Between 1963 and ’64, the Beatles took over U.K. and U.S. charts with the kind of impact that transcended mere sales to announce a larger cultural shift. The open social rebellion of their image, and their fans’ need to see the band as well as hear them, made a movie deal a kind of inevitability, just as it was for Elvis Presley’s similarly seismic arrival. United Artists signed the Fab Four to a three-picture contract, but the paltry budget and shooting schedule allotted to the first of them, A Hard Day’s Night, suggests that executives felt they had to cash in as quickly as possible. The cynically rushed production reflects older tastemakers’ inability to process the true scope of the band’s impact, a move to make a profit off the group before their transatlantic market saturation peaked and the mop-topped Icari plummeted back to Earth.
This should have spelled disaster, but the film excels in part because of its limited means. Rock movies of the era capitalized on their stars’ success with young listeners, but catered toward respectability: Consider the breeziness of the films that ultimately neutered Elvis, or frothy Cliff Richard vehicles like Summer Holiday. The last thing A Hard Day’s Night has on its mind is respectability. Made by the satiric director Richard Lester, the film bucks the trend of rock movies cleaning up sex symbols for teens to introduce to their mothers. If anything, its manic energy feels like a regression from Ed Sullivan back to the band’s drunken, prellie-fueled apprenticeship in Hamburg clubs.
Heading off detractors at the pass, the film answers the question posed by adults, “How did these scruffy, hare-brained vulgarians become so popular?” with “Your guess is as good as ours.” In contrast to a movie like G.I. Blues, in which Elvis experiences the existential displacement of being Tulsa McLean hearing Elvis on a jukebox, this film expressly concerns the shenanigans of John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison, and Ringo Starr as they cope with fame. The famous opening sequence, of the Beatles running, hiding, and disguising themselves from a shrieking horde of fans as they attempt to make their train, sets a precedent: The film isn’t only a product of Beatlemania, but a concentrated study of it, driven by an anarchic sense of humor that pokes fun at the band’s image. It’s impossible not to love their fresh-faced boyishness, but their wry, self-aware behavior lets the Fab Four retain their edge, a feat that their peers never previously enjoyed on celluloid.
The jokes cater to each Beatle’s personality: John and Paul, then the ironclad songwriting team, share the same laddish sense of humor (Lennon in particular fires off a number of risqué one-liners), while George is more sardonic and quietly witty. Ringo often acts as the butt of other people’s jokes, yet he engages in a kind of long-con, Socratic game of playing dumb and getting the last laugh. Their individual quirks come to the fore in the film’s best comic sequence, of the band members separated in a press conference and responding to reporters’ simplistic, often condescending questions with uniformly sarcastic responses. “How did you find America?” one journalist asks John. “Turn left at Greenland,” John replies. Another reporter asks Ringo, “Are you a mod or a rocker?” “Oh, no,” he says, “I’m a mocker.”
The band’s carefree energy is matched by Lester’s direction. Lester and the rest of the crew had to keep things raw, and many of the film’s most charming visual moments are accidental. The film even opens on one such flub, with Ringo and George tumbling over each other in the first shot, a mistake left in the final cut for its energy and comedy. The other great visual sequence, of the band frolicking in a field to “Can’t Buy Me Love,” employs film speeds redolent of silent film not out of conscious effort, but because the camera’s battery was dying and so the frame rate slowed as the operator shot the band.
This stripped-down style also amplifies the social subtext that makes the film such a key document of the pre-counterculture ’60s. The Beatles constantly run afoul of disapproving adults, such as the reporters who perfunctorily yet invasively cover them, as well as the officious veteran who rides in their train compartment and casts aside majority rule to insist they close the window and turn off the radio. “I fought the war for your sort,” he snaps at the lads’ sarcastic taunts. “I bet you’re sorry you won,” Ringo fires back. The greatest source of irritation is Paul’s grandfather (Wilfrid Brambell), whose disapproving stiff upper lip thinly conceals a randy old man warped by a culture of self-denial and far more dangerous for it than the puckish boys.
A Hard Day’s Night takes place against a backdrop of repression, where two adult men cannot even say that a third has gone to the toilet without growing hushed and relying on winks and nudges to make the point. The Beatles, seen here as both the prototypical rock stars and the first ironic take on that image, represent a liberation that the sneering adults are right to fear. Their revolution is heard in the hormonal screams of the teenagers they set alight with their charisma and star power.
Indeed, if the film has fun with the idea of these four goofballs becoming a phenomenon, it also gives context for their whirlwind success. Even when the band plays away from private eyes or songs simply play over disconnected footage of them having fun, the strength of their songcraft is stirring. The film leads up to a performance in a TV studio nearly drowned out by screaming fans, seen in rushing montages that settle on faces long enough to capture girls mouthing the names of their favorite members, or sometimes just rendered catatonic by the psychological impact of sharing space with the band. The Beatles are synonymous with images of manic girls, but the cutting of this finale hammers home the sheer level of their cultural influence. The opening sequence is one of the most quoted visual set pieces in movies, but it’s never been effectively parodied because, as the rest of the film shows, the Beatles really did live up to the hype in a way no one did before or has since.