3.5 out of 5 stars

The street teems with people, all stampeding along at full pelt. Four young men lead the pack, a horde of screeching, ecstatic girls following behind. It’s our opening shot, and the new hit track “A Hard Day’s Night” triumphantly introduces the world to what will soon become the biggest stars on Earth: The Beatles have arrived.

The four musicians are on their way to London. Accompanying them on the train is Paul McCartney’s grandfather John (Wilfrid Brambell), who’s both curmudgeonly and, as everyone is quick to notice, very clean. Our film follows the Beatles and John as they embark on a normal 36 hours in their lives, while their manager Norm (Norman Rossington) and road manager Shake (John Junkin) try to keep their hype train from derailing completely.

Made at the absolute height of Beatlemania, A Hard Day’s Night is half fiction, half musical documentary. It presents an interesting look at a different era, a time before social media, where musical artists needed film vehicles to embed themselves deeply in the public’s subconscious. Along with the superb soundtrack, there’s also a serviceable script that features a few funny lines and gags, creating an enjoyable look at the biggest music group of all time.

This is a fact the film does not attempt to hide. Quite the opposite: A Hard Day’s Night is probably the most successful vehicle for a music group ever made, particularly because it portrays the four lads as established icons, enigmatic yet lovable. They are not only shown to be an indelible presence in music history but world history as well: the sheer mass of fans that hurtle towards them whenever they’re in sight is like watching a scene from a zombie apocalypse film.

These sequences are quite bewildering to watch 60 years on, mostly because one can’t help but think it took little to enthral these legions of fans into acting like obsessive disciples; Beatlemania, it would seem, is one hell of a drug. Perhaps it’s because I can’t imagine getting so ecstatic about anything, but I think it’s also the result of living in a completely different time from the one depicted. Constant access to social media has desensitised us to seeing famous people—either in media or in person—and subsequently, interactions with celebrities have been normalised.

In this regard, A Hard Day’s Night provides a fascinating look at how studios and talent managers cultivated parasocial relationships between stars and their adoring public before the internet. Indeed, A Hard Day’s Night was such a success that it inspired a legion of imitators, and while Elvis Presley had starred in a slew of ill-advised film ventures, the impact on popular culture paled in comparison to director Richard Lester’s smash hit.

A Hard Day’s Night succeeds in portraying the four musicians in much the same vein and does little to definitively separate them. They are shown to be a cohesive group, often appearing as if they share one mind. Specifically, they are painted as the wise-cracking, playful messiahs of the counterculture. Lester showcases their wit and charisma, their disregard for standard codes of behaviour; they are all wise fools with boyish charms, jokers who laugh in the face of societal norms.

Perhaps more important than this demonstration of their whimsical defiance of stuffy, antiquated norms is the adoration they are met with as a result. We are shown how everyone in their circle—but particularly women of all ages—falls under their spell. They are jesters unbound by society’s rules, and they are incessantly worshipped as a result. This carefully constructed snapshot, expertly done, is designed to elevate the public’s fascination with these larger-than-life figures.

It’s a testament to the power of the media. In less than ninety minutes, fabricated identities are crafted and leave an indelible mark on the viewer. Impressionable young audience members undoubtedly latched onto these charismatic characters as beacons of “cool”. We are not invited to identify with them—how could we, after all? Instead, we are instructed to regard them with awe.

In large part, the emphasis placed on constructing this parasocial relationship is evident in the fact that the band doesn’t do much of anything throughout the film. They mostly just sit together, allowing you to join them for a brief time. The good-natured teasing and collaborative wordplay they all demonstrate convey the fantastic group cohesion they share. They’re the coolest group of friends, and it’s implied that you’d be a fool not to want to be part of it.

This approach probably worked better 60 years ago. While the film retains its aesthetic appeal, information released about the band’s behaviour and internal conflicts can’t help but alter our perception. It no longer truly functions as a snapshot of a typical day, but rather as a well-crafted, albeit harmless, piece of propaganda designed to bolster the already potent cult of personality surrounding The Beatles.

Their rockstar image was inextricably linked to their popularity with women. It’s no coincidence that they’re frequently shown picking up girls, charming older ladies, and attending wild parties. It’s also unsurprising that they rubbed some people up the wrong way; perhaps the second most significant factor contributing to their popularity was their positioning as counterculture revolutionaries.

These generational disputes are hinted at in a scene on the train to London. A middle-aged commuter plonks himself down in the carriage with the four boys. Immediately proving himself a nuisance by complaining about the open window and the noise from Ringo’s portable radio, it’s clear what screenwriter Alun Owen and producer Walter Shenson are doing: deepening the generational divide.

