It begins with a jangly guitar chord – you know the one – immediately followed by a chase into a train station. Eighty-seven minutes later, it ends with a successful getaway, amid a swirl of helicopter rotors. Horizontal has become vertical, and sky replaces earth. Not even gravity hinders the Beatles in their motion picture debut, “A Hard Day’s Night.” Gravity, who needs gravity? This is a movie as buoyant as any ever made.
Tuesday the Criterion Collection releases a director-approved, digitally restored dual edition on DVD and Blu-ray, and on July 7 “A Hard Day’s Night” screens at the Coolidge Corner. The occasion for restoration and screening is the 50th anniversary of the film’s release.
Something else happens during the course of those 87 minutes. If ever there was a cusp movie, it’s “A Hard Day’s Night.” What starts out feeling a lot like the ’50s (that dingy rail terminal, cramped train compartments, tatty variety-show numbers) quickly shifts into the ’60s. By the end, the movie becomes so up to the minute that Roman numerals aren’t used in the copyright listing in the closing credits. The future has arrived. It’s not far from Arabic numerals to “Norwegian Wood.”
“A Hard Day’s Night” may even allow us to date the exact moment when the Swinging ’60s started. It’s when the Beatles explode out from a cramped TV studio on to an open field. They cavort, frolic, and otherwise cut loose to the strains of “Can’t Buy Me Love.” Beatlemania already existed. This is something different, something both more potent and enduring: Beatle-liberation.
The passage of half a century allows for an appreciation of what a classic “A Hard Day’s Night” is. For at least two reasons, that wasn’t possible in 1964. First, there was Beatlemania itself. The band’s film debut could have shown them eating cottage cheese for 87 minutes: Fans still would have flocked to see it. Conversely, to non-initiates, the Beatles seemed like freaks, a fad, or both. So there was shock on the part of non-fans. These guys with the funny haircuts actually made a good movie? How good hardly mattered.
“A Hard Day’s Night” was just going to be a jukebox movie. No one expected what Andrew Sarris called in his Village Voice review “the ‘Citizen Kane’ of jukebox musicals.” United Artists, the film’s distributors, saw it as a lucrative bit of teen exploitation, a quick way to cash in on the Beatles’ presumably short-lived celebrity. UA had already made a profit before the movie was released on the basis of advance orders for the soundtrack album. Celluloid was simply another Beatles delivery system, like trading cards and tea towels. Filming started March 2, and it premiered four months later. Bing, bang, boom: a quickie.
To keep costs down, “A Hard Day’s Night” was shot in black and white. That helps account for the ’50s feel. But it’s also part of the ’60s feel, too. The ’60s saw the birth of cinéma vérité and the flowering of the French New Wave. Both very much inform “A Hard Day’s Night.” In a very vérité way, director Richard Lester’s use of handheld camera is masterful, not least of all in seeming so unobtrusive. He also avoids tracking shots. The flashiness is almost always in the editing. Jump cuts were a legacy of the New Wave, thanks to Godard, and so was a sensibility that joined tenderness and insolence, thanks to Truffaut. Think of “John et Paul et George et Ringo” as “Jules et Jim” multiplied, and with a happier ending. If only a part could have been found for Jeanne Moreau!
Black and white also makes the film seem more naturalistic and not at all Hollywood. That naturalistic look lends “A Hard Day’s Night” a sense of immediacy, even intimacy. That’s no small part of its intoxication. Here are the four most popular people in the world — or if they weren’t, they were about to be — and the movie puts viewers right alongside them. And this, remember, a decade before the full emergence of celebrity culture, and many decades before social media. There had been nothing like it. Viewers have the illusion of being right there with the Beatles. The title could just as easily have been “A Day in the Life.” Meet the Beatles? Even better, hang with them.
The audience is in on the joke as the Beatles themselves are. The overall joke, on stuffiness and tradition and fame, comprises many (many) smaller jokes. This movie with the look of a documentary has the feel of a shamelessly mongrel comedy. It includes slapstick, one-liners, bad puns, innuendo, mugging for the camera, vaudeville gags, even surrealism. (How does John get out of the bathtub?) There’s improvisation, too. Alun Owen earned an Oscar nomination for his screenplay, but Lester and the Beatles contributed considerable material on the fly.
Part of the fun of “A Hard Day’s Night” is how it straddles so many genres: documentary, backstage musical, screwball comedy, even kitchen-sink realism (the Beatles aren’t drab, but some of their surroundings sure are). Maybe the best way to think of it is as a silent comedy with music. The chase scene just before the Beatles’ final performance is worthy of the Keystone Cops — and, yes, it’s a bunch of bobbies chasing them. Lester’s favorite filmmaker was Buster Keaton — he got to direct him two years later, in “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum” — and the influence shows. That is no small praise.
It’s easy to straddle genres when a movie has just the barest wisp of plot (which reinforces the illusion of documentary and makes sure nothing gets in the way of the music). The Beatles run away from a crowd and get on a train. They have a couple of encounters on the train and play a number. They get off the train. They go to a party and a press conference. They rehearse for a telecast. Ringo goes AWOL and gets arrested. The other Beatles rescue him. They do the telecast. That’s it.
Or almost it. There’s the matter of Paul’s “grandfather.” For some unexplained reason, Paul’s babysitting him. A bit of a rogue, the old guy keeps getting both himself and the boys into trouble. He’s the reason Ringo wanders off. In a movie with many running gags, the one about grandpa being “very clean” may be the most memorable.
Lester has said his least favorite thing about the movie is the grandfather. This is like Orson Welles dismissing Rosebud, in (the non-jukebox) “Citizen Kane.” Both criticisms are understandable — and disingenuous. The grandfather, like Rosebud, is an obvious contrivance, but audiences respond to it. A good contrivance is, by definition, effective. What makes the grandfather work so well is Wilfrid Brambell. He has the face of a freeze-dried french fry – or defrocked monsignor. The famously contrary rock critic Lester Bangs declared that “the most rock-and-roll human being in the whole movie is the . . . grandfather!” It’s true that Brambell’s voice could double as a wah-wah pedal, but that does seem to be taking contrarianism too far.
Brambell isn’t alone in giving the Beatles outstanding support. Norman Rossington does a winningly sour version of Beatles manager Brian Epstein. John Junkin, with the beanpole look of a Shakespearean clown, plays the band’s dim-bulb general factotum. As for the sublimely prissy Victor Spinetti, his great moment will come in the Beatle’s next movie, “Help!,” as an ever-madder scientist. But his highly consternated TV director — wearing the world’s ghastliest sweater — is right up there.
So this really is a fictional feature, not a documentary. Wilfrid Brambell isn’t Paul McCartney’s grandfather — how could he be, he was only 52 — and the closing credits list “John; John Lennon,” “Paul: Paul McCartney,” “George: George Harrison,” “Ringo: Ringo Starr.” It’s a reminder that they are playing characters, after all. These individuals onscreen are and are not themselves. They exist in a place where person and persona merge and take a merry stroll – or, in the case of “A Hard Day’s Night,” sprint. Horizontal gives way to vertical as the movie progresses, as ’50s do to ’60s. But always, always, the movie’s at an angle.
“How did you find America?” John’s asked at the press conference. His answer: “Turn left at Greenland.”
Exactly right. Or left, as the case might be.
“A Hard Day’s Night” trailer:
Mark Feeney can be reached at email@example.com.