DIRECTED BY: Richard Lester
FEATURING: Ringo Starr, John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison, Wilfrid Brambell
PLOT: A day in the life of the Beatles as their handlers try to prepare for a show that night—but the lads are always goofing off, chasing girls, and trying to track down Paul’s grandfather.
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: For all its cult cachet, all the talk about its irreverent anarchy and its “surreal humour,” and all of the “underground” techniques it mainstreamed (using techniques pioneered by the French New Wave, Day’s Night is also often credited with inventing the music video), the Beatles’ first feature isn’t “weird” (except as a corrective to the overly-stiff style of 1950s filmmaking it was reacting to).
COMMENTS: “They’re ‘fab’ and all the other pimply hyperboles,” goes one typically sparkling line in A Hard Day’s Night. The speaker, a cynical, unhip adman specializing in teen marketing, was talking about shirts, not the Beatles, but he might as well have been expressing the dismissive attitude most grown-ups shared for the Fab Four before Richard Lester’s rollicking A Hard Day’s Night recast the group as trickster archetypes rather than just four young men pandering to underage girls’ romantic fantasies. Lester makes the Liverpudlians universally lovable: the movie caters to the spirit of rebellion and style kids and teens connected with, while simultaneously disarming adults’ fears and contempt with a witty script. The jokes and wordplay (“I’m a mocker,” Ringo says when asked if he’s a mod or a rocker) were too sophisticated for the crowds of screaming, erotically ecstatic girls (mostly pre-teens, as the concert footage reveals—the Beatlemania demographic, it turns out, was the same age group that later embraced the Backstreet Boys or One Direction) who populate the film’s electrifying concert sequences. The script aimed at broadening the group’s audience by playing up the group’s reputation for clever wordplay and irreverent ad-libs, while not apologizing for their boy band magnetism. It worked. After A Hard Day’s Night, the Beatles were no longer just kids’ stuff: they were spokesmen for a youth movement with a cool new insouciant attitude.
Although each of the band members has a distinct personality (wry John, boyish Paul, quiet George and mopey Ringo), “the Beatles” as a group emerge as the movie’s principal character. The boy’s adventures tweak the status quo without eviscerating it; the film’s satire is so gentle that its targets—joyless adults, out-of-touch media, and the humorless of every stripe—laughed at the jibes, not recognizing themselves. Yeah, its pro-youth, but it doesn’t alienate older folk, most of whom would rather identify with Paul’s mischievous (but clean) grandfather and his penchant for sneaking off to the casino than with the wrinkly sourpuss who refuses to open the windows on the train. The spirit embodied by Lester’s Beatles was welcoming, and it wasn’t about chronological age: it was about choosing “parading” over propriety. The plot, such as it is, is a constant stream of sequences where someone wanders off to do his own thing, leaving the authorities (the band’s manager, the television producer) wringing their hands. Paul’s grandfather is constantly getting into trouble; the boys leave practice to go frolic in a field; with only an hour left until the big show, Ringo goes off on his own, ending up in police custody. In the end, naturally, the lads pull it together and bring down the house, proving that the stuffed shirts needn’t have fretted—they should just enjoy the ride, like the rest of us.
Naturally, the Criterion Collection gives A Hard Day’s Night the royal treatment. Aside from the restored picture and (possibly more important) audio (including a new stereo mix), the 2-DVD (1 Blu-ray) set collects four short documentaries on the film, interviews, and more. The commentary track includes almost a dozen people who worked on the movie–including extras, editors, the cinematographer—but unfortunately, nothing from director Lester. Of major interest to cinephiles (and of some interest to weirdophiles) is Lester’s short “The Running, Jumping and Standing Still Film,” with Spike Milligan and Peter Sellers, a series of silent gags (such as a man who places a record on a tree stump and plays it by running around in a circle holding a needle) that was nominated for an Oscar and was a big favorite of John Lennon’s. Rounding out the package is an 80-page booklet with an appreciation by Howard Hampton, an interview with Lester, and behind-the-scenes photos of the Beatles. The release is a must-have for movie fans and Beatlemaniacs alike.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“… looks chaotic and slapdash enough (and just occasionally, for me, depressing enough) to count as an experimentalist or underground movie.”–Peter Bradshaw, The Guardian (2014 reissue)