A Hard Day’s Night turns 50 this July. It’s a great way to experience the 1960s.
How does one truly get the Beatles? This isn’t about their music, which, like any music, doesn’t belong to any single generation, even the one that it was birthed in. We do, after all, listen to Mozart today. This is about the gargantuan, fireworks-going-off-in the-head phenomenon of it all — the fevered anticipation of the next release, the buzz of being wired into a pop-culture moment, the feeling of communal ownership, the heartbreak when it’s all over. As someone born in the nineteen-seventies, I’ve never had this with music. The iconic bands of my teens — U2, The Police, Dire Straits — were big, but they weren’t that big. Michael Jackson, perhaps... But even he wasn’t “more popular than Jesus.”
I guess I’m trying to say that one way to really get the Beatles as they’re meant to be got is to have been born in the early 1950s, and ready to embrace a new religion a decade later. The other way is to watch A Hard Day’s Night. The film, which turns 50 this July, wasn’t meant to last this long. It was a cynical project, made on a low budget and in black-and-white. Its sole purpose was to cash in on the group’s popularity and sell some records — but it’s become, today, something of a history lesson, one of those time capsules you bury in the ground and dig up decades later to get a glimpse of what people wore, how they spoke, what it must have been like in the 1960s, smack in the middle of Beatlemania.
The opening shot duly acknowledges this mania — the Beatles are being chased by screaming hordes. But the film is more than just an account of four musicians who were making the world twist and shout. Here’s what happens next. They evade being mobbed and hop on to a train. As they approach the next station, more hordes lie in wait. Their harried manager tells them, “Hey, don’t move, any of you. They’ve gone potty out there. The place is surging with girls.” John, without missing a beat, mocks this mother-hen behaviour: “Please, sir, can I have one to surge me, sir, please, sir?”
A decade earlier, the fictitious Alfred E. Neuman had made his debut as the slacker-mascot of Mad magazine, proudly espousing the dictum: “What, me worry?” Lennon was just taking this nonchalance a few steps further. A Hard Day’s Night, thus, also lets us see what it must have been like at a time when the culture was changing, when the sixties were just beginning to swing, when everyone was young again. And is there another medium that’s as much an instant time machine as cinema?
Compare A Hard Day’s Night with another musical released that year, My Fair Lady. It’s the difference between a debutante and a dowager. Eliza Doolittle finally sheds her Cockney accent, and we segue to The Rain in Spain. The song springs from the meticulously scripted situation. The Beatles, on the other hand, launch into I Should Have Known Better... just because. One minute, they’re playing cards on that train. Suddenly, John’s tooting on a harmonica. Paul and George have their hands wrapped around guitars. Ringo’s banging away on drums. The audience’s question “Where did the instruments come from?” is answered with a poker-faced “Who cares?”
Later, at a press meet, a journalist with a notebook asks George, “What would you call that hairstyle you’re wearing?” The reply: “Arthur.” If the Marx Brothers had made a mockumentary, it would be something like A Hard Day’s Night. Everything was new, including the strident chord that opens the song the film is named after. (Many years later, Randy Bachman, the guitarist from The Guess Who and Bachman-Turner Overdrive, figured out how the sound came about: it was a combination of chords played simultaneously by George Harrison and John Lennon, along with a bass note by Paul McCartney.)
The direction, by Richard Lester, is equally irreverent — it channels the quintessential free-spiritedness of the sixties. (It’s not surprising that the title of the 1995 documentary about the making of A Hard Day’s Night was practically an admonishment: You Can’t Do That!) Entrusted with the journeyman task of making a jukebox musical — that is, a musical cobbled together from previously released songs — Lester made something no one expected. He made art. He threw out all semblance of plot and hinged his narrative on non-sequitury vignettes, captured by what is possibly the most unfettered camera of the time. Watching the Can’t Buy Me Love sequence, filmed with jittery hand-held cameras and swooping helicopter shots, one can only imagine what it must have felt like to audiences weaned on the ‘classical Hollywood’ style of the studio era.
One of those old-time studio executives did, in fact, protest to the producer Walter Shenson when he saw the dailies. He said, “The picture’s very good, but are you aware of the fact that in the scene where Paul McCartney’s doing a solo, the camera shoots right into an arc lamp and shows one of the walls of the sound stage?” Shenson coolly replied, “Yeah, it took us a half-day to get that shot.”