If you are seeing A Hard Day’s Night (1964) for the second, fifth, or fortieth time, you’re bound to catch some perfect detail—a brazen incongruity, sneaky delight, or intangible grace note—you missed on the first, fourth, or thirty-ninth go-round. Everyone recalls the tall man in the club jumping alongside diminutive Ringo, inventing pogo dancing long before the punks embraced it. But for all these years, with my eyes glued on that Mutt and Jeff pair, I had completely missed the wondrously elongated, posh bird opposite them laughing uproariously, throwing herself into the music, the moment. She has a gangly, go-go-ing sophistication that takes the breath away (the spectator’s and her own too).
A split second before Ringo and the tall guy (Jeremy Lloyd—stage actor, Beatles acquaintance, and regular clubgoer) start jumping, on the sidelines there’s another toothy lovely in a vest, listening to John. It first looks like she has one stylish boot up on the table. But when you look more closely—and A Hard Day’s Night repays frame-by-frame examination more fully than the Zapruder film—you discover her heel is actually cupped in a companion’s hand. Furthermore, she’s wiggling it slowly, delectably, and oh-so-indolently, nibbling on whatever the in crowd nibbled in the spring of 1964. It lasts only eight or nine seconds, and amid the shimmer of “All My Loving” and the swirl of bouffant hairdos and akimbo limbs, it’s easy to miss. But once you catch it, it seems like an offhand code for a transformed social world that’s being sculpted before your eyes: it isn’t the blunt kinkiness of the image, it’s the casualness, the way the cool and wry and fetishistic are all being folded into everyday conversation, ordinary life. Roll over, Antonioni, and tell Buñuel the news . . .
Under director Richard Lester’s knowing eye, the Beatles and all the actors and extras seem less like “the cast” than a group of more or less accidental coconspirators. It’s as if the scattered cells of twenty-four-hour party people—beatniks, angry young men, frustrated young women, mods, rockers, “mockers,” art schoolers, regular schoolgirls, nouvelle vague–istes, urbane scene makers, fashion mavens—were suddenly coalescing into a movement. “I think maybe Swinging London was about eight hundred people in the sixties,” Jeremy Lloyd said, looking back decades later. That scene at the Garrison Room is a picture-perfect representation of what was going down—a microcosm that was poised to go viral, international. (He started doing his pogo maneuver in that very club, as a way of keeping an eye on his girlfriend at the time—a nobody named Charlotte Rampling.) “It was like a continuation of their normal life,” he said of the Beatles’ screen representation. And A Hard Day’s Night seemed most of all like an open invitation to join in the Lennon-McCartney-occasionally-Harrison-soundtracked free-for-all. Everybody’s welcome, the more the merrier . . .
Lester’s feel for pop surrealism grew out of his background in the telegraphic, fast-track language of advertising and, especially, his work with the founders of radio’s The Goon Show, whose demented irreverence impacted the Beatles (particularly John) almost as deeply as rock and roll. Looking to translate the success of The Goon Show to television, Peter Sellers—who had seen an exceedingly odd Christmastime special called The Dick Lester Show—and fellow Goon Spike Milligan had enlisted him for a trio of Goon-Shows-in-everything-but-name (The Idiot Weekly, Price 2d; A Show Called Fred; and Son of Fred, all 1956, all paving the way for Monty Python), where Lester’s experimental yet pragmatic nature dovetailed with their anarchic whimsies. Next came The Running Jumping & Standing Still Film, the short he made with Sellers (and with Sellers’s 16 mm Bolex camera, editing the footage by “laying all the cuts out on his drum kit”) in 1959—the perfect calling card, as it turned out, to show he was on the Beatles’ wavelength. John, Paul, and George had seen it repeatedly in Liverpool, where the local cinema screened it on a recurring basis—“brought back by popular demand!” as Beatles biographer Mark Lewisohn recounts. Deep in their private Liverpool underground, nurturing and nurtured by a small but fanatical fan base, they brought a frenzied energy to the stage that was channeled through a similar sense of impudence and fun.
