A Hard Day's Night (dir. Richard Lester, 1964)
I'm having the same trouble writing about A Hard Day's Night as I am about The Beatles in general. The film is most certainly a classic, not only capturing the energy and obsession and youthful humor of the band members themselves, but also displaying a new kind of New Wave filmmaking that was part musical, part comedy, and part documentary. A Hard Day's Night is a great film. It's one of those few films that I feel I can recommend to anyone without hesitation. People who were alive to see The Beatles the first time all the way down to little, little kids. The film is easy and fun. The Beatles are easy and fun. John, Paul, George, and Ringo represent a kind of carefree attitude that was running rampant through the culture of teenagers at the time. They were clearly “doing their own thing,” which would eventually become one of the basic tenets of the hippie movement. In one notable scene, the four of them break free of a stuffy TV rehearsal and run out into a field to the strains of “Can't Buy Me Love,” frolicking, jumping, rolling around in the grass. These were some of the world's most popular musicians, and they were playing happily in the grass like 6-year-olds. There is something so wonderfully enjoyable about that.
A Hard Day's Night is a loosely structured and fictionalized version of The Beatles' lives as rock stars. In the opening shot (played with the title tune) they are already seen running away from a mob of panicked, screaming teenage girls. They have to deal with managers (represented by Norman Rossington and John Junkin) and TV directors (Victor Spinetti), and spend their time in hotel rooms, trains, cars, and TV studios. There is a mild conflict when Ringo, in a fit of ennui, leaves the rehearsal to wonder the streets for a few scenes, but he is found in time with little consequence. The film culminates in an energetic orgy of screaming and music as our boys perform for a group of real-life fans. They weep and wail in longing for the band. The band smiles, plays, and are clearly enjoying themselves.
While the frequent scripted portions are still really funny, it's this kind of joyous ecstatic verisimilitude that make A Hard Day's Night so great. With this film more than any of the other Beatles' films, we're seeing who The Beatles really are on the best of their days. We don't get any sort of deep psychological insight, other than merely seeing happy and talented musicians performing at the top of their game right in the middle of their primes. It's comforting to know going into a movie like this that it has one of the best soundtracks, well, ever.
The film's director, Richard Lester, would go on to direct (or co-direct) a few of the Superman movies, but was known only for TV and Peter Sellers vehicles at this point. He was a maker of broad, slapstick comedies. As such, A Hard Day's Night has a kind of loving goofball quality to it that is, to be honest, the antithesis of many of The Beatles' songs. The Beatles sang about love, politics, spirituality, and Mr. Kite. They didn't sing about their ultra-clean grandfathers (Paul's clean, dour grandfather is played by veteran British comedian Wilfred Brambell), or that stuffy guy they had to share a train compartment with, or that really fun card game they played while on tour, or those fan letters they received. A Hard Day's Night uses comedy (sometimes really off-the-wall comedy) to add to The Beatles' myth. Only it doesn't seem like a commercial effort. What we see is what we had.
Oh yes, a lot of the film is really off-the-wall. George Harrison shaves another man's reflection. John Lennon plays in the bathtub, and seemingly teleports out of it. The broad slapstick, however, only feeds into the comedic energy of the film, rather than distracting from the Fab Four, who seemed to have odd senses of humor anyway. What we have here is exactly the kind of the film the band wanted to make. It's about them, they get to have fun, make jokes, dance to their own songs, and talk very casually about, y'know, stuff and things. Not deep but profoundly enjoyable, A Hard Day's Night is perhaps the best rock film ever made.
And that's all I can say. I'm sorry to be so brief, but if I were to continue, I would simply heap more and more praise on the film. I have seen it many times, I know the ins and outs of it very well, and I think it should be standard issue to every teenager on the planet. Here, young people, is a time capsule. Here is who The Beatles were, and what they meant to the world. Even if you don't end up buying a few Beatles records, you should at least know this movie.