Fifty Years Ago Today: The Beatles’ A Hard Day’s Night

10 minute read

Before anyone saw the movie, its title promised something different from the ruck of cheapo rock ‘n roll films: A Hard Day’s WHAT? As producer Walter Shenson told it, he and director Richard Lester were nearly finished shooting their little picture with the Beatles but had no name for it. Then John Lennon told Shenson that Ringo Starr occasionally mutilated the English language in droll ways. Example: to suggest his exhaustion after an evening’s concertizing and partying, Ringo would say, “It’s been a hard day’s night.” Shenson told Lennon that he and Paul McCartney should write a song with that title, pronto. The next morning they delivered a catchy 12-bar blues riff with a soaring bridge, about a working stiff whose girlfriend makes all his toil worthwhile. Plaaaang!

That’s the sound of the song’s first, long guitar chord — a brash wakeup call to the audience. The film’s first shot is just as startling: three of the Liverpool lads running toward the camera down a narrow sidewalk, hemmed in by parked cars. The screams of pursuing Beatlemaniacs rises under the song’s first phrase, as George Harrison, in the foreground with John, trips and falls, Ringo collapsing over him. John looks back, his deadpan face breaking into a wide smile, and George gets up to carry on running away from their fans and into the Marylebone train station. Now all three are laughing, perhaps at the silliness of pop stardom, while the sacred words THE BEATLES briskly unfurl across the screen, followed by A HARD DAY’S NIGHT.

(FIND: A Hard Day’s Night on the all-TIME 100 Movies list)

Has any movie captured a moment in social, let alone musical, history with as much acuity and joy as A Hard Day’s Night? Directed by Richard Lester, then 32, and starring four musicians, the eldest of whom (Ringo) was 23, the film showed the world’s most famous foursome at that split second when they and their fans could enjoy their early apogee of superstardom. In the years until their 1970 breakup, the Beatles’ influence would broaden, their music become more sophisticated, their politics more complicated. But the world premiere of A Hard Day’s Night at London’s Pavilion Theatre on July 6, 1964 — 50 years ago today — marked the full flourish of Beatlemania on screen, in all its wit, musical bravado and, if we may say it about a canny rock band, innocence.

For the 50th anniversary, the film is showing in theaters in 100 U.S. cities, including Manhattan’s Film Forum. And the Criterion Collection has issued a 4K digital restoration of the film, which necessitated replacing missing parts of the original negative; and Giles Martin, whose father George produced most of the Beatles’ music, had to use a monaural mix of the movie’s closing song, “She Loves You,” for the stereo track. The result is a splendid tribute to this endearing, enduring film — which, when it opened here in August 1964, Andrew Sarris of The Village Voice called “the Citizen Kane of jukebox musicals.”

(READ: Corliss’s tribute to legendary film critic Andrew Sarris)

Prescient and true: AHDT revolutionized pop musicals with the same thunder-clap force that Orson Welles brought to the Hollywood drama, and that Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho infused into the horror film. A very local comedy with universal appeal, a daring blend of documentary and surrealism, Lester’s G-rated movie junked the tropes of traditional Hollywood musicals and instead found its muses in France: the avant-garde subversion of Luis Buñuel and Jean Vigo and the cinematic playfulness of New Wavers François Truffaut an Jean-Luc Godard. Lester punctuated the movie with swish pans, arc-light glares and an editing pace of controlled frenzy; he broke a thousand filmmaking rules and in the process established new ones that would reverberate decades later in music videos.

(In a making-of extra on the Criterion discs, the director says that “MTV gave me a very nice diploma … saying that I was the putative father of MTV.” He smiled and added, “But I’ve insisted on a blood test.”)

In the decade before AHDN, there were only two kinds of movies with pop stars. A hot star like Elvis Presley (and, in Britain, Cliff Richard) would be cast as a fictional character in an A-minus drama with music. (Frank Sinatra did the same in his ’40s films.) Or, down on the B-minus level, performers like Chuck Berry and Little Richard would play a couple songs as backup to a story of teen striving (as in the Alan Freed-hosted Rock Around the Clock and Mr. Rock ‘n Roll). The first kind of film tried to turn a pop sensation into fodder for the mainstream audience; that’s how Elvis got neutered in movies. The second kind used the artists as teen bait, then gave them only a few minutes on screen. The Beatles didn’t want any of that. AHDN was the first mainstream rock movie that seemed designed mainly to amuse its makers.

(READ: The Beatles Conquer America — 50 Years Later)

It all came together in a flash. In late 1963, Shenson, an American who had produced the 1959 Peter Sellers comedy hit The Mouse That Roared and its less successful sequel The Mouse on the Moon, agreed to produce a musical comedy starring the Beatles, who were just launching into the pop Britosphere. Shenson’s studio back home, United Artists, had no sybil’s foreknowledge of the band’s unique fame; it just wanted an album of new songs to promote, which would make back the film’s modest $500,000 investment.