The Beatles’ vernacular, working-class dreams of world conquest and revolt grew out of the liberties taken by the Goons and by the phantasmagorical figures on American records—not only the obvious Elvis–Little Richard–Chuck Berry–Gene Vincent eruptions but the emergent girl-group and Tamla-Motown sounds as well, right down to the fuzz-box guitar on Ann-Margret’s 1961 “I Just Don’t Understand”—filtered through the filth and excitement they had found in Hamburg’s red-light district and in the legendary confines of the Liverpool firetrap/incubator so appropriately called the Cavern. By the time A Hard Day’s Night started filming, they had already secured their U.S. beachhead with the appearances on The Ed Sullivan Show. (Photos from that sojourn look exactly like a dress rehearsal for A Hard Day’s Night: the screaming girls, the incredulous policemen, the buttoned-down, crew-cut stiffs of the press, Ed being a professional “good sport,” Walter Cronkite’s daughters visiting them during rehearsal.) The plan, conceived by their visionary manager, Brian Epstein, embraced by the band, and obliquely but fabulously executed by Lester, screenwriter Alun Owen, and their production team, was to catapult them into the wider world without a parachute. Bigger than Elvis or nothing . . .
At the time, rock and roll remained a teenage aberration, mostly left for dead—finished when Elvis was drafted, Buddy Holly’s plane crashed, or the Twist caught on. It hung on in backwaters like Liverpool, but to the people who made up the London music establishment, Liverpool might as well have been Mars (or at least Siberia). However, the Beatles had other ideas, and Epstein happened to run the biggest record outlet in the North of England, which got him a foot in several doors. Record producer George Martin couldn’t grasp them at first: the rock “group” as a concept, a self-contained entity, wasn’t yet part of the industry’s vocabulary. But then a eureka! lightbulb went on. They might be the male Shirelles . . . A notion no less strange, original, and absolutely gender-subvertingly apt today than it was back then.
When Lester said that A Hard Day’s Night essentially wrote itself, taken directly from the short time he and Owen spent hanging out with the boys, he meant it was a matter of simply reproducing their private idiom, a coded language that sounded like a law unto itself. (Which, of course, was anything but simple.) He didn’t impose either an aesthetic or his ego on them, instead teasing out a situational approach based on their own proclivities and circumstances, using whatever was needed, whatever would do the trick. An ample helping of mock cinema verité, touches of François Truffaut and Jacques Tati, a pinch of Buster Keaton, a dash of the Marx Brothers, multicamera setups, jump cuts, a passel of unchaperoned girls who might’ve just gone over the wall from St. Trinian’s . . .
Everything was caught on the fly, no introductions, the barest minimum of sideways exposition. No “love interests” (except for one another) or other moon–June–spoon-fed plot points. Full speed ahead, no time to be fussy, but nevertheless a surprising tendency to let sequences linger in real time. Collective and individual identities—the John-Paul-George-Ringo lunch box and merchandise concession—are worked out and woven through a treadmill environment where the hamsters play satiric havoc with the business of light entertainment and teen merchandising. Holy shite: we’ve become a limited company.
Lester began shooting on March 2; completed on April 24, the film had its world premiere in London on July 6 (Princess Margaret and Lord Snowdon in attendance). United Artists executives liked the film but wanted to redub the Beatles’ dialogue because they thought no one would understand the accents. The whole caper was a euphoric blur, but Lester stuck to his guns, the “Liverpudlian cadences” stayed, and, in the end, “we got away with it.” No one could possibly have been prepared for that opening shot of the Beatles in midgallop, hurtling down a cramped street straight at the camera—the ringing first chord of the title song sounding like a starter’s gun—pursued by a mob of fans. Imagine Hitchcock’s birds as a flock of music-mad autograph seekers. Who would have had the sheer bleeding nerve?
