A Hard Day’s Night at 50

The following originally appeared in The Globe and Mail in July, 2014.

Among the many ways in which the Beatles changed everything, there was the matter of time. They accelerated and warped it, so that the very decade of the 1960s seemed to unfold on according to their supersonic, faster-than-the-speed-of-sound evolution. By the time the band broke up in 1970, the previous decade already felt like a dream.

Take the opening of A Hard Day’s Night fifty years ago this week. Not only was it an uncannily astute embodiment of the phenomenon we might call ‘Beatletime’ — frantic, fractured, breathless and intoxicating — it was born of speed itself. At the time the lights went down for the command performance before Princess Margaret in London in July, 1964, the movie’s images were barely three months old. And by the time they went up ninety or so minutes later, the world itself seemed to pick up momentum.

It was the American born, London-based producer Walter Shenson who’d first called United Artists in the U.S. to see if they were interested in distributing a movie about the young band from Liverpool that, by late 1963 anyway, had taken England by storm. U.A. was tentatively interested — remember that this was before the Beatles had prostrated America by playing the Sullivan show — provided they could get publishing profits to any new Beatles music, a soundtrack album, and cheap movie made quickly. This last point was especially critical, as U.A. was worried that even its modest two hundred thousand pound investment might be wasted if the movie took longer to make than the band’s popularity might hold.

Looking for a director who could start making a Beatles movie instantly, Sherman approached Richard Lester, another transplanted American who’d proved a model of innovative high speed efficiency due to his background in TV commercials, live television, and sublimely nutty collaborations with Spike Milligan, Harry Secombe and Peter Sellers on the proto-Python sketch showcase The Goon Show. Lester hadn’t yet met The Beatles and had no firm ideas about a Beatles movie apart from the fact he had no interest in making one of those rubbish Cliff Richard or Elvis movies in which the singer lip-synched songs as girls in bathing suits shimmied and shook. But Sherman reassured him he could make just about any Beatles movie he wanted provided it stayed on budget and yielded a soundtrack lp.

By the time cameras were about to roll on the movie to be called A Hard Day’s Night — inspired by one of those weird Ringo phrases used to describe an all-night recording session — the Beatles had already learned to live in the eye of the hurricane: they couldn’t go anywhere in England without causing crowd control problems, needed police escorts everywhere they went, and were constantly pursued by stampeding hordes of screaming girls.

Observing this, Lester, quickly arrived at two practical but (retrospectively anyway) profound conclusions: he was going to be insanely limited in terms of where, when and how much he could actually film the band, and he was going to make the movie about what it was like to be a Beatle. His movie would be that hurricane’s-eye view.

It helped, of course, that the lads themselves were so extraordinarily, phenomenally even, composed subjects. They regarded the hell breaking loose around them with an utterly charming and disarmingly unaffected Liverpudlian cheek and practicality, and in this Lester saw exactly why there was potentially so much more to this band — and his movie — than just the music: these were irresistibly attractive personalities, new forms of celebrity itself. If in England their dry, working-class diffidence resonated as a well-aimed gob in the eye of the class system, beyond the island the Beatles’ cheerfully take-the-piss attitude constituted nothing less than a electric bolt fired across the bow of generational conflict.

A Hard Day’s Night was a sensation: soundtrack sales alone put it in profit long before ticket sales caught up, and it played constantly somewhere throughout the world for the next few years. But its real impact was in the style it found for the pop dreams and aspirations of a new generation. Although very much a period-precise amalgamation of French New Wave minimalism, on-the-fly documentary style, and tenement row kitchen sink Brit realism, it also attained a kind of frozen-moment timelessness, fully justifying American critic Andrew Sarris’s eminently quotable description as “the Citizen Kane of jukebox musicals.”

One can mark the movie’s influence in the dozens of lesser band-on-the-run knockoffs that came out in the following few years, in the prefab-four processing of TV’s The Monkees, or in the interminably recycled observation that Lester laid the groundwork for music video and MTV, a claim which never failed to make the director insist on a blood test. But where A Hard Day’s Night really laid long distance tracks was in its depiction of something real, genuine and irrepressibly human in the centre of even the most intense storm in popular music history. It’s a suggestion of honest-go-goodness, transcendental regular-folk ordinariness that just about every single movie about pop celebrities made since has struggled to replicate, even if it means faking the real life right out of it.