52-week challenge, week 7
On the very day that the Beatles performed their first US concert back in 1964, I sat down to finally watch in full a movie I had seen clips of all my life: A Hard Day’s Night, the movie debut of The Beatles that further cemented their new fan base in the USA. Somehow, I had never gotten around to watching the entire film, and seeing it in full really surprised me in how vital, innovative, and enjoyable it was as a complete work.
The film features more running than The Running Man and almost as much as Run Lola Run, mostly of the band trying to escape their shrieking fans. The film, which starts in black with the twanging opening guitar chord of the title track, features George Harrison taking a tumble almost immediately in the first chase sequence, but of course with the energy of youth and adrenaline picks himself up immediately and — like the rest of the group — has a big grin on his face as he resumes his sprint.
Director Richard Lester was determined to capture that level of youthful vigour by employing what at the time were dubbed cinema verité — innovative interminglings of hand-held, moving, and quick-intercut shots to represent the chaos of the chases. While the movie has a lot of these, there are times when the boys find respite and start to unfurl their humourous personalities and even advance a tiny bit of story — and for this, Lester reverts to somewhat more traditional camera styles, but still relies on being able to get his 16mm cameras into tight spaces for a more intimate feel.
The decision to make the film in black and white was likely a budgetary move, but it reminds me of why I like old movies (and in particular B&W films) so much: they are a window into a world that no longer exists, not just on a societal level but also presented in a way that was par for the course at the time but was nonetheless an abstract and dreamlike layer over reality. This film, even more so than usual: not only is it The Beatles as they originally presented themselves, but it’s been credited with having thrown off, once and for all, the societal straitjacket of the 1950s.
As much praise as Lester deserves for directing and editing the film, a lot of credit should also go to Alun Owen, the screenwriter. He hung out with the band for some time, and got two things absolutely right in his script: an ear for the funny banter the band effortlessly delivers, and an eye for what a rigmarole their lives were becoming as their fame exploded.
The story, such as it is, covers a period of about two days in the band’s life at the time, with some events being driven by their own harried schedule, with some being driven by the subplot: Paul’s scheming “grandfather” (Wilfred Brambell, best known for “Steptoe and Son”), who runs cons and generally complicates their already-chaotic lives.
Thanks in part to the delightfully witty banter, frequently broken up by silent scenes of (again) mostly running about to the accompaniment of the band’s singles from their third album, and the contrivance of more songs for one of the boys’ TV appearances, the focus never lingers too long on any one scene or story element. All four of the lads convincingly look like they’re having a great time being in the film.
This film likely contributed to the “Swinging London” scene in the later 1960s as those teen Beatles fans — and the Beatles themselves — matured. Without a doubt, A Hard Day’s Nightwas a direct influence in the creation of The Monkees, and the freewheeling style of their popular US television show.
Lester is careful to give each Beatle some spotlight time, but two particular scenes stand out: a brief interlude where a woman seems to recognize John as “you’re him,” but he gently introduces doubt into both their minds until she puts on glasses and is then sure that John isn’t John, with John walking off agreeing that “she looks more like him than I do.” Another scene has Ringo escaping the chaos for a bit and having his own adventure by a river, where he meets a young boy (David Jason) and has a nice conversational scene.
Interestingly, every teenager in the film — with an emphasis on girls, but there are plenty of boys running after them also — knows very well who each Beatle is, but the majority of adults in the picture have no idea at all. Another fun scene finds the lads in a train when a middle-aged businessman comes into their coach, creating some light tension.
Actor Richard Vernon (of a very long career, though for me he will always be Slartibartfast in “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” TV series) harrumphs his way into bullying the boys, who use their free-spirited impudence to intimidate him right back. Talk about a movie that caters to its audience.
After some very mild “drama” about whether Ringo will get back to the rest of the band in time to do the live television concert and avoid giving the director of same (Victor Spinetti) a nervous breakdown, and what mischief is Paul’s grandfather up to now, everything comes back together just in time, and after playing to a screaming teen audience, they run yet again to catch a helicopter and off to whatever the next thing is.
I counted eight full Beatles songs (and several more reprises) in the film, not including some George Martin Orchestra instrumental versions near the end. The movie was a big hit on both sides of the Atlantic, and has continued to be very highly rated among critics and various “best of” lists for the past 59 years.
Prior to this, Lester had done a film with Spike Milligan and Peter Sellers called The Running, Jumping, and Standing Still Film, and it was that absurdist short that both got Lester the Beatles job as well as established the style for A Hard Day’s Night. It’s a good time and some great music spread across 90 fast-paced minutes, and gives us a loving moment in time just after the Beatles hit it big. If you aren’t tired of their early hits — and how could you be — the film still holds up really well viewed by more modern standards.