven-year reign at the peak of their powers, they were at their best as a functioning unit in 1964. No one has ever exerted so much boundless energy in pop music with such admirable force in such a tiny amount of time, and all these songs — from the delightful “I’m Happy Just to Dance with You” to the somberly moving “If I Feel” and the bruising “I Should Have Known Better” — lift this film from a masterpiece to a miracle. The Beatles’ own and theirs alone is the infectious charisma that feels like the meaning of life while the movie’s playing, but it takes Richard Lester to truly present them as they deserved to be. The strange energy of the time plays a role as well; that glorious feeling of an explosion that no one could ever duplicate, bottled up on celluloid… forever, is hard to shake each time one sees this.

As Greil Marcus has said, you yearn deeply for the past when screening A Hard Day’s Night, in my case a past that ended well before my lifetime. In a sense I think that was intentional, but the movie also still seems so current, so worldly. Maybe neither feeling is an accident. I don’t know of any movie that captures its time with such precision yet manages to remain so potent fifty years later; I don’t know of any movie that is so stylish yet so human, so serious about its characters — filmed in that stark, seductive monochrome inspiring of worshipful distance but also charged intimacy — yet so unbelievably funny. I don’t know of any movie that makes me want to “parade” so much, as Paul’s grandfather suggests. I don’t know of any movie that moves me so deeply even as its humor is at its most devastating and cynical — drummer as tramp, family as nuisance, pop as commerce. It is undoubtedly the greatest rock film ever made and to be quite honest with you, I find it hard — even painful — to think of life without it.

[Material here was gathered from multiple older essays and writings about this film, in particular reviews posted in 2003 and 2004, augmented by a lot of new material. In case you’re interested, I also wrote a fairly long review of Criterion’s recent DVD/Blu release last year.]

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