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.
Sourced from a 4K restoration, A Hard Day’s Night looks so good that its budget is scarcely visible. Even the grainy, handheld shots retain such rich texture that the generation gap of the film is further widened by making the Fab Four look even more fresh-faced and the elders even more wrinkled and unpleasant. Check out the footage inside the television studio, with its sleek, modern, high-contrast black and white to see how well black levels are managed and how the whites are not washed out.
As impressive as the transfer is, however, the audio is the real draw. Presented with a lossless track in the original mono, the film also comes with brand new stereo and 5.1 surround mixes. Each has its merits: I personally prefer the punchy, basic tone of the mono for being true to the film, but even a doddering purist can’t deny that there’s something truly magical about hearing George Harrison’s opening chord for "A Hard Day’s Night" chime in the 5.1 mix, that split-second of silence that separates it from the song proper seeming to last just a bit longer as it ripples out among the channels. The thought of reworking the powerful mono into a trendy surround track for home theaters gave me pause, but both it and the stereo mix are beautifully and carefully assembled, and they deserve special citation for aural touch-up.
If the above-and-beyond audio mixing weren’t a sufficient indication of how seriously Criterion have taken this release, the bevy of extras should leave even the most zealous fan happy. The assistant directors, editors, and ancillary cast featured on the 2002 commentary track recount the rushed production’s various hassles, routinely breaking just to marvel at the film and the movement that the Beatles represented, still amazed 40 years later to have played some role in it all. "You Can’t Do That: The Making of A Hard Day’s Night," a 1994 documentary commemorating the film’s 30th anniversary, provides an overview of the production and the film’s impact, and even includes an outtake performance.
"In Their Own Voices" is the only feature to include the Beatles’ input, an edit of 1964 interviews the members gave about the movie set to relevant clips and behind-the-scenes material. "Things They Said Today" is another retrospective on the movie, this time from 2002 and including the input of George Martin. Lester’s Oscar-nominated short The Running Jumping & Standing Still Film, a slapstick romp that influenced the style of A Hard Day’s Night, is included, as well as "Picturewise," a new feature highlighting Lester’s early work. Other Criterion-exclusive extras are "Anatomy of a Style," in which editor/screenwriter Bobbie O’Steen and music editor Suzana Peric discuss the distinctive shooting and editing of the film’s musical sequences, and an interview with author Mark Lewisohn about the Beatles’s swift rise to superstardom and their seismic impact. To top it all off, a thick booklet contains an essay by Howard Hampton and a fantastic, lengthy 1970 interview with Lester rich with information, including the staggering fact that advance sales for the film’s soundtrack were so high that United Artists’s cut of the revenue paid back their investment on the film before it was even fully assembled.
A Hard Day’s Night was planned as a cheap exploitation movie, but 50 years later, it stands as a crucial flashpoint for the Beatles’ cultural takeover and a pervasive influence on contemporary musicals and music videos. Criterion honors this legacy with one of their most impressive packages in years.