Nineteen Hundred and Sixty Four was the year that the mania truly began in earnest. The sheer adulation that greeted John, Paul, George and Ringo as their Pan Am flight touched down at JFK International Airport in February that year was just a glimpse of the hysteria to follow. Subsequently appearing in front of a record breaking television audience of 73 million on The Ed Sullivan Show, The Beatles in that moment were inexorably transformed from an unprecedented domestic success story into a nascent worldwide phenomenon. Considering that their debut feature film was released within this climate of ubiquitous acclaim, A Hard Day’s Night could very easily have been an embarrassing exploitation of The Beatles’ brand; however, unlike the formulaic travesties being made by their hero Elvis Presley around the same time, the film was a much loved critical and commercial success. Now digitally restored and re-released in cinemas to commemorate its 50th anniversary, just how well has A Hard Day’s Night aged since its premier screening half a century ago?
Beginning with the unmistakable clatter of George Harrison’s iconic opening guitar chord, most of the ensuing 87 minutes are a loose and often satirical approximation of The Beatles day to day existence: travelling to get to studios for TV appearances, avoiding the screams and clutches of adoring teen mobs and being shacked up in hotel rooms away from the madness. While there is no particular plot of which to speak, it is this fact along with the four Beatles’ unselfconsciously amateurish acting that gives the film a freewheeling, anarchic feel conducive to the band’s humour. As fans of The Goons, The Beatles were also enamoured with director Dick Lester’s The Running Jumping & Standing Still Film made with Spike Milligan and Peter Sellers, and scenes such as George’s unique method of shaving his road manager’s reflection are along a similarly surrealist train of thought. While the band’s abilities to deliver their lines never achieve a level whereby their day jobs as musicians were under any kind of threat, it is this shared comedic sensibility with Lester that carry the film and the haphazard feel to proceedings is one that plays to the Beatles’ strengths as actors.
Old footage of the band’s press conferences reveal that the four Liverpudlians were always ready with a quip to deflect often banal questions from journalists and the film contains a scene inspired by these real life encounters: “Are you a mod or a rocker?” to which Ringo replies “No, I’m a mocker?” Another reporter asks George “What would you call that hairstyle you’re wearing?” “Arthur” is his response. While these jokes feel a little dated, the scene serves as an insight into how The Beatles sought refuge in frivolity as the maelstrom of attention and constant enquiry dwelt ever about them. The hectic pace of avoiding the mania is further satirised in a scene showing the band’s use of multiple decoy cars and a delightfully silly moment where they shuffle into the television studio while enshrouded in a tent. While the bloom of success was fresh enough for The Beatles to be playful in their lampooning a growing predicament of being imprisoned by their own fame, Paul’s “very clean” Grandfather (played by Steptoe & Son’s Wilfred Bramble) hints at a claustrophobic lifestyle that led to the end of The Beatles as a touring band just two years later: “So far, I’ve been in a train and a room, and a car and a room, and a room and a room.”
Another underlying theme to A Hard Day’s Night is the post-war generational shift that saw a continuation of the teenage rebellion years of the mid to late fifties into the beginning of a youth led, sixties pop-culture that coincided with The Beatles’ meteoric rise to fame. Moments such as a confrontational encounter with a stuffy, middle-aged business man in the film’s early minutes and the prospect of an unhappy landowner putting an end to the joyous outdoor “Can’t Buy Me Love” sequence, speak of a changing landscape of young versus old. While scriptwriter Alun Owen does a respectable job of capturing the individual band members’ idiosyncrasies through dialogue, it is John Lennon, in all his sarcastic, irreverence towards authority, who stands out as the most prominent.
A Hard Day’s Night is only dated in as much as it is a near impossibility to avoid becoming dated in a period of 50 years since its release. Great for its time, it remains as a charming and enjoyable film that evokes a feeling of youthful anarchy at the dawn of the significant cultural changes that were to follow in the subsequent years of the 1960s. Being The Beatles, there is of course some great musical sequences too; it is amusing to see some evidently embarrassed smirks as they entertain some school girls (including George’s future wife Patti) in the film’s early performance of “I Should Have Known Better” while “And I Love Her” is one of McCartney’s most underrated ballads and appears here as an exclusive performance. Where A Hard Day’s Night also has interest is in its capturing of a time, long gone, when pop musicians could achieve such extreme levels of popularity; with the advent of Spotify, Youtube, downloads, accessible home recording and mp3s, the audience for music is spread more thinly than ever and the screaming hysteria that followed The Beatles around the globe is of a kind we will never see again.
A Hard Day’s Night is showing at the Watershed, Bristol up to and including 24th July.
By Scott Hammond