No film has ever captured the excitement of being young–and the energy, pluck, and spirit that goes along with it–better than The Beatles’ A Hard Day’s Night. And it doesn’t come from the plot of the film, which is nominally a day in the life of The Beatles as they get ready to do a TV appearance, but from the energy that surrounded the band at the time. Filmed at the height of Beatlemania in 1964, the shrieking crowds that stampede after the Fab Four in the opening credit sequence didn’t have to be instructed or goaded into acting that way–they were just going that crazy over these four musicians on their own. And collectively in 1964, the youth around the world went similarly crazy and rallied together under one common cause: The Beatles. They were everywhere and everything, and that’s exactly what A Hard Day’s Night captures: what it was like being the biggest, most important band ever in the world.
That A Hard Day’s Night even exists is a small miracle and a testament to the insane work ethic and drive of the band, who were also writing and recording new music (the soundtrack to the film, natch) and touring constantly while also filming this movie. To watch these now-legendary figures up-close as young men playing themselves in a slightly fictionalized version of their lives is exhilarating for a Beatles fan. It wasn’t actors playing them, and it wasn’t years after their first brush with fame where they churned out a movie for a quick cash-in (even though that’s ostensibly what this film was), but it was capturing the exact moment in time just when they became worldwide phenomenons–when they were young, vibrant, and at the height of their powers. Not only that, but it’s a hell of a good movie.
Part of this is the natural charm of The Beatles themselves, who were all very quick and funny in their own right, but also because director Richard Lester’s inventive and kinetic visual style has a lot to do with the success and lasting endurance of the film. There are no dull moments, no tacked-on romance, and no wrong moves–largely because The Beatles are involved in nearly every scene. Perhaps realizing that not only did he have these extraordinarily talented people as his subjects but that they were all funny and interesting both together and individually, Lester simply kept the focus on what these silly, talented young men could do.
The answer is, unsurprisingly, quite a lot: one-liners, surreal gags, great natural chemistry, and of course their imperishable music pours out of these uniquely gifted people. One moment it’s John, Paul, and Ringo battling a stodgy middle-aged man on the train; the next, they’re outside the window, mockingly calling for him to give them their ball back; then they’re in the storage compartment singing a song. The energy and enthusiasm of the group–along with a fast-paced script and quick pacing–continues to push the film forward, always keeping the audience’s attention throughout.
Maybe the most remarkable thing is how adept all of them were to acting: even though they were just playing themselves, you could put plenty of musicians in front of a camera and ask them to “just play themselves” and write a script for them to follow and the results would be disastrous–and often have been (Bob Dylan’s infrequent sojourns in front of the camera, along with Paul Simon’s thoroughly awful One Trick Pony, can attest to that). Instead, The Beatles were naturals in front of the moving camera. Like so much of their music, them being able to act on-camera first comes across both deceptively simple and then–once you absorb what they’re doing–remarkable.
Of course, the film would fly off the rails if there wasn’t some sort of plot and actual actors to ground the cheeky members of the band: their manager and assistant (stand-ins for real-life manager and assistant Brian Epstein and Mal Evans, respectively) flail as they try to corral these flighty young men into doing press conferences and rehearsals; an increasingly paranoid and frantic TV director (who has an award in his office) attempts to bring The Beatles to heel; and Paul’s grandfather (who’s a very clean man) is always scheming to make some money, stir up trouble (as Paul puts it, “He’s a king mixer”), and in general bring a bit more chaos to an already chaotic situation.
Meanwhile, we follow The Beatles in what would quickly become the hated grind of their lives: going from a train and a room and a car and a room and a room and a room, trapped indoors by the screaming throng of fans outside, and attempting to find some way to escape.
In the centerpiece of the film, that’s just what they do: break out from their confinement to just go outside for some fresh air. With the great song “Can’t Buy Me Love” as a soundtrack, we watch The Fab Four run around a field, playing leapfrog, laying down with their heads together in a circle talking all at once, and just blowing off some steam. This film has been noted as being the inspiration for music videos, and this sequence is a prime example of why: without any of them playing instruments, but their actions matching the upbeat tempo and tone of the exhilarating music playing on the soundtrack, all while quick cuts from scene to scene turn from stationary slo-mo shots to fast-motion action to a helicopter shot from above as they run from one side of the field to the other, it’s the genesis of what music videos would become: trying to capture the mood of a song through visuals. It’s also incredibly exciting. This scene is where A Hard Day’s Night explicitly captures the excitement of youth best.
But of course, it was really everything about The Beatles that captured the excitement of youth: their songs in the film are all in the style of their early love songs about holding hands, pining over lost love, and being thrilled about finding new love. Their music crystallized these feelings, from vague, sudden shifts to sevenths that feel like a sting in the heart to wild shrieks and perfect harmonies that sound like bliss.
Moreover, A Hard Day’s Night captured the excitement that was The Beatles in their own youth–the fresh, clever new group that would come to thrill the entire world and define a generation. And it was their youthful energy that provides the film its energy: they were so alive and quick and talented and charming, they were literally phenomenons. And this is what the film captured–not only the unlimited promise of youth, but that that promise could actually manifest itself into something tangible. Here it was, living proof, in these four young men.
It’s almost laughable today to think that at the time everyone in show business considered The Beatles to be short-lived flash in the pans, but that’s what they first seemed to be and even considered themselves. The only reason this film even exists was to cash in on what everyone thought would be done with by the end of that year: this so-called “Beatlemania.” Shot for only $500,000, it’s insane to think how great this film came out. But this only speaks to the talent involved: both the director Lester (who would go on to a very successful career as a comedy director) and The Beatles were better than any little cash-in movie would consider them, and they proved it by making one of the most endearing, enduring musical films of all time. It would go on to inspire the very concept of music videos, and A Hard Day’s Night is now considered one of the best movies of all time. Not bad for four lads from Liverpool.
Calling something a perfect movie can be either shallow or unbearably pretentious (as some past articles in this series may have come across in one way or another), but with A Hard Day’s Night, just like its opening chord, it rings true. Could an expertly made, hilarious film starring The Beatles playing their charming selves and featuring numerous performances of some of their best-loved songs be anything but perfect?
There are almost too many great things in this movie. The comedy is dead-on hilarious–from small stuff like Lennon putting a Coke bottle up to his nostril and taking a sniff to George’s caustic meeting with a marketer where he casually tears into the product and the company’s spokesperson; the relationships between the bandmates is often heartwarming (Ringo’s down in the dumps in the film, so John tries to cheer him up by singing “If I Fell” to him, while near the end of the film when they hear Ringo had been detained by the police they all run down to the station together to break him out); and the music is completely outstanding from beginning to end. Add to this Lester’s wonderfully alive direction and the film’s fast pacing and it’s an enthralling, engaging, and undeniably joyous movie.
You can watch this movie if you want to see The Beatles when they were young, have a fun evening listening to great music and having a few laughs, or if you’re ever feeling down. Just put on A Hard Day’s Night and before you know it, you’ll be tapping your toe and smiling. No other film can instantly elevate my mood like this one does, and maybe for that reason alone I think it’s a perfect movie.