A Hard Day’s Night (1964) is a movie of infinite charms. It has an excellent script, is directed and edited brilliantly and has a spectacular soundtrack, but what pushes it into the realm of one of the greatest movies ever made is something it couldn’t control, something that couldn’t be reproduced, and something that it simply had the good fortune to capture: The Beatles, as they were, when they were their most themselves. Almost as much as their music, this movie defines what it is about them that was so elemental, what made them so appealing to virtually everyone, especially in their early stage: the unbridled sense of fun and freedom. “At best, it is fun,”Variety said when the movie was released. “But ‘fun’ is not an aesthetic experience … .” I disagree. Yeah, yeah, yeah, I disagree.
This may be the most energetic movie every made, the most crackling with life. I can think of only one other movie that has a similar percentage of exhilaration and that is Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981), which was able to exploit the naturally exciting occurrence of a giant boulder rolling after a man. A Hard Day’s Night has only infectious joy, spread over a brief 90 minutes in sumptuous black and white and some of the greatest pop songs ever written by the greatest group ever to perform them. It grabs you immediately, not in a shallow way, but in a deep and powerful way, until you are wrapped up and absorbed in some kind of, and this is the only word for it, mania. In the final performance scene when the boys, all grins and haircuts, play “She Loves You,” you can only empathize with the screaming girls in the audience, unable to do much else than scream, hold their heads and sometimes mouth the word “Ringo.” They are exhilarated by their proximity to a phenomenon and so are we.
The irony of the Beatles is that they were four young men who dressed all the same but represented a stringent independence and insistence on their own personalities. Elvis movies can have their own charms, but that charm is born out of watching the great man perform; when he’s not, they become cynical commercials, scrubbed clean of human spontaneity. All of A Hard Day’s Night feels spontaneous, as if we’ve suddenly fallen from the precipice onto the roller coaster that is the Beatles’ lives and when it comes to a close, we are wrung out and exhausted and a little thankful that we don’t have to live every day that way (this is another reason for A Hard Day’s Night’s fortuitous success; here are the Beatles when their mega-fame was still a source of toothy alleviation and not the source of pressure and burdensome difficulty that was already showing by the time Help! , made by the same team, was released and would be the defining characteristic of Let It Be ). Truffaut said aboutRules of the Game (1939) that no matter how many times he’d seen it, he felt as if it were possible for it to be different the next time he watched it. I have a similar reaction to A Hard Day’s Night, which never fails to surprise or feel as if it’s happening, for the first time, right in front of me.
A lot of that comes from director Richard Lester’s documentary style, which breathlessly chronicles the boys as they travel to a television studio to put on a show, looking at them from behind glass or through fences, always moving. Most of these feelings must be attributed to the Beatles themselves, whose genius has always felt disarming and off-the-cuff. When they say you can’t buy them love, it’s because they have to; it’s in them and it needs to get out. In many musicals, the transition into a song can feel forced or corn; here it seems completely natural. You hear stories about how Lennon and McCartney wrote the title song in an evening, and it makes you think that this brilliance is simply a part of them. That may be reductive but it’s also extremely alluring—you want to be close to that kind of talent. Of course, in 1964 we didn’t know we were looking at the greatest rock group of all time, but now that we do, the movie takes on another level (another difference between the Beatles’ cinematic output and Elvis’ is the boys were always playing themselves; their public image was always about being true to that. Can you imagine John Lennon playing a character named “Clint Reno”?). We know what is to come for the four, but we also get to enjoy it right now, the moment when a pure love of being the biggest group in the world was enough to fill a theater with electricity.
Alun Owen’s brilliant, goofy script captures this perfectly; it doesn’t make characters out of the lads but fits naturally with their personas so they don’t have to recite lines as much as they get to be themselves. There’s cultivated, slightly stiff Paul, John the impish cart-upsetter, laid-back sardonic George, and baleful, put-upon Ringo. When they are given quick one-liners they’re great (Reporter: “How did you find America?” John: “Turn left at Greenland.”), but they have the chops to hold their own in sequences such as when George bursts an ad executive’s bubble or when Ringo forlornly wanders the streets of London or in an odd but captivating moment between John and a woman (Anna Quayle) who thinks he’s someone else or maybe she doesn’t. However, they are at their best when it’s the four of them, perfect tuning forks for each other. Whether they are ganging up on each other or their gaggle of handlers, they give the impression that together they can do whatever they want; it’s a heedless confidence that is sweeping.
All this may be as artificial and strategic as the Elvis pictures but it doesn’t feel that way, and the genuine euphoria it provides is real enough. What keeps the movie fresh is not just how it’s photographed and assembled, all done rapturously, but what it gets on screen. Of course, the music has proved to be buoyant, but it’s the simple joy that’s expressed here, the gleeful feeling of being extraordinarily lucky but also that you deserve it, that transcends all musical taste and cinematic preference. It’s a document of its time that can stand for all time because this kind of joy is universal. And if it’s this fun just watching it, imagine what it would have been like to live it. It’s that sense of fun that makes it beautiful, and what’s more aesthetic than that?