We’ll Always Have ‘A Hard Day’s Night’
The hugely re-watchable film is a great way to celebrate the Fab Four
By Todd Hill
Few movies merit repeat viewing as much as “A Hard Day’s Night,” a film that was made, quickly and cheaply, as a merchandising ploy in 1964 to cash in on what was suspected would be the fleeting fame of a pop music group called the Beatles.
Had the movie starred, say, the Dave Clark Five, I wouldn’t be writing about it today, nobody would. And for the record, an exploitative picture was in fact released starring that British band in 1965, when their popularity rivaled that of the Beatles, called “Catch Us If You Can,” not to be confused with the 2002 Steven Spielberg movie “Catch Me If You Can,” starring Leonardo DiCaprio.
We continue to watch “A Hard Day’s Night” all these decades later because the Beatles weren’t just a flash in the pan but because they managed to mature into a timeless cultural phenomenon, not to mention perhaps the most influential ensemble in pop music history. We watch the movie because it’s important, an artifact, even a touchstone of sorts.
But we enjoy watching it because it’s still so fresh, alive and full of fun, because as it turned out the Beatles could actually act (when they took the trouble to), and because “A Hard Day’s Night” doesn’t have much in the way of a plot. It’s a movie of moments.
The Beatles were by no means the only pop musicians to find themselves besieged by crazed fans during the early 1960’s, but the phenomenon was called Beatlemania for a reason. The opening sequence of “A Hard Day’s Night,” depicting the Beatles running from fans in a train station, is scarcely a depiction, as director Richard Lester utilized real Beatles fans for the bit. It establishes a mood and energy level that largely persists throughout the movie.
The camera follows along with John, Paul, George and Ringo over the course of a couple of days that are by turns exciting, boring and surreal, or as Wilfred Brambell perhaps best describes it, “a train and a room and a car and a room and a room and a room.” Brambell is the “very clean” man who portrays Paul McCartney’s grandfather. He was a character actor familiar to British audiences at the time, and the “very clean” line was an inside joke playing off a “dirty old man” he had played in a U.K. sitcom. “A Hard Day’s Night” was made for British audiences only; there wasn’t even an expectation at the time that the Beatles would amount to anything in the U.S.
A remarkable number of British films made between the end of World War II and the mid-1960’s possessed a grimness that was palpable, reflective at least to some extent of the national condition. While it may be an overstatement to say “A Hard Day’s Night” changed that all by itself, the movie was certainly a trendsetter. The Beatles represented the changing of the guard, but it was Richard Lester, director of this film, who was able to distill what they stood for, and who deserves the most credit here.
Lester earned the Beatles’ seal of approval when they learned he was the man behind both “The Goon Show” and a short called “The Running Jumping & Standing Still Film” (the title says it all). Both were showcases of surreal humor, very pre-Monty Python, and had been very much on the Beatles’ radar.
Some of that wit shows up in “A Hard Day’s Night,” such as the scene in which a woman, played by Anna Quayle, spotting a resemblance, asks John Lennon if he’s a celebrity who may be Lennon. He says he’s not, she then decides he doesn’t look like him at all, and Lennon later quips that she looks more like him than he does. Just like that, the moment’s gone and the movie’s on to its next bit, part of the reason why “A Hard’s Day Night” is so suited for watching again and again.
Lester’s best-known sequence in the film is the Beatles’ romp in a field to the strains of “Can’t Buy Me Love.” For years film writers gushed that Lester invented the music video with this scene, matching the edits with the beats in the music. True or not, this claim likely carried more weight when music videos were a thing back in the 1980’s. But in some important ways Lester was clearly ahead of his time as a filmmaker.
Inevitably, the times eventually caught up with him. While Lester went on to have a successful career as a filmmaker for several years, helming a couple of “Superman” sequels and a trio of “Three Musketeers” titles, most of those don’t hold up very well today. Sadly, a stunt on 1989’s “The Return of the Musketeers” resulted in the death of the actor Roy Kinnear, and Lester never made another movie, apart from a Paul McCartney concert film in 1991. But the times had caught up with Lester well before then.
He was also the director of “Help!,” the Beatles’ “Hard Day’s Night” follow-up in 1965. Although the movie has its devotees, and the music is of course terrific, the magic was already gone a mere year later. In the interim the Beatles had met Bob Dylan, who introduced the musicians to marijuana. Making a movie can be an exceedingly tedious experience, particularly for actors, and especially for John, Paul, George and Ringo, who were admittedly high during the production of “Help!”
The Beatles had a three-picture deal with United Artists, but the third film — a western — failed to materialize after the screenwriter, Joe Orton, was murdered. As the 1960’s continued to unspool, the Beatles released an hour-long television film in late 1967 pegged to the release of their album “Magical Mystery Tour.” The deeply bizarre movie was largely the brainstorm of McCartney, who has understandably always been reluctant to take credit for it.
The following summer, the animated film “Yellow Submarine” hit theaters. Popular with stoned audiences at the time, the movie has gone on to grow in stature and is today considered a family-friendly way to introduce new generations to the Beatles. But the band had virtually nothing to do with the film, and its UA contract was still out there. The Beatles finally satisfied its terms with “Let It Be,” a concert film released in 1970 after they had broken up. It’s kind of sad to watch, and these days, virtually impossible to find.
The wondrous ride the Beatles took fans on during the 1960’s did indeed end in a whimper (and an abundance of acrimony), but few of us choose to remember them that way, not with high points like “A Hard Day’s Night” out there for us to sing along to and smile at for all eternity.
Todd Hill is a former journalist with 30 years of experience, much of it in film criticism, who misses neither journalism nor the film beat.