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A hard days night posterThe year is 1964 and four young lads from Liverpool are about to change the world - if only the madcap world will let them out of their hotel room. Richard Lester's boldly contemporary rock n' roll comedy unleashes the fledgling Beatles into a maelstrom of screaming fans, paranoid producers, rabid press and troublesome family members, and reveals the secret of their survival and success: an insatiable lust for mischief and a life-affirming addiction to joy.

Cast: Paul McCartney, John Lennon, Ringo Starr, George Harrison, William Brambell
Directed By: Richard Lester
Genre: Comedy, Musical & Performing Arts
Rating: G
Runtime: 87 minutes


By Robert Flaxman

If ever there were a movie that was greater than the sum of its parts, A Hard Day’s Night has to be it. A curious mélange of music, near-surrealistic comedy, and social commentary, the film took the rulebook for what movies made to capitalize on a musical act’s popularity were supposed to be like and ripped out nearly every page. It may be questionable whether or not A Hard Day’s Night actually holds up as a quality film, but there’s no denying that it’s a shockingly effective time capsule sent from 1964.

A hard days night1A Hard Day’s Night isn’t Citizen Kane - it may not even be the Citizen Kane of music films - but director Richard Lester and screenwriter Alun Owen certainly know how to utilize the talents of their stars. Those would be, in order, playing catchy pop songs, dropping one-liners, and just generally being zany. ‘The Beatles are popular musicians’ isn’t much of a premise around which to build a movie, but Lester and Owen don’t seem to mind.

The basic plot of the film is simply ‘a day in the life of the Beatles,’ as they head for a television studio to tape a performance. Tagging along is Paul’s troublemaking grandfather (Wilfrid Brambell), whose various schemes provide an amusing running subplot. (At one point he convinces all four band members to sign a photograph, then forges dozens of copies which he attempts to sell to waiting fans.)

The Beatles are, of course, not actors, but they’re not exactly asked to act, either. According to Owen in an interview on the DVD, the film was written to imitate a wisecracking style that the band already had in real life, so delivering Owen’s one-liners, wacky non sequitur jokes, and snappy banter wasn’t exactly stretching their range. In fact, for four guys in their early 20s who were only just getting used to being famous, the Beatles handle themselves surprisingly well.

A hard days night7The songs are relatively well integrated in the film’s plot, something that isn’t always easy to do. Almost every track is either part of a performance or playing over a montage, and while this occasionally gets tiresome, the Beatles didn’t write many songs longer than two and a half minutes in 1964, so there’s rarely the chance for any track to wear out its welcome. (It helps that A Hard Day’s Night was the first truly classic Beatles album, even more impressive considering how quickly many of the tracks were written so that they could be used in the film.)

The most astonishing thing about the film, however, may be its social commentary, which is surprisingly clever, biting, and nearly as incisive a critique of its time and place as the films of Michelangelo Antonioni. (This may seem like exaggeration, but I’m serious.) In one scene, George is dragged into a fashion office where he is shown two shirts. George derides them as ‘grotty’ and declares he wouldn’t be caught dead in them, whereupon the executive insists that he will indeed want them once they have been introduced by the company’s ‘it girl.’ When George notes that the Beatles have made fun of said girl when she comes on television, he is hustled out of the office, and the executive nervously checks the calendar before noting in relief that the current trend is not scheduled to pass for another three weeks and that George must be an aberration.

A hard days night2Such display of the whims of culture seems out of place in a film about a newly famous rock band, but the filmmakers appear to have had a good deal of perspective on the Beatles’ fame. During the final televised concert, the screaming of the audience is dubbed as loudly as the music for several minutes, giving a realistic feeling of being at the show (the band has commented on sometimes being unable to hear themselves play while performing live). It’s another interesting critique, intended or not - the Beatles at the time were as much a phenomenon as they were an actual band, proven by the fact that people had no intention of listening to the music when they could be screaming at the top of their lungs. The reference to fly-by-night celebrity didn’t prove prophetic because the Beatles actually had talent (and broke up before people had a chance to get tired of them), but the mere fact that A Hard Day’s Night was so self-aware regarding their fame makes it pretty daring.

It’s rarely laugh-out-loud funny, especially to an American audience on whom some of the terminology would be lost, but A Hard Day’s Night is still clever, sharp, and groundbreaking. Its appeal lies in the timeless charm of its stars and their music, but its refusal to take itself seriously is what truly sets it apart from, say, the films of Elvis Presley. It may not be a work of art, but A Hard Day’s Night succeeds at being exactly what it wants to be.