Even after the Beatles conquered America on The Ed Sullivan Show and monopolized the pop charts like no recording artists before them, a UA executive asked that voice actors dub the Fab Four’s accents into a more intelligible mid-Atlantic patois. McCartney’s response: “Look, if we can understand a f–kin’ cowboy talking Texan, they can understand us talking Liverpool.”

Lester could understand Liverpool. A Philadelphian who had worked in live TV drama in his teens, he had come to London, embraced its comic quirkiness and adopted its accent; it was said he’d become so English that he wanted his surname spelled Leicester. He had directed the jazz musical It’s Trad, Dad and, for Shenson, Mouse on the Moon.

More important to the Beatles, who loved that long-running radio anarchy The Goon Show, Lester had helmed an 11-minute experimental comedy called The Running Jumping & Standing Still Film with Goons Sellers and Spike Milligan. (This short film’s outdoor shenanigans directly inspired surreal bits in AHDN like the Beatles running along outside the train they were just inside, as well as the “Can’t Buy Me Love” field frolic.) The four also approved of Alun Owen, the Liverpudlian writer of TV dramas, to pen the script.

(READ: Peter Sellers and The Goon Show)

The speed at which A Hard Day’s Night was conceived and born testifies both to UA’s original suspicion that the project would be a B-movie promo and to the industry and artistry its makers invested in it. Lennon and McCartney wrote about eight songs on a brief January holiday in Jamaica, leaving Lester and Owen to fit the songs somehow into a scenario about a day or two in the band’s hectic life. Shooting began Mar. 2 at Marylebone, climaxed late that month at the Scala Theatre where the band played for their fans and more or less finished on April 23, when Paul, George and Ringo cavorted on Thornsbury Playing Fields in Middlesex for the “Can’t Buy Me Love” segment. (John, at a signing for his book In His Own Write, was mostly absent from that larkishness.)

Shot in doc-style black-and-white, AHDN had a secret sibling film in What’s Happening: The Beatles in the U.S.A., shot during their first visit to America by the cinéma-vérité pioneers Albert and David Maysles. What’s Happening also depicts the Beatles routine: same dashing from train to limo to photo op to TV stage, the same release of tension on a dance-club floor, the same use of wit as armor against imprisonment and ennui — and the same amazing display of geniality by four blithe Liverpudlians. Also the same directorial nimbleness: the Maysles brothers learned of their assignment two hours before the Beatles’ plane landed at JFK airport on Feb. 7, 1964. Artists had faster reflexes then.

(READ: TIME’s 1964 review of the Lester and Maysles Beatles films)

AHDN didn’t open in the States until Aug. 11, more than a month after the London premiere, and for those of us who were young back then it was an essential votive experience. I remember seeing it at a movie house in suburban Philadelphia. I say seeing; hearing was out of the question, due to the shrieks of the band’s bobbysoxer brigade. The theater, I swear, was informally divided into quadrants, each inhabited by the attendant sisters of one band member: John in the lower left, Paul in the lower right, etc. A closeup of one Beatle would cue a communal wail from his quadrant. It was the sweetest form of pandemonium.

The Philadelphia girls, consciously nor not, were imitating the film’s climactic sequence, which intercuts shots of the band performing “She Loves You” with reaction shots from the young audience, and returns occasionally to girls mouthing the names of their particular heroes. The unforgettable one is a pretty blond undergoing a kind of anguished ecstasy. She is seen four times: first clutching her hair, then crying into her hand, then sobbing hand to head and finally, at the song’s last break (“You know you shou-ou-ou-ould…”) silently keening a desperate “George.” On one of the Criterion extras, we learn that editor John Jympson called this girl “the white rabbit.”

(READ: How The Beatles changed rock ‘n roll)

Ten years later, in Film Comment, I wrote my first Beatles nostalgia piece: “You probably have to be about my age — turning 30, and none too pleased about it — to look back nostalgically on a period as recent as 1964, and to smile crookedly when you think of A Hard Day’s Night. Most of us were the last stragglers of the ’50s… all we had were the private passions of movies and rock ‘n roll, which our teachers considered occasions of sin and not yet adventures in scholarship. With the Beatles, and specifically with A Hard Day’s Night, the unspeakable became acceptable. … A Hard Day’s Night today retains its vigor, its good humor, its Lancashire courtliness and easy grace. … We can also find in the film what we responded to then: its perfect distillation of a moment when, for a lot of us, it felt good to be young. … [Now,] we’ve aged, and it hasn’t.”

Another 40 years later, I have aged and the movie still hasn’t. Maybe the Beatles, perhaps even Lester and his team, didn’t know what they made, it soon became clear, was history — and did it with such good humor and blithe, unflappable grace. That’s a big reason for the unique then-and-now status of A Hard Day’s Night: it is both completely of its time and utterly forever.

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