A HARD DAY’S NIGHT: Beatlemania Perfectly Personified
A Hard Day's Night not only works as a celebration of The Beatle's iconic music, but as a satire on the very nature of stardom and celebrity.
As a 4 or 5-year-old, I didn’t know who The Marx Brothers were, and no one had told me yet about Cinema Verité and what that meant. But I loved The Beatles. Furthermore, I didn’t find out until years later that Richard Lester was an American director, who caught the eyes of the Fab Four thanks to his comedy short The Running Jumping & Standing Still Film, and subsequently predicted the MTV age with his frenetic editing style. But if you actually watch A Hard Day’s Night with the eyes of an unabashed fan – like I was as a boy – none of that matters. So let’s leave everything else on the drawing room floor for now, and look at what makes this film pop with vitality all these years later.
Any conversation must begin with the music. A Hard Day’s Night bursts onto the screen with George Harrison’s iconic riff on the title track, as The Beatles scramble down a street corner fleeing frantically from a screaming mob of fans. It perfectly encapsulates this rash of Beatlemania that was exploding onto the world stage and making its way across the pond to America.
And what the film does so well is create this aura around the four lads from Liverpool. They’re silly, fun, a bit cheeky too; but there’s something so endearing about them still. It struck me that these four men are hardly over 20 years of age, and yet they already had fame and stardom thrust upon them. And they are superstars but they don’t act quite like superstars. Perhaps that’s part of their charm.
A Day in the Life
The filming style and handheld camera work lend themselves not only to Lester’s frantic style, but there’s also an indication that this is a day in the life type of musical-comedy (no pun intended). It’s the perfect combination of quotable one-liners and zingers paired with a certain Liverpoolian wit (ie. “I now declare this bridge open” is famously quipped by Lennon as he snips a tailor’s tape measure). Fortify that with some of the early classics from The Beatles canon (Can’t Buy Me Love, She Loves You, etc.) and you have a scintillating success in the making.
Paul’s Grandfather (Wilfrid Brambell) is very clean, but that’s only a veneer for a searing personality that looks to manipulate others and stir up trouble. On Paul’s own account he’s a real mixer. Norm (Norman Rossington) is their road manager and general killjoy, while Shake (John Junkin) is his gangly hapless sidekick, good for a few laughs of his own. If you want a “plot” in the conventional sense you probably won’t get it, but it’s enough to watch the boys run out on their obligations by sneaking off to dance parties or abandoned fields to do their own rendition of Monty Python’s Silly Olympics.
We watch them in their idle moments, as John messes around in the tub and George exhibits his shaving prowess on Shake’s mirror image. In another moment, George takes a wrong turn and finds himself in some new age advertising agency, where he unwittingly tears their campaign to shreds by calling their merchandise “grotty.” Meanwhile, the boys are herded from press junkets to tapings, from makeup to answering fan mail (A train and a room and a car and a room and a room and a room). That’s about their life at this stage.
The Fab Four
It’s odd to think that the name The Beatles is never spoken in A Hard Day’s Night. It just is. It’s part of the world’s collective consciousness. It brings to mind a chance encounter John has with a woman who, while she doesn’t utter his name, notes his striking resemblance to one of the boys. In the end she’s mistaken, and he walks away muttering that she looks more like “him” than he does. So A Hard Day’s Night is a film that, while boasting great music and wonderful comic mayhem, still functions as a slight commentary on The Beatles stardom.
They have become beholden to their rigid tour schedule. Prisoners, in a sense. But they still find time for personal expression and a bit of playful rebellion despite those very restraints. Of course, the backbone of this comic-laden rock musical is the pinnacle of their artistic expression – their music. By now all these songs are like old friends to me, and it hardly seems necessary to list them off one by one. You just have to hear them.
In the final moments before their climactic show, Grandad stirs up Ringo to go out and live a little, and so the boys must track him down before time runs out. What follows is an inane ruckus involving the majority of the local bobby population. But all four make it back and put on a lively showing for their adolescent admirers, screaming their heads off the entire set. Some things would never change.
As quick as they arrived, they get whisked off by a helicopter to their next destination, ready to rock another day. I’m not sure if this is based on A Hard Day’s Night or my own wishful dreaming, but I like to think that they’re heading across the ocean blue as the flagship of The British Invasion. Because when you watch this film it all comes into clearer focus what all the hoopla was about. They had a genuine charisma, a certain presence, and their music speaks for itself even after all these years. Still sincere, catchy, and enduring even in its pure simplicity. Billions of screaming girls can’t all be wrong.
Because like The Ed Sullivan Show, The Hollywood Bowl, or Shea Stadium, this film too helped to collectively instigate a cultural phenomenon, and it was the project that all their other films from Help! to Yellow Submarine would be measured by. It’s hardly hyperbole to assert that the era began and ended with The Beatles. How were they able to do it? Through a sound, a look, and their very personalities all joined together in a perfect storm called Beatlemania. But the extraordinary thing is that they went on to transcend a simple fad and became living legends – four of the most universally revered and beloved individuals the world over.
Is there another film that you feel better represents The Beatles? What other musicals or documentaries of the 1960s would you deem equally important in defining the era?
A Hard Day’s Night was originally released in the U.K. on July 7th 1964. It can be streamed on Amazon or purchased through the Criterion Collection.
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