Benjamin is a former volunteer DJ at his local hospital radio station. He has been reviewing films online since 2004.
What's the Big Deal?
A Hard Day's Night is a musical comedy film released in 1964 and was the first of five films featuring the Beatles. Directed by Richard Lester who would collaborate with the Fab Four again on their next film Help!, the film follows the band for a few days as they prepare for a live performance on TV while getting into various situations due to Paul's roguish grandfather. In addition to John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Ringo Starr appearing as themselves, the film also stars Wilfred Brambell and it was written by Alun Owen. The film was a critical and commercial success and even earned two Academy Award nominations. Over the years, the film's stature has grown even more with numerous films influenced by Lester's directing style (the film itself also inspired the creation of The Monkees) and is now widely hailed as one of the best rock-and-roll movies of all time.
What's It About?
Frantically running from a swarm of screaming teenage girls, the Beatles just about manage to board a train to London on their way to a TV studio. Their manager Norm has arranged for them to appear and perform on a live programme the following day and travels with them together with the band's road manager Shake. As the group settle down, they are introduced to Paul's grandfather who is apparently travelling with the group in an effort to cheer himself up after having his heart broken. However, they soon realise that the old man is more trouble than he is worth and after making a nuisance of himself, the five of them spend the rest of the journey in the mail carriage.
Once they are at the studio, they are introduced to the somewhat fastidious TV director who harasses them during rehearsals along with the hordes of journalists asking endless questions. Feeling surrounded, the band decide to sneak out to party and have some fun but this only leads to further complications - Paul's grandfather disappears to a casino, Ringo disappears after feeling slighted by the rest of the band while John and Paul's sense of humour rubs the director up the wrong way.
John McCartney, Paul's grandfather
Release Date (UK)
7th July, 1964
Academy Award Nominations
Best Original Screenplay, Best Musical Score
What's to Like?
It took me a while before I developed an appreciation for the Beatles, I'm ashamed to say. But if you're like me and missed them the first time around then this film is a startling insight into their talent, popularity and originality. The film initially has a documentary feel as we follow the band, their adoring teenage fans never more than a few footsteps behind them. But the film has a surreal twist at its core, warping physics and logic to allow them to escape both the screaming girls outside and their watchful manager indoors - take the scene when their manager is told that John is submered in a bath full of bubbles and worries that John has been washed away after he lets the water out. The film is a light-hearted and easy-going experience and it's a genuine pleasure spending time with these humourous and fun-loving boys as they feel very different from the stuffy and starchy establishment.
But on closer inspection, there is a subversive subtext beneath the banter and the unforgettable tunes - which are obviously all first-class. The film gives an early indication of the pressures and traps of fame the band felt at being the most recognised musical act in the world and the frustrations they feel at not being able to be themselves. The seemingly endless pursuit by the hormonal teenage girls feels as chaotic as the film itself and almost dangerous at times. The darker side of things isn't allowed too much room to flourish, however as the boys themselves are engaging and (crucially) distinct from each other despite their matching hairstyles and suits. John is a cheeky and playful ladies man, George is quiet and introspective, Paul is irreverent and full of beans and Ringo is grumpy and unable to do anything besides drumming - at least, if his solo scenes are anything to go by! By contrast, Brambell is the only other cast member whose presence we enjoy as everyone else seemingly despairs at the boys' antics and inability to follow simple instructions.
It's also remarkable to see how the film influenced so many things from the formation of their American counterparts The Monkees to numerous pop music videos and even the Austin Powers series. Credit must go to Lester whose work on the short but influential The Running Jumping & Standing Still Film (which was a favourite of the group) can be seen in A Hard Day's Night as the band finally break free and run wildly across a field. It's unusual to see such surrealist moments in a film that was basically made to publicise their next album of the same name. It makes the film stand out from any number of films Elvis made for the same reasons and makes it more than a simple extended commercial.
- John is asked by a female reporter if he has any hobbies and he then scribbles a word on her notepad, provoking a shocked response from the reporter. The word he wrote was 'tits'.
- The film contains dozens of cameos, arguably led by Brambell whose constant mentioning of how clean his character is is an obvious reference to his part as 'dirty old man' Steptoe in the classic TV sitcom Steptoe and Son. Singer Phil Collins is uncredited as a schoolboy watching the Beatles on TV, Harrison's first wife Pattie Boyd appears as a schoolgirl on the train (they first met on the set of this film and were married in 1966), Charlotte Rampling made her on-screen debut as an uncredited dancer in a nightclub and TV presenter and dancer Lionel Blair appears as the choreographer at the TV studio.