Elders aren’t shown to be wise or respectable but stuck-up, grumpy old fogies. For this reason, it’s unsurprising that many considered The Beatles and their ilk to have a dangerous influence, what with their joking, smoking, and outlandish haircuts.

Just as the older generation glares at them in disgust at their uncouth manners, the boys must contend with the predatory gaze of studio bosses. However, they are shown to have the same disdain for their elders here, too. This contempt for authority is best seen in a sequence when George Harrison disobliges an advertising executive who wants him to be his next fashion icon. It’s clear by George’s nonchalant disinterest that he simply isn’t understood by the older generation. The Beatles are a unique, original blend, mysterious to all who have come before them, the film informs us.

This can also be seen in how The Beatles generally have a complete disregard for the showbiz types who are constantly pestering them to be on time for their performances. This is interesting considering that the film, which went on to become a massive box-office success, would have been impossible without such figures in place. Though they demonstrate an insouciant, wry disdain for the importance of the commercial industry and marketing minds, both of these things are ironically what made The Beatles a global phenomenon.

Besides the very prominent subtext, the dialogue itself remains entertaining. It’s funnier than I expected. Brambell’s John McCartney is often amusing as the fiery Irish grandfather with contempt for the law. Additionally, the banter between Norm and Shake is droll, reminiscent of Laurel and Hardy.

The dialogue can sometimes lack cohesion, and the story, if one can call it that, meanders aimlessly. The entire plot is a disjointed series of non-sequiturs. The narrative is truly just a string of gags featuring The Beatles’ antics. Perhaps the funniest is Ringo Starr laying down his coat for a woman crossing a puddle, only to inadvertently lead her into a giant hole. There’s also John Lennon’s high jinks as a German submarine captain and George Harrison teaching Shake to shave by practising in the mirror.

The film’s exquisite cinematography is a saving grace. In the same year he served as director of photography on Stanley Kubrick’s Dr Strangelove (1964), Gilbert Taylor essentially created a blueprint for shooting musical documentaries. The lighting perfectly captures the band’s untouchable aura, while the extreme close-ups of their singing mouths and strumming hands immortalise them as sensitive artists.

In keeping with this, it’s important to recognise how A Hard Day’s Night isn’t just a music video. It’s both a continuation of a trend and the creation of an entirely new one. Depictions of rebellious youth had become something of a genre in the previous decade. Teenagers had become a massive audience in the 1950s, one that studio executives were eager to exploit. As a result, films that appealed more to heartfelt teenage angst were painstakingly devised, featuring characters who struggled against the rigid societal norms that all adolescents must contend with.

Such a genre—if one can call it that—made pop-culture icons out of Elvis Presley, Marlon Brando, and James Dean. This trio embodied the angry, hormonal countercultural movement that was soon to become a full-blown trifecta of sex, drugs, and rock and roll. In this respect, A Hard Day’s Night isn’t so groundbreaking. But how Lester filmed the group in a French New Wave style, combining it with the British ‘kitchen sink’ aesthetic, and a nonsensical yet enjoyable plot, was innovative.

It’s plausible that A Hard Day’s Night couldn’t have been released at a more opportune time. Elvis’s popularity was waning, and the sexual liberation of the 1960s ensured that The Beatles could define themselves as the leading figures of a generation, personifying the playful, yet resolute disregard for authority. This is perhaps best encapsulated in a sequence in the film where The Beatles are narrowly evading a troupe of policemen; one can be countercultural and have fun at the same time.

The other set pieces in the film are minor, yet they become entirely iconic. The opening scene of the quartet running down the street to escape an army of adoring fans is instantly recognisable. Other examples include the band absconding down a fire escape to a superbly synchronised soundtrack. By the time The Beatles arrived with A Hard Day’s Night, they were well on their way to becoming global superstars, but Lester’s work propelled them into the stratosphere.

So, while the film may not be the greatest ever made—or even really a film at all—it undeniably works as a piece of effective self-promotion, one that defined a whole genre of musical film vehicles. Their music may not be to everyone’s taste, but to like or dislike the Beatles, or the film that documented their ascent to unimaginable heights of stardom, is to miss the point entirely. For a short time, they were the biggest thing in the world, and A Hard Day’s Night captures their rise with terrific grace.


frame rated divider retrospective

Cast & Crew

director: Richard Lester.
writer: Alun Owen.
starring: John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison, Ringo Starr, Wilfrid Brambell, Norman Rossington, John Junkin, Victor Spinetti & Anna Quayle.