A HARD DAY'S NIGHT: A ROCK 'N' ROLL JOYRIDE THAT NEVER RUNS OUT OF STEAM
BY MICHELLE LOEB
“It’s the Citizen Kane of jukebox movies,” proclaimed the Village Voice in 1964. A Hard Day’s Night is a fun-filled, frenetic look at a fictional day in the life of the Beatles. Although this film is about a rock ‘n’ roll band and has a killer soundtrack -- the only Beatles album ever to feature solely Lennon-McCartney tracks -- this film is in a class all its own. It would do the film a disservice to have it be lumped together with the rest of cinema’s rogues gallery of rock ‘n’ roll movies.
Rock movies have earned a bad rap over the years, with the genre including movies such as The Girl Can’t Help It and Spice World. These films have no substance. The bands are fully aware that they have no acting talent, and in some cases the jury is still out on their musical talent as well, so they plod through mindless scripts with predictable gags and clichéd storylines. Any dialogue in the film is merely used to string together a smattering of the group’s newest songs. The audience is being spoon-fed a product - and we know it.
In order to enjoy most rock movies, the audience must suspend good taste. Take, for example, Spice World. Yes, I admit it… I am one of the few people who saw Spice World and am willing to defend it. In the great scheme of things, this movie was awful, the dreck of the industry. Everyone involved in the making of this film should be taken out and shot. But you must remember, Spice World is not supposed to be seen on the same level as Schindler’s List, or even The Bad News Bears. For what they set out to do, which was make a mindless, hour and a half long Spice Girls music video, they did a good job. When you go to see A Hard Day’s Night, you don’t feel that you are lowering your standards one bit. The movie stands on its own without the music and actually rises above the standards of the target audience of twelve-year-old girls with enough lungpower to loosen your back teeth with the shear force of their shrieks.
Now don’t get me wrong. The film offers its fair share of musical scenes to showcase the Fab Four’s latest hits. The movie was even nominated for a Best Music Oscar. Director Richard Lester has been credited with inventing the music video, to which he always replies, “I want a DNA test.” Lester makes use of fast cuts and quick-time footage in the film, and these forms of camera work not only add to the madcap nature of the film, but also are emulated by countless directors today. The 1966 television show “The Monkees,” for example, was designed to capture the spirit of A Hard Day’s Night-era Beatles and made frequent use of the fast-action camera work seen in such classic scenes as the “Can’t Buy Me Love” sequence. In this scene, the Beatles escape from their road manager, who is about to lock them in their dressing room, go down the fire escape and have a child-like romp in the middle of a field. The Beatles’ playful spirit blends well with the fast action and raucous music of the scene.
Of course, the downfall of this classic scene is that Lester was unable to hide the fact that John Lennon was not at the shoot that day, but in fact at a reception for his first novel In His Own Write. There are a few segments in this scene where the absence is glaring. Other scenes in the film also have discrepancies. For example, young girls recognize the Beatles immediately and chase them down the street, but George can walk into the office of a tragically hip television producer (“Hello Chicky Baby”) and be mistaken for a male model. But then again, this is not meant to be a documentary. Lester makes is clear from the get-go through his use of surrealism - for example, having the other three Beatles carry Ringo sideways through the narrow walkway on a train, that the audience is meant to suspend logic and just relax and have a good time.
This movie has an undeniably youthful spirit; however, this is not a film for teenagers alone. The film captures the Beatles’ sardonic Liverpudlian wit so well that people believed the film was improvised. For example, when an older, upper-class gentleman asks the Beatles to leave the train car (“I travel on this train regularly, twice a week.”), John retorts with “give us a kiss.” In actuality, the script was carefully written and researched by Alun Owen. Owen followed the Beatles around for a few days before writing the script so that he could get a feel for each individual character. In fact, many of the lines from the film were things the Beatles actually said. Scenes such as the press conference help to capture the quick wit of the Beatles, made famous in the now classic 1964 LaGuardia Airport interview. Adults would go to the theater and actually tell the screaming girls to be quiet so that they could hear all of the Beatles’ witticisms. For example, when asked how he found America, John Lennon answers “turn left at Greenland.” A reporter who asks George Harrison what he calls his hairstyle is met with the simple retort “Arthur.” This supposedly improvised script earned itself an Oscar nomination for Best Screenplay.
One of the goals of the film was to create four separate identities within the group. Lester accomplishes this well through the use of mostly individual camera shots. Besides the concert scenes, there are very few shots of the whole group. In addition, each Beatle has his own scene separate from the rest of the Beatles, demonstrating how Alun Owen worked to capture each Beatle’s individual flavor. By the end of the film, you can tell John from Paul from George from Ringo. Beatles fans get the feeling from this film that they are getting to know their musical heroes on a personal level. This movie created personas that the Beatles never lived down. To this day, John is the quick-witted leader, Paul is the doe-eyed charmer, George is the strong and silent musician, and Ringo is the brooding drummer in the eyes of fans around the world. Such is the impact of A Hard Day’s Night.
A Hard Day’s Night never runs out of steam. It’s fresh every time you watch it. Part of the reason why this film is able to stand the test of time is that the story is well crafted and the acting is impeccable. The movie follows the Beatles over the span of twenty-four hours. They go through a series of misadventures all leading up to the taping of a live television program. All along the way they butt heads with their road manager Norm and his sidekick Shake, played to perfection by Norman Rossington and John Junkin, and later a harried television producer, portrayed by Victor Spinetti. Throw into the mix Paul’s meddlesome “mixer” of a grandfather, classic British actor Wilfrid Brambell, and you have yourself one hell of a fun-filled ride. The chemistry between the actors is remarkable, especially among the Beatles themselves.
Screenwriter Alun Owen first wrote the script giving the Beatles simple one-liners but quickly amended this once he realized how well they could act. Many film reviewers compared the Beatles at the time to the Marx Brothers for their penchant for comedic timing, as Roger Ebert stated in a recent review corresponding with the film’s re-release. Director Richard Lester shared the Beatles’ sense of humor - he was chosen based on his past work with Peter Sellers in the Goons films- and this helped to make their wit shine through all the more. Ringo was singled out by critics most of all as the breakout star of the film. The Beatles responded to this by casting Ringo in the lead role of their next film Help, also directed by Richard Lester. Help, in which the Beatles are chased around the world by an Eastern cult attempting to recover the sacrificial ring stuck on Ringo’s finger, uses a lot of the same madcap humor and interesting camera work as A Hard Day’s Night; however, this film relies much more on the surreal and is not meant to be the least bit realistic. The soundtrack to the film also included Ringo’s tongue-in-cheek cover of “Act Naturally” with lyrics such as “Well I hope you’ll come and see me in the movies/ Then I know that you will plainly see/ The biggest fool that ever hit the big time/ And all I gotta do is/ Act Naturally.” It’s the Beatles’ ability to laugh at themselves and not take themselves too seriously that comes across in both of their movies and makes them so much fun to watch.
So I know that we have all been saturated with Beatles merchandise of late, what with the release of the CD “1” and the Beatles Anthology Book, but this resurgence of Beatle mania would not be complete without their classic first venture onto the silver screen. Forget those run-of-the-mill rock and roll movies that have dragged the genre through the mud and go for the best of the bunch. Get the family together, make some popcorn and watch A Hard Day’s Night. For the kids, this may be their first time watching, and for the adults, it’ll still feel like the first time.