- Owen was hired by the band for his skill at writing Livipudian dialect such as the word 'grotty' which Owen had heard being used in Liverpool at the time. However, none of the band had heard the word before (they believed he had made it up) and many linguists cite Harrison's usage of 'grotty' in the movie as the first use of the word in film.
- Record producer George Martin received the Oscar nod for Best Musical Score but the band themselves got no recognition. Incidentally, the credits claim that all the songs featured were written by Lennon and McCartney but the song 'Don't Bother Me' was written by George Harrison.
What's Not to Like?
If I'm being really picky - and frankly, I have to be because this film is just so much fun - then I felt the film's inherent silliness gets out of hand at times. There are some scenes that feel like filler such as George accidentally walking into a trendsetting fashion editor's office and there are others that feel a bit repetitive. The film does run out of steam towards the end as it descends into a sort of Keystone Cops shtick that suits Lester's style but lacks much of the imagination and subversion shown in the beginning of the film but honestly, there isn't much that I didn't like or would choose to change. One thing I did feel was a certain tragic melancholy when John had the screen to himself - he comes across as a genuinely likeable person (hell, they all do) and has a charisma that shines through, making the circumstances of his eventual murder in 1980 feel even more upsetting. But perhaps this is more reflective of my own emotional state - I make no secret of my struggles with depression and Lennon's murder holds a curious fascination for me, coming as it did mere months after I was born.
I'm not a die-hard fan of the band but watching A Hard Days Night, it's easy to understand why they took over the world with their catchy songs and vibrant youth and energy which radiate from the picture. They were the perfect cultural response to the buttoned-up and fussy post-war Britain they found themselves in, embodied by the middle-aged gent sharing their train carriage (played by Richard Vernon) disapproving of the boys listening to the radio. Their edginess may have lost a little bite since the mid-Sixties - I don't know anyone who would feel threatened by their haircuts, for examples - but the raw energy the boys bring to every scene is palpable and undimmed after all this time.
Should I Watch It?
Fans of the band shouldn't need to ask the question but even if you're not then A Hard Day's Night is a fun and energetic picture that captures the band at the apex of their fame, before the drugs, yoga and Yoko Ono arrived to muddy the waters. The film is rightly revered as pioneering the Swinging Sixties vibe that would come to define the decade for the UK and launch the band into the stratosphere. This is a joyous experience for any viewer with timeless tunes to enjoy and a chance to see the band at their most creative before things inevitably came off the rails. Of all the films they appeared in, this is certainly the best of them.
Great For: Beatles fans, pop culture junkies, historians, The Monkees, children of the time
Not So Great For: anyone who prefers Elvis, stuffy establishment types, people who can't stand screaming teenage girls
What Else Should I Watch?
The band's next film, Help!, was an even more chaotic affair which probably wasn't helped by the band shooting the film through a "haze of marijuana" as the Beatles themselves said. They were creatively disappointed with the film which was their first in colour and had a much bigger budget than A Hard Day's Night, allowing for more songs to feature on the soundtrack. Their third film was an improvised and made for TV affair, Magical Mystery Tour. The film was the band's first critical failure, in part due to the BBC broadcasting a colour film in black-and-white but also due to the band admitting that they might not be cut out for making their own movies. Yellow Submarine was their fourth film although they only helped produce the soundtrack and appear at the end in what amounted to a cameo - the film itself was an animation based on their music and was largely seen as a return to form after Magical Mystery Tour. Their final film was the documentary Let It Be which captured the band's final live appearance on the rooftop of their record label's headquarters in 1969 as well as the dissention within the band that would eventually see the group go their seperate ways just a year later.
Ron Howard was just fourteen when the Beatles caused a public disturbance from the roof of Apple Records but he helped revive interest in the band's early work with his documentary Eight Days A Week. The film covers the group's live appearances and tours from the Cavern Club in Liverpool to their final US appearance at Candlestick Park in 1966 thanks to some truly mesmerising archive footage. Made with the surviving members of the band as well as Yoko Ono and Olivia Harrison, the film matches the intensity seen in A Hard Day's Night as well as the crowds of screaming teenage fans drowning out the music and is well worth having a look at, especially if you're a fan.
© 2021 Benjamin Cox
Anya Ali from Rabwah, Pakistan on May 23, 2021:
Thank you for a well-written post! I'm not a Beatles fan but I might take a look at this movie for the comedy.