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A Hard Day’s Night is an explosion of joy onto the bleak, bombed out cultural landscape of post-war Britain.
The great French film director Jean Renoir called Richard Lester’s A Hard Day’s Night “an extremely important film, which even reflects the unconscious desire for change in the English nation.” Its ability to accurately reflect a time, he says, was purely “accidental”. His words get at the heart of this film, which is both utterly unselfconscious and of the moment. The opening shots of the Beatles running to catch a train, their screaming fans in hot pursuit – a blur of legs and bodies – is pure visual and musical exuberance. It is an explosion of joy onto the bleak, bombed out cultural landscape of post-war Britain. You can see in the Beatles’ performances – their abandon, their innocent lack of savvy – that Beatlemania was still fun in 1964. It would be two years before the difficulties and the financial and creative arguments would set in.
Much has been written about that opening chord of A Hard Day’s Night, which is absolutely electrifying. It is a wake up call, an invitation to a whole new soundscape which has more in common with Stockhausen or music yet to be written than it does with Cliff Richard and the Shadows. That famous clang is not simply George Harrison on his new 12-string guitar but a combination of chords played simultaneously by Harrison and John Lennon, with a pure McCartney bass note. It is so brilliant and yet so difficult to fathom that it has been called the magical mystery chord. And although it is such a recognisable chord and such a part of the rock-pop canon, it still sounds new.
The plot of the film is only important in that there isn’t one: A Hard Day’s Night follows a day in the life of the Beatles as they head to a live recording session and concert in London. There are a few obstacles thrown in along the way, such as when Ringo goes AWOL after Paul’s granddad (played by Wilfrid Brambell of Steptoe and Sons) tells him to leave the Beatlemania bubble and go out “parading”. This scene is oddly prescient of the weight of their fame to come. But in essence A Hard Day’s Night is a string of absurdist vignettes, witty banter, Chaplinesque sight gags and song sequences whose deftness, originality and musicianship gave birth to the music video. A lesser filmmaker working with lesser musicians would have ended up with a mess. But the chaotic and irreverent structure adds to the film’s enormous energy.
Just as the Beatles were sloughing off the torpor of the 1950s, Lester was also part of a new formal approach. Borrowing from the Nouvelle Vague with his use of fast cuts, hand-held cameras, a small crew, available light and characters talking straight to camera, Lester was deploying the new film grammar seen in such films as Godard’s Breathless (1960), but adds another level of innovation by using these art-house tropes in what is essentially a pop music vehicle. A Hard Day’s Night is a perfect synthesis of high art and popular culture.
The script, written by Alun Owen and nominated for an Academy Award in 1965, is chock full of one-liners. When a journalist asks George what his hairstyle is called, George replies, “Arthur”. Or when John is asked at a press conference how he found America: he replies, “By turning left at Greenland”. When Owen saw the Beatles perform, he rewrote some of his script to take into account their uncanny ability with repartee. Some of the film was improvised, and the Beatles come over as four absolutely distinct (and seriously funny) individuals despite the matching outfits. They are anything but manufactured products. Previous to A Hard Day’s Night, music films were synonymous with the antiseptic Elvis vehicles with their generic boy-meets-girl plots. By contrast, A Hard Day’s Night feels modern. It wipes away the cobwebs of an austere and class-ridden Britain with a sense of possibilities not yet explored. In the verité-style scenes on the streets of London, the shattered buildings provide a context for these four lads with their long hair, wit and infectious tunes. You get a sense from this film of just how fresh the Beatles must have seemed after years of war and food rationing. In this context the madness of Beatlemania seems the only logical response.
Lester’s black and white photography is stunning. He uses the camera playfully, never staying in one place for long. The jump cuts, the sped up film and aerial shots are interspersed with close-ups of the four Beatles. This scatter-gun approach creates an elegant and consistently seamless language with the form of the film perfectly serving the images. The climax (which is literally climactic) is the Beatles’ final performance once they have made it on stage after their various hijinks. The mainly female fans jump in their seats, hold their heads, cry, scream and silently mouth the name of their favourite Beatle. The longing, the love, the awakening of these young women is incredibly visceral. The power of the perfect pop song is there for you to witness and to hear for yourself – particularly during the stunning harmonies of She Loves You. The film cuts between shots of the Beatles singing and smiling – always smiling – and then pans across the audience so fast that the faces of the fans blur into one in thrall to the music. And what music.
It would be wrong to ignore the politics that Lester and Owen smuggle into this film. The entire cast, with the exception of the Beatles and their Liverpudlian managers Norm and Shake (Norman Rossington and John Junkin), sounds like the Queen. At one point Paul McCartney does the Spanish Republican salute after delivering a mini-speech about the “workers” to a bowler-hatted commuter on a train who refuses to open the window (talk about a stuffy carriage). McCartney’s eccentric grandfather rants to a group of Bobbies in a police station about Irish Republicanism accusing them all of being “paid assassins”. Pretty stirring stuff when you think about it.
Like Don’t Look Back, D.A Pennebaker’s Dylan documentary, A Hard Day’s Night stands on its own as a great film, rather than simply a vehicle for one of the most important cultural and musical icons of the twentieth century. It was John Lennon who wanted Lester on board after seeing a film he directed with Peter Sellers and Spike Milligan; and shot through is the anarchic, surrealist humour reminiscent of the Goon Show. Even in the opening running scene, George slips and falls, and Ringo tumbles over him. Later on a woman falls down a hole, Paul’s granddad is accidentally lifted onto a stage where he interrupts some very earnest opera singers, and the list of mishaps goes on.
Underneath the gorgeous black and white photography, the matching suits,the deftness of the mise-en-scène, the life-affirming music and the humour is a serious film. A film that says you can create joy and beauty without irony or cynicism. Jean Renoir said that its “essence was confirmed only by [its] existence”. The Beatles and Richard Lester have produced a rare thing: a work of art whose essence is both modern and timeless, hilarious and profound, silly and deeply moving. Listening to the songs you realise that there was the world before the Beatles and the world after. It is inconceivable to imagine life without their music. Those who might think of A Hard Day’s Night as a glorified music video need to think again.