“Ladies and Gentlemen… The Beatles!” On February 9, 1964, Ed Sullivan introduced America to four lads from Liverpool, and teenagers erupted into one giant senseless scream that lasted until 1969. For ten minutes, The Beatles owned The Ed Sullivan Show and the world. It was a watershed moment in rock music, pop culture and the 20th Century. Five months later, their first movie, A Hard Day’s Night, hit theaters and the rest, as they say, is history.
Watching A Hard Day’s Night, which will play at The Boedecker Theater on August 24th, is like watching lighting captured in a bottle time and time again. Every time you see it, it is as fresh as the first, and you can’t really believe that they are pulling it off. But they are! Or they did, whatever tense you think is appropriate. A Hard Day’s Night came out in 1964, so that makes it history. Watching A Hard Day’s Night feels like it is happening right now.
The plot is a simple day in the life of a Beatle. The four (John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison, Ringo Starr) play movie versions of themselves as they try to escape: maniacal fans, handlers, managers and professionals while trying to keep Paul’s ornery Grandfather (Wilfrid Brambell) from getting into too much trouble. Director Richard Lester shot the movie in black and white using handheld cameras and blended documentary realism with cinematic surrealism that was just coming of age in the French New Wave. Alum Owen was hired to pen the script and spent a weekend with The Beatles simply observing their relationship and behavior before sitting down to write the script. Owen brilliantly let the Beatles communicate primarily in sound bites and one-liners. Each Beatle was allowed their own voice and George and Ringo in particular were allowed side adventures that helped establish their identities. Before A Hard Day’s Night, they were The Beatles. After A Hard Day’s Night they were John, Paul, George and Ringo—and everybody had their favorite.
The screenplay, the comedy, the (surprisingly good) acting abilities from The Beatles, the black and white cinematography, and French New Wave influences aside, the reason people went to see A Hard Day’s Night in 1964, and the reason we still go to see A Hard Day’s Night fifty years later is the music. In the late 50s and early 60s, it was not uncommon for an up-and-coming pop band to cash in on their moment and make a jukebox movie. Some of them were bad; most of them were terrible. The Beatles had been given many offers to either play in or star in their own movie, but The Beatles had their sights set on being the biggest band in the world, and the tricks of the old guard simply wouldn’t suffice for a band this revolutionary. They held out until they had a project, and people, they could trust. They found that in Lester, Owen and producer Walter Shenson, who rewarded their patience and gave their music moments of pure invention. The style of A Hard Day’s Night has been copied, parodied, mimicked and paid homage to ever since, but the original remains the best. Lester crafted it for The Beatles, and no matter how many try to take it from them, the signature will always read: The Beatles.
A Hard Day’s Night is an irreverent movie that never grows old. It looks and feels as fresh as the very first time. There are so many great scenes and great numbers to talk about, but I must focus on my favorite—which might be my favorite scene in all of cinema—“Can’t Buy Me Love”. For 40 minutes, the Beatles have been chased, confined, cornered and controlled. Notice how Lester and the camera crew almost always photograph the ceiling in addition to the walls. These are caged Beatles. Their manager, Norm (Norman Rossington), leads them up another crowded and clustered staircase and down a hallway where they will no doubt rehearse once more. Norm goes left; the Beatles go right, out the fire escape. Ringo proclaims, “We’re out!” and the music kicks in. Their race down the stairs becomes an abstract expression as they leap over a pile of rubbish from some past empire and race into a wide-open field. There are no managers, no directors, no publicists, no fans, nothing. Just four friends playing, running, jumping, dancing and racing. The camera floats high in the sky while George launches into the 12-bar blues section of the song. It’s a moment of pure joy.