As a lifelong Beatles fan I’m well aware that the 1964 movie A Hard Day’s Night has an esteemed place in the band’s legacy: a filmed document of Beatlemania at its glorious height, and a surprise artistic triumph that demonstrated the Beatles’ unstoppable conquest of all media. It’s routinely cited as a cinema classic, and further proof of John, Paul, George and Ringo’s effortless charm, as appealing on screen as they were on the stage or on record.
I’ve watched A Hard Day’s Night several times over the years, though, and I don’t really get it. Director Richard Lester’s allegedly zany set pieces and editing have not aged well, nor have screenwriter Alun Owen’s heavily contrived plot and dialogue. The Beatles’ music – including the lustrous “If I Fell,” “And I Love Her,” the jangly “I’m Happy Just to Dance With You” and “Can’t Buy Me Love,” and the title song – still holds up, but the story built around it, and them, is often embarrassing. The supporting characters, like Norman Rossington and John Junkin as road mangers Norm and Shake, Victor Spinetti as an anxious television director, and especially the supposed-to-be-funny-but-actually-creepy Wilfrid Brambell as Paul’s grandfather, distract from the Beatles’ naturalness, and the exchanges between the Fabs and these secondary figures only emphasize the falsity of the whole enterprise. Lester and Owen often seem to be satirizing show business conventions (backstage antics, uptight outsiders, the fourth wall) which the Beatles’ enormous success was already rendering beneath satire. A Hard Day’s Night is frequently referenced as a big influence on the TV and musical contrivance of the Monkees; that’s not a compliment.
“[Owen] stayed with us two days and wrote the whole thing based on our characters then: me witty, Ringo dumb and cute, George this, Paul that,” appraised John Lennon in his 1970 Rolling Stone interview. “We were a bit infuriated by the glibness of it and the shittiness of the dialogue.” Indeed, the best parts of A Hard Day’s Night, aside from the musical performances, are the moments when it’s obvious that the Beatles were barely keeping their faces straight while reading lines and hitting marks; no matter what anyone says, Lennon, McCartney, Harrison and Starr were not actors, and it’s easy to imagine them sneaking off between takes for a quick one with their female fans (George’s first wife Pattie Boyd has a small role in the movie) or otherwise living the R- or X-rated version of Beatlemania which Lester and Owen never dared to represent. What looked wacky and irreverent in 1964 looks pretty sanitized today.
A Hard Day’s Night is really two films: an authentic portrait of young pop sensations in the eye of a cultural hurricane, and an opportunistic collection of briefly fashionable comedic and cinematic devices whose time was soon to pass. It’s a tribute to the Beatles’ true greatness that their talent still comes across here, but it’s too bad that greatness is not enhanced by proximity to Norm, Shake, and Paul’s grandfather.