A new, wide-open cross-fertilization with modernism had arrived with this day-in-the-pop-life field trip: Beatles aide-de-camp Shake (John Junkin) sitting on the train reading a familiar paperback, Son of Mad. Ringo thoughtfully analyzing his raging inferiority complex, later admonishing the belligerent technician who fools with his precious cymbals, “There you go, hiding behind a smoke screen of bourgeois clichés.” Not to forget the girl he tries to strike up a conversation with in front of a pawnshop, who is oblivious to his Starr-dom: “Get out of here, shorty.” There’s Lennon snorting his Coke bottle, demanding of a harrumphing Mr. I-Know-My-Rights Businessman, “Give us a kiss,” and helpfully extending himself to Norm the manager (Norman Rossington): “If you’re gonna have a barney, can I hold your coat?” Paul bats his fine lashes, interjecting an adroitly timed “Zap!” into Hamlet’s “Too too solid flesh” spiel, while keeping tabs on his wayward grandfather (Wilfrid Brambell’s devious rictus grin and easily outraged feelings suggesting a convicted flasher disguised as a “very clean” Tati holidaymaker). And George, ever the quiet, even-keeled assassin, laying waste to the know-it-all trendsetting gobbledygook of Kenneth Haigh’s strung-out adman. “Have I said something amiss?”
There is a sense in which this takes Beatle-itude to an apotheosis from which there’s nowhere to go but inward and nowhere to fall but apart. Help! (1965) found Lester in cruise-director mode, becoming (as Manny Farber put it in “Day of the Lesteroid”) “Master of the Erector Set effect.” Gone, mostly, was the ecstatic release Lester sprang with “Can’t Buy Me Love,” the collective prison-break cry of “We’re out!” That dizzying freedom curdled in the very short time it took the band to conquer the known universe and arrive at the clutter-strewn sequel. In John’s approximate words to the director after Help! (expletive reinstated): “I’m an extra in me own fookin’ movie.”
A retroactive disappointment with A Hard Day’s Night arose with the backlash to the Beatles’ unimaginable success. As Lester Bangs indelicately put it: “Fuck the Beatles . . . It’s BLATANTLY OBVIOUS that the most rock-and-roll human being in the whole movie is the fucking grandfather! That wily old slime of Paul’s! He had more energy than the four moptops put together! Plus the spirit! He was a true anarchist!” Why couldn’t they have made, oh, a British Scorpio Rising instead, or a superprescient Performance? (As Performance amounted to Donald Cammell and Nicolas Roeg’s decadent rock recasting of Joseph Losey’s The Servant, and considering playwright Joe Orton’s failed stab at writing the Beatles’ follow-up picture, that wasn’t an entirely far-fetched idea.) The funny thing was, in their Hamburg days, divided between low life and the avant-garde artistic circle of photographer Astrid Kirchherr, they had already lived out a Warhol movie, while Mick Jagger and Lou Reed were still clean-cut students plugging away at university. Without the Beatles and A Hard Day’s Night to open the floodgates, the paths to glory would have been a lot more circumscribed. Lester, for one, was able to parlay the movie into projects that would have been unthinkable beforehand: The Knack . . . and How to Get It (1965), How I Won the War (1967), and Petulia (1968), cinematic anomalies that reflected an attitude of commercial experimentation, cross-fertilization, and rampant eclecticism that was new to mainstream film. (The fact that Lester’s biggest fan is Steven Soderbergh speaks volumes—birds of a restless feather.)
Beautifully anchored in the context of its rapidly changing times—few movies have such a serene handle on what it is to be perched on a volcano that is about to erupt—A Hard Day’s Night glided right into the history the Beatles had begun to make. Nonetheless, the novelty of their being a rock group has kept the film from taking its place alongside fellow travelers like Shoot the Piano Player, Band of Outsiders, Orson Welles’s amazing pop-Kafka riff on The Trial, or the equally giddy Dr. Strangelove (featuring the Beatles’ favorite would-be drummer, Peter Sellers). Of course, Lester’s rejection of intellectually fashionable pessimism and hand-wringing alienation didn’t endear it to the protest-minded, either: these four were the children of Groucho Marx and Coca-Cola, and they regarded the fields of Consumer Capitalism as a subversive playground instead of a battlefield. Larking about, no respect for cultural authority a’tall.
