A Hard Day’s Night (1964)

Posted by on Jan 2, 2012 in Song & Dance | 0 comments

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Disclaimer: May induce wild screaming or even fainting.

After they saw The Girl Can’t Help It and some of the low-budget attempts from America, The Beatles knew a rock movie could be done. They just hadn’t seen it done particularly well. If they were to be attached to a moving picture, the boys insisted on a top-shelf director and writer. What resulted was the greatest rock ’n roll movie of the time – and arguably second best in history (to This is Spinal Tap, of course) – a film that changed the future of the music movie and directly influenced British cinema for the next decade.

Before A Hard Day’s Night, The Beatles were known as “The Fab Four.” After it, people came to know them as John Lennon, George Harrison, Paul McCartney, and Ringo Starr. This was a result of an incredible screenplay from Liverpudlian playwright Alun Owen, who hung out with the musicians just long enough to create glib and phony caricature versions of the gents. The lax and inferiority complex-riddled Ringo. The wacky and witty John. The nice and sensible Paul. The quiet and insightful George. Owen charges the boys with incredible sarcasm and dialogue that comes off as completely natural, a fact perhaps helped by the boys’ freedom to make minor adjustments to lines or ad lib altogether.

The success of the film can hardly be attributed to Owen exclusively. Director Richard Lester (who later did Help! and Superman II) deserves a great deal of credit for boldly abandoning traditional storytelling for a pseudo-documentary or cinema verité style in capturing a day in the life of a Beatle. The film portrays the boys surviving rampaging fans, ruthless media, and the daily work grind. “It was a comic strip version of what was going on,” John Lennon later said of the film. “The pressure was far heavier than that.” During the Can’t Buy Me Love segment, take note of the quick cutting to the beat and increased speed. Lester’s audio-visual poetry acts as a precursor to the modern-day music video and self-absorbed nonsense. The success of the non-conforming film encouraged studios to take risks in storytelling and budding talent. More directly, critic Leslie Halliwell credits A Hard Day’s Night with starting Britain’s fascination with the swinging 60s comedy films and spy thrillers such as Dr. No (the Bond flick that started it all).

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Of course, we can’t mention the success of The Beatles without discussing the music. By the time they reach their teen years, most children have already memorized 30 or so Beatles songs, even if they can’t recall them by name. Just start a few notes on the stereo and they’ll know it. Try explaining to kids that, way back then (don’t you feel old?), these ambitious and highly popular lads released about two albums a year, plus a few singles, and unique projects like this one. It’ll blow their minds. A Hard Day’s Night was an original soundtrack album release for The Beatles, as well as a film, and took six weeks of their time to record. Use this fact to guilt trip your kids for playing too much video games.

The movie includes a song popularized before the film (She Loves You) and brand new songs such as If I Fell, Any Time At All, I’ll Cry Instead, And I Love Her, I’m Happy Just to Dance With You, Can’t Buy Me Love, and the title track. Beatmaster Ringo was infamous for his malapropisms, or misspoken phrasings, which the band dubbed “Ringoisms.” The most famous of them is A Hard Day’s Night (Tomorrow Never Knows is another), which the director liked as a title and John brought in the song the very next day. Though the music was a massive success, the Academy Awards would end up nominating George Martin’s score and Owen’s screenplay, but not the lads themselves.

If the kids need further convincing to watch  the film, tell them their shaggy, straight-down hairstyle that’s so popular today was popularized decades ago by The Beatles to rebel against the elder generation. While the film certainly centers on the British pop invasion, its biggest thematic element is that of generational conflicts. “I fought the war for the likes of you,” an old man tells the boys on a train. “I bet you’re sorry you won,” Ringo retorts. The boys encounter constant rejection and negativity throughout the film, from TV execs, authority figures, and reporters. Speaking to their youthful generation, the boys respond accordingly. George draws a moustache on a TV personality and later mouths off to a fashion show exec, Ringo escapes from jail after being arrested for nothing, and they all toy with reporters’ mundane questions during a hilarious press conference. “Are you a mod or a rocker?” one asks Ringo. “I’m a mocker,” he says. “Has that hairstyle come to stay?” she continues. “This one has; it’s stuck on real good,” he answers. “How did you find America?” another asks John. “Take a left at Greenland,” he says. Ringo’s scene along the river furthers the theme as he chats with a young boy who quit school and society to do his own thing. Or we could look to Paul McCartney’s grandfather, a character obviously wanting to transcend his generation and join theirs, but with little success.

If the music doesn’t do it, and the themes seem drab, then the laughs will be the thing that draws kids’ attention most. Take the Looney Tunes-esque sequences, as the boys slyly toss on a costume and watch the girls pass them. Take John’s improvised sequence in the bathtub with a battleship (my favorite). Take visual gags like the magician and the 10, oh wait, nine, disappearing doves. Take John’s convincing argument with a gal fan that he looks nothing like John Lennon. Take any of their role-reversal jokes, as they turn the questions on the reporters or apply make-up to their crew. Owen crafts sharp, fast-talking dialogue, recalling the screwball comedies of Howard Hawks (His Girl Friday, Bringing Up Baby) or almost any conversation Grouch Marx ever had, plus masterfully returns to the same jokes (“He’s very clean” or “There’s an old man in the cupboard” or “No, we’re just close friends”).

Perhaps the most interesting thing about A Hard Day’s Night is that it came at a pivotal point in The Beatles’ career, right at the beginning of Beatlemania and the very year they came over to America for a famed broadcast on Ed Sullivan. Watching the film feels like being a part of history, as the early-twentysomethings are on the verge of immortality, and they have no idea.

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