Looking at it more than fifty years after release, it’s easy to see why A Hard Day’s Night is such an important movie. It’s not simply that it is the first Beatles film, though of course that is significant – it’s what the film seems to represent. It’s a film that appeared while the band were still very much a pop group (and one that few people really expected to last) but offers musical hints at the shift towards a more serious rock sound a couple of years later – these were the last days of innocence for rock ‘n’ roll before it developed into the beast that is Rock. More significantly, it shows a Britain on the verge of chance – the birth of youth culture, the demise of the deference that had bogged the country down for decades and the beginning of something new. The 1960s, you could argue, began here, with the first chord of the title song that introduces the film.
Just as importantly, it was the beginning of a new sort of cinema. It wasn’t, perhaps, a massively radical change, but it was a start. This, I would argue, is the ground zero point for the most important British film of the 1960s. With the mix of docudrama, French new wave influences, absurdist comedy and youth culture (in this film, the older generation are certainly not to be respected), A Hard Day’s Night can be seen as the forerunner of everything from Blow Up to Morgan – A Suitable Case for Treatment, The Knack, If…., Performance and beyond. It also changed the style of the rock ‘n’ roll movie, which until this point had been little more than a showcase for here today, gone later today middle of the road acts to knock out a number or two on the way to obscurity – the likes of Rock, Rock, Rock or the Six-Five Special movie might have ostensibly been aimed at young people rebelling against the older generation, but they were cosy, twee little films in which parental authority was never really challenged and the music was more likely to be Dickie Valentine than Lonnie Donegan, and where Aker Bilk and trad jazz was presented offered as the next big thing. The Beatles killed that nonsense off once and for all, and A Hard Day’s Night similarly shifted the goalposts. Sure, the film initially led to a host of half-baked imitation movies with half-baked imitation Beatles – we still had the entertaining but vacuous likes of Gonks Go Beat and The Ghost Goes Gear to come – but generally speaking, British youth cult cinema was about to stop being terminally uncool and become very, very interesting. Eve the British poster seemed to offer a radical new visual style.
Of course, this is a lot of baggage to pile onto what is essentially a light-hearted vanity project for a band on the cusp of international stardom, but there you are. That the film still holds up as a piece of entertainment despite all that baggage is pretty impressive. And while it would be an exaggeration to call it timeless – the fashions, the dialogue and, funnily enough, the smoking all nail it to a fairly specific time and place – the film still works extremely well. I imagine that you could show this to a kid who had never heard of the Beatles and once they’d come to grips with it being in black and white, they’ probably still find it a lot of fun. And they’d probably appreciate the music, which includes some of the band’s best pure pop tunes (the title track, Can’t Buy Me Love) and which still feels strangely fresh. I’m not particularly a fan of early Beatles, but you know what? This is all quality, catchy pop that is delivered with real punch. It’s hard to imagine now, after five decades of rock music expanding into all manner of extreme directions and where Paul McCartney is a bit of an embarrassing old bloke, just how revolutionary this sort of thing must’ve sounded at a time when the last real British rock ‘n’ roll stars had been Cliff Richard and Tommy Steele.
The film itself is a fictionalised look at a day in the life of the band, as they travel from Liverpool to London for a TV appearance (the first fiction right there – by this time, the band had long since fled Liverpool). First, they are chased by screaming fans into the train station. On the train journey down, they deal with Paul’s miscreant grandfather (Wilfred Bramble, starting out restrained but slowly and uncannily morphing into the scheming Albert Steptoe), manager Norm (Norman Rossington), his assistant Shake (John Junkin) and a bevy of excited schoolgirls. In London, they attend a boring press conference and deal with fan mail while Grandfather slips out to a gambling house. In the TV studio, they butt heads with a fey director (Victor Spinetti) and the sly old man convinces Ringo that he is under-appreciated, causing him to go walkabout as the time for their live performance approaches.
And that’s pretty much it. Around this thin plot, a series of small moments is woven, little parts that allow each band member their own space and make room for a few songs – sometimes lip-synced, sometimes the backing track to wacky chases and mostly in the final concert scene. Richard Lester’s experience with The Goons pays off as he handles a series of mostly visual moments, sometimes surreal, sometimes feeling like early versions of music videos, with the band running, jumping and standing still (to reference one of his earlier works). It’s all very episodic and light in tone, but Lester brings to the film the visual style, the radical editing, the deliberate absurdity and sense of knowingness that made Jean-Luc Godard’s films of the time so fascinating – this is British nouvelle vague, and it’s great.
It’s also a film that very squarely pitches its lot in with the kids. Headed by the crafty Bramble, the older generation in this movie are sly, arrogant, pompous and generally untrustworthy. This is not a film that suggests you should respect your elders – instead, it demands you question them and mistrust them. These are the people, after all, who will send you into war while denying your rights, and expect you to follow their rules without ever bothering to explain why. This is pretty standard stuff for youth cinema now; it was an unusual, possibly unique message at the time, when even the most apparently rebellious rock ‘n’ roll film would come with a sympathetic older character who would put the kids straight, and where the kids only ever wanted to be part of respectable society anyway.
The four Beatles are not good actors in any conventional sense – they don’t deliver their dialogue with any sense of realism, for instance. But then, I’m not entirely sure they were ever supposed to. Playing themselves presumably helped (though contrary to popular belief, the film was tightly scripted by Alun Owen and not improvised very much at all) but you probably wouldn’t want to hire any of them to play a dramatic role on the basis of this. And yet – they are arresting nonetheless. They have screen presence and definite charisma… and somehow, the non-acting performances actually seem to work. They bring a documentary realism to the film that oddly compliments the bizarre humour. And of course, they are backed by a host of familiar faces who are all on top form.
Of course, much of this comedic version of a day in the life of the Beatles probably wasn’t that exaggerated. They really were pursued by screaming girls (the hysteria of the concert is captured brilliantly, and you can understand why they decided to withdraw from playing live as their music became more nuanced – how could they compete against that wall of sound?) and they really were dogged by journalists asking inane questions (the press conference scene is bitingly mean). I imagine they also had plenty of experience with TV producer prima donnas too. And so as well as an entertaining comedy and a great music movie, A Hard Day’s Night probably is as close a document of what it was like to be a Beatle in 1964 as you could hope for.
As a template of how to make a fun, lightweight and yet substantial pop music movie, this is pretty perfect – anyone stuck making a film about some no-hope flash in the pan act should start here for inspiration. Certainly, it’s the best film that the Beatles were ever involved in – Help! is fun, but lacks the bite of this. It’s an important first blow for British counter-culture cinema and for rock music movies alike. And it’s still, half a century on, hugely entertaining.