"The Citizen Kane of jukebox musicals,” exclaimed Andrew Sarris in the Village Voice upon the release of A Hard Day’s Night in 1964. The film surprised critics and filmgoers alike. Previous rock-and-roll movies had been little more than showcases for the latest music, aimed at exploiting the youth market, cheaply made and melodramatic. Then along came A Hard Day’s Night, one of the most finely crafted films ever made about rock-and-roll.
Like other movies of its genre, A Hard Day’s Night started out, in September of 1963, simply as an extension of the band’s musical success. United Artists, far more interested in the soundtrack album than in the movie itself, told producer Walter Shenson to make the film as quickly and cheaply as possible. Shenson decided to make a movie based on a day in the life of the band, in which the group would do what they were best at: being Beatles.
Alun Owen wrote the screenplay between November 1963 and January 1964, while the Beatles were still entirely a British phenomenon. His finished work was virtually a snapshot of the band at that moment—famous but not too far from Liverpool; enjoying their freedom but chafing at the restrictions that success placed on them; and still acting like four lads on a weekend lark. Filming began in March, nine days after the group’s return from their first visit to America, when it was clear that they were going to be the biggest international stars that rock had ever produced. At this point United Artists, realizing the gold mine they’d stumbled onto, offered to increase the original half-million dollar budget.
Director Richard Lester was an American who had come to England in 1955. His credits included the BBC’s Goon Show, a ‘50s predecessor to Monty Python, on which Peter Sellers first achieved stardom. Lester’s first film, a short called The Running, Jumping & Standing Still Film (1959) made with Sellers, was a direct outgrowth of the Goon Show. Filled with sight-gags and visual non-sequiturs, it also happened to be a favorite of the Beatles, and got him the job on A Hard Day’s Night. His work in commercials made Lester a master of the two-minute “film,” the length of a Beatles song, and in fact the entire movie is broken down into self-contained, two-minute bits.
Despite the seeming spontaneity of A Hard Day’s Night, just two scenes—John in the bath (Chapter 9) and the press conference (Chapter 10)—were improvised. The film’s realism was a masterpiece of cinematic illusion, natural lighting, and tight cutting. It is almost impossible to pick out the one unstaged event in the entire movie: the group’s escape from the train, which was their actual departure from shooting that day.
A Hard Day’s Night has captured the essence not only of the Beatles but their world, their music, and the forces at work around them. The Beatles were part and parcel of the “youth revolution” of the 1960s. When they came on the scene in 1963 with “Please Please Me,” their music—loud, honest, raw rock-and-roll by four working-class kids from Liverpool, who sang without pretense or artifice of any kind—spoke directly to a young generation in rebellion against authority and tradition. A Hard Day’s Night reflects the spirit of this revolt in its early stages.
The Beatles take on the establishment with a sly, irreverent humor, thumbing their noses at what’s “proper” or “right.” Their attitude is capsulized in Ringo’s response to the question, “Are you a mod or a rocker?” He replies, “No, I’m a mocker.” But A Hard Day’s Night makes it clear that the real issue is state of mind, not age. The Beatles find that Paul’s elderly grandfather is the worst “mixer” (troublemaker) of all, and their efforts to keep track of him provide an ironic counterpoint to everyone else’s attempts to make the Beatles conform to the constraints of the “adult” world.
Enemies of the group’s freedom take several forms. The stuffy businessman in the Beatles’ train compartment exhibits a superior attitude that was very real to anyone who did not attend the right school, belong to the right club, or speak with the correct accent. Producer “Simon Marshal” represents a kind of person the Beatles were familiar with: an adult trendmonger, exploiting young people with clothes, pop stars, and pop philosophy. And their managers constantly try to make the boys stay put when they’d rather go dancing or romp in a field.
The film is so close to the band that it “plays” like one of their albums, with scenes instead of songs for each of the band members. As on their albums, Paul gets the good tunes but John gets the best lines. Funny and cryptic, John steals every scene he’s in. George’s visit to the producer’s office is one of the movie’s great, weird moments. Ringo’s “solo,” by contrast, is funny in a warm and genial manner.
The music came last in the actual production. Almost all of it was written between November and February. A Hard Day’s Night, however—as a song and movie title—wasn’t thought of until the very end of filming. Ringo used the phrase “a hard day’s night” after a long day on the set, and Lester and Shenson brought it to John Lennon, who turned up the next morning with the song. Recorded on April 16, 1964, it was one of their finest collaborations: title by Ringo, composed by John, sung by John and Paul, and featuring a dazzling performance by George. His decision to use a 12-string Rickenbacker guitar changed music history—the sound inspired American folk singer Roger McGuinn to form his own rock group, the Byrds.
The sense of release in the song was no accident. Written and recorded at the end of six weeks of shooting, it summed up everything the movie was about.