Main      Site Guide    
At-A-Glance Film Reviews

A Hard Day's Night (1964)



Reviews and Comments

A Hard Day's Night is one of those great movies that seem to have happened by accident. By 1964, Elvis Presley had made over a dozen movies. Frankie Avalon had made almost that many, and Pat Boone had several under his belt, too. Few are remembered today, and fewer still, if any, are remembered for their merit rather than by reputation. When it was decided that a movie starring the Beatles would be a good way to milk their growing success, who'd have thought it would turn out to be an enduring classic?

A Hard Day's Night is the best rock-n-roll musical ever made, which is probably not as strong a statement as I'd like it to be. One of the things I appreciate most about this movie is how carefree it is. The movie is not mired down by a demanding story -- plot would only get in the way. It's above conventional moviemaking and instead finds pure joy in freedom. From the unforgettable opening scene, featuring the Beatles running away from very real screaming fans, director Richard Lester builds a remarkable level of energy and sustains it -- if not by chases through the streets involving fans and policemen then by a fast-paced script with so many dryly and casually delivered witticisms, it takes multiple viewings to catch them all. (I loved the press conference scene, in which the Beatles give humorous answers to reporters' questions so quickly I had to be careful not to laugh too long, lest I miss the next few lines.)

The film is, loosely, a day in the life of the Beatles. While it's not wholly accurate about the Beatles' life behind the scenes, it was close enough smoothly executed enough to convince many that the entire script was adlibbed. In actuality, not much was adlibbed at all -- John Lennon had a few adlibs -- but it's easy to see why one might think so. Unlike conventionally scripted movies, in which one character waits for another to finish his line before beginning his own, A Hard Day's Night takes on a documentary feel. The lines are spoken without an apparent conscientiousness for the camera, and the cinematography suggests that the camera operators didn't always know what they should be pointing at. They did, of course, but the effect is convincing. Adding to the atmosphere are some delightful surreal touches and an all-important decision to shoot in black and white instead of color. Black and white, being less like the reality we see around us every day, lends a dreamlike quality that accentuates the feelings the movie evokes.

Most surprising, perhaps, is how naturally all of the Beatles make the transition to film. The first draft of the script gave the Beatles very short lines, so they wouldn't have to act much if it turned out they couldn't. When it was discovered they were not only comfortable before the cameras, unlike many music stars that tried to make the transition to the silver screen, the script was expanded to give them more material to work with. An effort was made to give each of the Beatles scenes without the other three, so as to portray each as an individual rather than an interchangeable component of the group as a whole. That works, too.

Screenwriter Alun Owen spent a day with the Beatles prior to writing the script, and he came away from that experience observing how much the Beatles were prisoners of their own success, and he worked that into the script. Most of the shots in the film take place indoors: on trains and in cramped rooms and recording studios. The only times they seem truly free are when they're singing. And yet, even when crowded by fans, nervous producers, and the press, they keep their spirits high. They aren't fighting to stay on top, mind you -- their frivolous outlook on life isn't even threatened by all manner of things that seem like they would. The field sequence, in which the Beatles romp around outside accompanied by their own music, is famous for a good reason: the music and visuals do such an outstanding job at portraying joyous freedom from all the many demands made on their time.

The music is all good. My favorite is the title song, written by John Lennon and Paul McCartney in one night after all the filming was completed. (The title, incidentally, came from one of Ringo Starr's verbal slip-ups.) I loved the staging of "I Should Have Known Better" -- the Beatles start out playing a card game, and then, as the music swells, instruments start appearing out of nowhere, then, at the end, disappear again as the card game resumes. The final live television broadcast, though, is the high point in the film. I can't even describe the energy level this scene builds as the Beatles reprise most of the songs and then some, fans screaming and crying in ecstasy. I can barely describe the blend of feelings this scene evokes: we hum along with the tunes while simultaneously laughing goodnaturedly at those going out of control over them. This is the emotional climax the movie has been building up to from the beginning. In a movie about joy and freedom, with countless seeming threats to that, here is a scene that is unleashed joy and freedom like no other ever put on film.

Related Films