23 March 2006
100 films: A Hard Day's Night
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starring: John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison, and Ringo Starr
written by: Alun Owen
directed by: Richard Lester
NR, 87 min, 1964, UK
A faux documentary of a typical day in the life of one of Britain's biggest bands, Richard Lester's A Hard Day's Night captures Beetle-Mania in full force as our heroes prepare for a television appearance. With Paul's grandfather (Wilfrid Brambell), a "very clean" old mixer, causing trouble along the way, they escape hordes of screaming girls, visit a nightclub, and bust Ringo out of jail, while occasionally taking time to perform one of their new songs, of course. It is, from beginning to end, a delightful lark.
Our intrepid heroes play themselves (or at very least versions of themselves as presented by screenwriter Alun Owen) as four boys who want nothing more than to enjoy life. While everyone else around them is focused on the task at hand, the Fab Four are more interested in hitting on girls, playing cards on a train, and goofing off in a field when they're supposed to be preparing for the show. They seem unconcerned with mundane tasks like answering fan mail or rehearsing and show little regard for how they're perceived by the world at large. There's a memorable scene where George Harrison, having been mistaken for a member of a focus group, willingly sits down and gives his opinion on some shirts and the model for some fashion line. He doesn't bother to tell them who he is and they fail to notice. It's one of the film's delightful quirks that they are either mobbed by screaming fans or go completely unnoticed. But these people in the fashion industry never realize they are talking to one of the most famous people in the entire country, and since his opinion doesn't mesh with their market research, they dismiss it out of hand as the work of a troublemaker.
What's perhaps most remarkable about A Hard Day's Night is just how comfortable the Beatles are in front of a camera. With the influx of MTV and VH1 and the like, we tend to forget that in 1964, it was a rare thing for a musician to be on TV and rarer still for them to appear in any capacity other than a performance. So for all four of them to come off so well in an actual film where they are required to act is no small feat. But even beyond that, they are not just passable, they're actually good. Better, in fact, than some real actors. The film takes time to give each of them a storyline with which to work, from Paul's interactions with his grandfather to George's focus group to Ringo's diversion to live life and subsequent arrest, but the best of the lot is John Lennon, who has an ongoing feud with the band's manager, Norm (Norman Rossington). It is a simple feud. Norm wants the band to stay put, be well-behaved, and generally act as mature model citizens. John, being a born troublemaker, attempts to make this as difficult as possible. He misbehaves at every opportunity, and while it certainly is a childish way to be, it has the dual effect of humanizing him. As the band's de facto leader (and eventual martyr), there was always a mystique around Lennon, but the film contrasts that by showing him as nothing more than a big kid. Particularly in a scene where he's taking a bath and, as little kids are prone to do, is focused more on playing with his toy ship than anything else. It's easy to see why half the world was in love with him.
It would have been simple for director Richard Lester to just follow the Beatles around with a camera, and with the state of Beatle-Mania in full effect, he probably would have been guaranteed a hit. But it's obvious from the beginning that Lester put a lot of care into making the best film he possibly could. Lester strives to not only capture the essence (such as it is) of the Fab Four and Beatle-Mania, but also of the culture as a whole. He constantly creates scenarios where his protagonists are cast opposite the straight members of society, and at every instance they find some way belittle it, or at very least have a good time. They are unwilling to conform, and as an audience we love all the more for it. Also worth noting is that in a film like this, done largely as a documentary, you'd expect it to be noticeably flawed, for there to be stretches where the film lags and generally starts to lose momentum. It's a problem so inherent in this type of film, but somehow A Hard Day's Night avoids that pitfall. Partly because of the raw charisma of John, Paul, George, and Ringo, but mostly because from top to bottom this is an expertly-made film. Without question it is the standard-bearer of the genre. But beyond that, I cannot imagine someone with any amount of appreciation for the Beatles or their music who would not thoroughly enjoy this film.
 Brambell is not, as you might have guessed, Paul McCartney's real grandfather. He is an actor famous in the UK for playing a "dirty old man" in the TV series Steptoe and Son (1962), which was later turned into Sanford and Son (1972) when it journeyed across the pond to the colonies.
 The British Academy seemed to think so too, nominated them for a BAFTA as Most Promising Newcomer to Leading Film Roles. They lost to Julie Andrews for Mary Poppins (1964), but there's no shame in that. The film was also nominated for two Oscars in Best Original Screenplay and Best Music Adaptation or Treatment. They didn't win those either.