The Beatles Are Pent-Up Prisoners of Their Own Notoriety in 'A Hard Day's Night'
A Feature Story in 'Pop Matters' by John Firehammer
In 2014, timed perfectly with its 50th anniversary, the Beatles’ A Hard Day’s Night was given a restored home video release on DVD and Blu-ray in addition to a series of limited screenings in select theaters across the United States. Each of these were worthy celebration of a now-classic film. However, the Beatles’ first feature was never intended to have a 50-year shelf life; it was created as an exploitation film, pure and simple.
The idea that the film would be held up as a classic 50 years after its release, or even remembered that much later, would have seemed hilarious and astonishing to its makers and stars back in 1964, who saw it as nothing more than a cheap exploitation flick, meant to quickly capitalize on the likely soon-to-pass fad of Beatlemania. Yet A Hard Day’s Night still manages to captivate viewers with its manic blending of musical and visual energy, its humor and gentle social commentary, and because, well, it’s the Beatles. People still love the Beatles, and nobody involved in the film back in 1964 predicted just how much that would become a reality.
Hard Day’s Night started production immediately following the Beatles’ first visit to America for The Ed Sullivan Show. The band had captured the nation’s hearts, record charts and TV screens. But despite that triumph, there was also a sense that none of this success would last very long. As the New York Times observed after the Sullivan show: “At their present peak, the Beatles face an awful prospect of demise. They are a craze.”
The reason to make a film at that time, then, was to capitalize on the fad while it lasted. United Artists was the first film studio to jump. Interestingly, though, the studio’s eyes weren’t on box office receipts, but rather on record sales. By fronting a Beatles film, the studio saw a chance to sew up rights to a soundtrack LP that was sure to top the charts. Beatles manager Brian Epstein, meanwhile, was excited by the opportunity to present his boys on film, providing he and the band had at least some say over the script.
Moving fast, United Artists assigned producer Walter Shenson to hire a writer and director and get the project started. But what would a Beatles film look like?
The obvious thing would be to build a story around the band’s musical performances and surround them with an experienced cast, the sort of film where rock-loving kids face down opposition from disapproving community elders to put on a concert where the Beatles would perform their songs. But this was the last thing the band wanted.
“We’d made it clear to Brian that we weren’t interested in being in one of those typical nobody-understands-our-music plots where the local dignitaries are trying to ban something as terrible as the Saturday night hop. The kind of thing where we’d just pop up a couple of times between the action,” said John Lennon. “Never mind all our pals, how could we face each other if we had allowed ourselves to be involved in that kind of movie?”
Fortunately, Shenson’s first manic encounter with the Beatles in the back of a London taxi convinced him to put the band front and center.
“It was like being in the middle of a Marx Brothers movie,” Shenson recalled. “Every time we came to a stop sign, one of them jumped out and bought a newspaper which had Beatle headlines. The taxi driver asked for their autographs for his granddaughter. It was an incredible thing.”
The band had recently returned from Sweden and Shenson asked how it was. “Oh,” replied John, “It was a room and a car and a car and a room and room and a car.”
The band’s humor and nervous energy, their non-stop lives and the craziness surrounding them all made Shenson think: “Why not make a film about what it’s like to be a Beatle?” Given this approach, he couldn’t have found a better screenwriter or director.
Playwright Alun Owen was born in Wales but grew up in Liverpool. That city’s humor and hardscrabble character had informed the well-received plays he penned for British radio and television, such as the Liverpool-set No Trams to Lime Street. He was perfectly positioned to capture the Beatles’ Northern sensibility and humor in the film’s script.
Director Dick Lester, meanwhile, was an American prodigy who’d started studies at the University of Pennsylvania at age 15, and briefly worked as a puppeteer for Ed Sullivan’s Talk of the Town TV show before emigrating to England in 1953. There, he found work as a TV director, earning acclaim for his humorous, innovative TV commercials and finding work on various variety shows.
Most impressive to the Beatles, however, was that Lester had worked with their personal heroes, the Goons, the antic, surreal comedy troupe featuring Spike Milligan and the brilliant Peter Sellers. The Goons were essentially the Monty Python of their era, and the Beatles had grown up faithfully listening to and memorizing their radio shows on the BBC. The fact that their own record producer, George Martin, had also previously worked with Sellers and Milligan helped cement that partnership.
Lester’s Goonish activities included an acclaimed 1960 short film called The Running, Jumping, Standing Still Film, a dialogue-free romp featuring Sellers, Milligan, and assorted others miming and mucking about on London’s Muswell Hill. Shot with Sellers’ newly acquired 16mm camera, the film was distinguished by Lester’s lively use of cinematic tricks—some inspired by slapstick silent films of the ‘20s, others by the French New Wave—including lots of sped-up sequences and jump cuts. The Running, Jumping, Standing Still Film was nominated for an Academy Award, which it did not receive.
