And On the Eighth Day...
Much of today’s understanding of popular culture owes itself to rock and roll. An electrified blues born of black oppression, it darted like a bolt of lightning through Elvis’s hips, articulating as well the growing incertitude of the white, middle-class Baby Boomers. The pent-up tensions of the Cold War ‘50s found expression in the rhythmic backbeat of artists from Chuck Berry to Rick Nelson. Rock raised social and political questions in its very inception whites adopted African American blues as commercial music, and teens idolized rock artists as rebels and models for behavior. After Kennedy’s assassination, the tensions only increased, and many Baby Boomers sought solace in one, earth-shaking phenomenon: four musicians from Liverpool known as The Beatles.
This might sound like an elaborate introduction for a band that needs no introduction, but the point is that Beatlemania had a historical and political context. In a day and age when it seems near impossible to find something nearly everyone likes, the idea that a single performer or band can not only attain the pinnacle of success and popularity, but also remain there for the entirety of its existence seems almost absurd. While speaking to and for millions of mostly white, middle-class young people, the Beatles offered a rarely heard unifying voice.
A Hard Day’s Night catches the first flaring of Beatlemania in a manner at once subtle and intelligent. A smooth amalgamation of Richard Lester’s intricate direction, Alun Owen’s hysterical screenplay, and the natural charms of John, Paul, George, and Ringo, A Hard Day’s Night is a film perfectly of its time and perfectly timeless. The plot is simple: a day in the life of the Beatles as they try to make it to a performance, burdened by Paul’s trouble-making grandfather (Wilfred Brambell); inept reporters, police, and studio moguls; and, of course, hordes of screaming teenage girls. All the while, the Beatles remain as laid back as can be, responding with dry, very British one-liners and shifting easily into melodic musical interludes, such as “Can’t Buy Me Love,” “All My Lovin’,” and “I Wanna Be Your Man.” This is the pre-Sergeant Pepper Beatles, and their pleasant, playful enthusiasm mirrors the general innocence of the early sixties, before Vietnam and LSD opened the eyes of millions to political injustices and self-explorations. But A Hard Day’s Night is more than a wonderful reflective surface. Lester also makes it into a commentary on the interactions of spectacle and perspective in an age when television and movie cameras were becoming the primary windows to the world.
Richard Lester had achieved previous critical success in 1959 with The Running, Jumping and Standing Still Film, a grainy, experimental, 11-minute film starring Peter Sellers. As much as he wanted A Hard Day’s Night to be a fun musical comedy, he also hoped to make a serious chronicle of a serious social and political movement the emerging power of youth in England and America. The Beatles and their fans represented a generational rebellion which grew throughout the ‘60s, a segment of dissatisfied, middle-class young people who outnumbered those adults maintaining the status quo of political and psychological oppressions. Using abrupt changes in camera angles, shots of the Beatles on television monitors and in mirrors, and as much footage of the fans screaming as of the band performing, Lester not only captures the early Beatles in a profoundly pleasurable way, but also turns the very process of viewing around on itself. The girls appear repeatedly with tears streaming and vocal chords straining it’s hard to determine whether they’re in ecstasy or torment. One might write tome after tome after tome on the sexual dynamics of Beatlemania, but the group’s longevity is based on much more than their seductive good looks. They were also creative musicians, songwriters, and performers. Unfortunately, after only a very short time in the limelight, the band decided in 1966 to never again play a live performance. So, aside from being an innovative and funny film, A Hard Day’s Night contains some of the best concert footage of the young Beatles in action, a rare treat. Nearly every modern music video perhaps the entire concept of the music video owes some credit to Lester’s foray into musical filmmaking.
The comedy is equally cutting edge, with Owen’s magnificently droll and cunning script, somewhere between Shakespeare and Monty Python. Paul’s grandfather, whom the boys always leave behind because he’s “too old,” is the catalyst for many jokes. Absurd and erratic, he simultaneously lives vicariously through his younger relatives and embodies the possibility of rebelliousness at any age. His presence reminds us that the script was designed as a safety net, in case the Fab Four couldn’t act, but once they showed themselves as natural comedic actors, modifications were made to put their sharp wit on display. The Beatles’ sense of humor is certainly well known (is Paul still dead?), and they unleash it during a scene in which they have to endure a series of reporters’ inquiries. “Are you a mod or a rocker?” one asks Ringo. “I’m a mocker,” he replies. “Has success changed your life?” another asks George. “Yes,” he answers truthfully, with nothing more to add. This is not a far cry from some of the actual interviews the Beatles gave on first entering stardom, as they won over the press and the public, showing they weren’t just four pretty faces in matching suits. In perhaps the funniest scene of the film, a woman runs into John backstage. “I know who you are!” she proclaims excitedly. “I’m not. No,” he answers. The conversation continues in such a fashion, John evasively and comically insisting he is not who she thinks he is, although it’s never said who that would be, before she admits, “You look nothing like him.” The scene points out the discrepency between public perception of the Beatles and the down-to-earth sensibilities of the lads who were only trying to make a living before they became megastars.
A Hard Day’s Night is a comedy, not a documentary, but the characters the Beatles play are themselves, and the success that they both enjoy and flee from is quite real. Their cheeky, clever personalities shine through the stage lighting and camera flashes. They rise above the trappings of stardom as much as they rose above the streets of London to give their final impromptu performance in the winter of 1969 on the rooftop of Apple Records. There may never be a time when someone won’t find an excuse to make yet another film or write another book about the Beatles The Beatles Anthology multimedia onslaught (television documentary, eight-piece video collection, three-volume CD, and a giant photo-filled book), and last week’s TV movie on Lennon’s early life are only the most recent evidence of their ongoing popularity. Although it’s doubtful there’ll be droves of screaming fans at the theatrical re-release of A Hard Day’s Night as were when the film premiered in London on July 6, 1964 it remains a must-see for any Beatles fan, anyone who enjoys intelligent comedy, or anyone interested in seeing a moment of history caught poignantly on celluloid. No matter what your opinion of the Beatles may be, you cannot doubt that they passed the audition.