A Hard Day’s Night’s echoes can be found in all kinds of places: directly in John Boorman’s wonderfully acerbic and melancholy knockoff Catch Us If You Can, with the all-but-forgotten Dave Clark Five; implicitly in Tony Richardson’s The Loved One and, of course, in the film that plays like Lester’s knackered version of Lolita, George Axelrod’s chaotic Lord Love a Duck. Consider if Lennon and McCartney had branched out into acting—beyond John’s spot in How I Won the War—and taken the leads in Loved One and Duck: McCartney surely could have improved on the woefully accented Robert Morse in the former, and imagine Lennon instead of an overage Roddy McDowell as the genie opposite the incandescent Tuesday Weld in the latter. “Careful. You’ll make yourself spurt.”
But to appreciate the full extent of the film’s impact, you have only to look at the loving shots of George Harrison playing his Rickenbacker twelve-string electric guitar—no one had seen or heard anything like it (it was only the second one ever manufactured). When Roger McGuinn saw it, he had a veritable religious experience: thus were born the Byrds, folk rock was launched, and a thousand chiming, eight-mile-high tunes went chasing after Harrison’s sound. Bob Dylan, the Beach Boys, the Rolling Stones, each responded in their own way; everyone was on notice that a whole theater of possibilities was being opened here. The game was afoot!
It wasn’t just restless youths. My favorite Andy Warhol story is from 1965: He and some of his Factory gang had gone to London for an exhibition, then on to Paris, and finally hit that old beatnik-hipster sanctuary, Tangiers. Coming home, they went straight from the airport to catch a revival double bill in the Village: A Hard Day’s Night and Goldfinger. As Susan Sontag wrote in her journal: “Pop art is Beatles art.”
There is a palpable sense of initiation to the movie: a mass version of a secret society. It has tendrils everywhere. The name Victor Spinetti alone evokes a whole comic version of the Mad magazine–meets–Mad Men era; he’s a supporting actor so perfectly attuned to a neurotic caricature as to elevate it to poster-child status. As for “Hey, hey, we’re the Monkees”—perhaps the less said the better about that Campbell’s Soup canned version of Beatlemania. Except to note, with a certain wonderment, that the infernal TV show’s creators, Bob Rafelson and Bert Schneider, would go on to make names for themselves in film history, Easy Rider, Five Easy Pieces, and Hearts and Minds thus being linked to Hard Day’s in the great daisy chain of being (and that The Monkees has a higher user rating on IMDB than A Hard Day’s Night!). Better to contemplate the Silly Putty genius of The Rutles: All You Need Is Cash, that loosey-goosey Goons-Beatles-Python synergy come full circle. (If only Sellers could have been the drummer.) Or Christopher Munch’s lovely, cutting The Hours and Times, adding a little backstory/backbeat footnote about John and Brian Epstein. There’s even the quick, helium-voiced homage in Todd Haynes’s I’m Not There. That’s the thing about AHDN: it contains bloody multitudes.
What sticks in my mind when contemplating the enduring quality of the group’s—and the film’s—appeal is something Epstein said a few weeks before A Hard Day’s Night’s premiere. Here was this Jewish, gay, deeply bourgeois twenty-nine-year-old who connected with these scruffy lads on a deeply personal yet utterly universal level: “Everything about the Beatles was right for me—their kind of attitude to life, the attitude that comes out in their music and their rhythm and their lyrics, and their humor, and their own personal way of behaving—it was all just what I wanted. They represented the direct, unselfconscious, good-natured human relationships which I hadn’t found and had wanted and felt deprived of”; with the Beatles, he declared, “my own sense of inferiority evaporated.”
Howard Hampton is a longtime contributor to Film Comment, a once and future rock critic, and the author of Born in Flames: Termite Dreams, Dialectical Fairy Tales, and Pop Apocalypses.