Lester also had pop music experience, having directed It’s Trad, Dad!, a 1962 teen exploitation film of the type John Lennon detested, featuring cameos by Chubby Checker, Gene Vincent, and others.
Despite the low-budget and hurried production schedule, Lester and Owen were able to add some artsy touches and social commentary to the film. From the very opening, which shows the Beatles literally on the run from a crowd of wild fans, the band is in motion: on a train, in cars, being hustled in and out of hotel rooms and night clubs and through backstage corridors and stairways. They are also constantly closed in: trapped in hotel rooms, dressing rooms, limousines and train cars. They are pent-up prisoners of their own notoriety.
The Beatles rebel against all this, mocking those around them and seeking to break loose from their rigorous schedule and the demands of fame. The group’s interactions with the film’s supportive case are all marked by a subversive, Marx Brothers-like humor. The Beatles are putting everyone on, taking nothing seriously and only out to have fun.
In an early scene, the band finds itself sharing a train compartment with a staunch-looking British businessman who is not happy sharing his usual compartment with the Fab Four. Sitting down, he looks disapprovingly at the group and attempts to shut them out by retreating behind a copy of the Financial Times. It doesn’t work. John leans over and flirtingly bats his eyelashes at him while Ringo disturbs the calm by turning on a transistor radio, bopping his head to the pop music coming out of it. Johnson flips down his paper and abruptly switches off the radio, as John bats his eyelashes again, leans in and says “Give us a kiss.” Everything spirals downhill from there, with Johnson saying: “I fought the war for your sort,” and Ringo replying: “Bet you’re sorry you won!”
In scenes like this, Lester saw an opportunity to reflect on the ongoing collapse of British classism and the rise of a more honest and equal alternative reflected by the Beatles with their working class backgrounds and Northern accents.
“The general aim of the film was to present what was apparently becoming a social phenomenon in this county,” Lester said. “Anarchy is too strong a word, but the quality of confidence that the boys exuded! Confidence that they could dress as they liked, speak as they liked, talk to the Queen as they liked, talk to the people on the train who ‘fought the war for them’ as they liked.” British society, Lester said, was “still based on privilege—privilege by schooling, privilege by birth, privilege by accent, privilege by speech. [The Beatles] were the first people to attack this… they said if you want something, do it. You can do it. Forget all this talk about talent or ability or money or speech. Just do it.”
In the film’s most memorable scene, the Beatles make a break from their manager’s schedule and the claustrophobic confines of a TV studio, rushing down a metal fire escape and onto a huge sporting field. What follows is an example of pure film, three or four minutes of cinema that dispenses with script in favor of joyful visual expression.
Set to the sound of “Can’t Buy Me a Love”, the sequence depicts the band running, jumping and rarely standing still as they scamper and horseplay across the field. The action is sped-up, then slowed down and sped-up again. The contagious excitement and exultant sense of liberty of the scene convey everything we need to know about the Beatles’ magic and appeal. As they burst through the fire escape door to freedom, the Beatles bring their audience with them.
In the end, United Artist’s gambit paid off. Advance orders for the soundtrack album made A Hard Day’s Night the first film in history to recoup its production costs before release. But A Hard Day’s Night made more than money; middle-aged film critics, quite unexpectedly, liked it, too.
“This is going to surprise you—it may knock you right out of your chair—but the new film with those incredible chaps, the Beatles, is a whale of a comedy,” wrote New York Times critic Bosley Crowther. “This first fiction film of the Beatles… has so much good humor going for it that it is awfully hard to resist.”
“Surprisingly,” wrote Time, “this hairy musical romp… is one of the smoothest, freshest, funniest films ever made solely for purposes of exploitation.”
“The astonishment of the month is A Hard Day’s Night,” put in former Kennedy aide and sometime film reviewer Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. “One approached the Beatles with apprehension, knowing only the idiotic hairdo and the melancholy wail… but the Beatles… are the timeless essence of the adolescent effort to deal with the absurdities of the adult world.”
Village Voice critic Andrew Sarris crafted the film’s lasting blurb, however, memorably proclaiming it “The Citizen Kane of jukebox musicals.”
Nominated for Best Musical Score and Best Original Script, A Hard Day’s Night missed out at the Academy Awards, but as the second-most successful film of 1964, coming in just after that other seminal ‘60s film, Goldfinger. Audiences are still fascinated by the lead character in that film, too.