A Hard Day’s Night, the first Beatles movie, is the defining movie of the 60s, and launched the decade. It was an innovative film, paving the way for This is Spinal Tap and rock mockumentaries, but such technicalities are eclipsed by the sheer breezy joy that is the film. From its very beginning, with the iconic image of the Beatles running away from a crowd of fans, A Hard Day’s Night remains everything a music film should be. This is truly an essential film to understanding a decade.
It has the attitude, the style, and, of course, the music that characterized the young Baby Boomers, but the Beatles never took themselves too seriously, at least not until they met Bob Dylan. Watching A Hard Day’s Night is to see the Fab Four in their early innocence and happiness. Hindsight makes the film bittersweet, as we know now that the Beatles would break-up (mostly amicably, but Lennon and McCartney, who were the songwriters, probably did have a few riffs triggered by creative differences) and in less than twenty years John Lennon would be murdered.
A Hard Day’s Night is proof of how close the Beatles were on the outset and why so many people believed early news of their split to be a hoax. To many, they couldn’t function apart and maybe they were right. Their best, most beautiful music was made as a band.
But the real reason that A Hard Day’s Night carries an emotional tug now is because it is becoming obvious with each passing year that there will never again be a band like the Beatles, uniting so many people and changing the world. The only band that came close was Nirvana, but pop-culture has become increasingly fragmented. If the Beatles had crossed the Atlantic today, they probably would not have ventured far beyond the indie alternative scene. But in the 60s, they not only crossed cultural, but also gender and demographical lines. It’s no exaggeration to say that they united the world in a way that no other band has ever done.
But A Hard Day’s Night also shows a generational shift with cheeky British humor. There is a funny scene aboard a train with an older passenger, obviously disgusted by their long-hair and free-spirit.
“I fought the war for your sorts,” he chides.
“I bet you’re sorry you won,” taunts Ringo.
Of course their next encounter is more favorable. In the next cart they catch up to Paul’s grandfather (Wilfrid Brambell from Steptoe and Son). Here he joins the boys on a cavalcade of British comedy tropes including zany chases, encounters with lecherous old people, and classist clashes. There are other comic stereotypes along the way, like their exhausted manager and the television director whose voice of reason can’t restrain the bouncy four. Together they share a great comic scene in an opera, which is classic silliness. Even the publicist falls under their cheery influence.
A Hard Day’s Night shouldn’t be watched for plot. Ostensibly, it’s about the Beatles getting to a show at a given time. What matters are the hilarious mishaps and misadventures along the way. It is about a day in the life for the band.
The most infectious thing about the movie is watching the Beatles parody themselves and the concept of being rock stars in the 60s. The classic punchline about a haircut named Arthur is all the more amusing as it plays on the industry that capitalized on their appearance.
Ringo was the butt of his band mates’ jokes but he gets his moment of glory when he wanders off into a long walk spoofing serious-minded spiritual journeys before they went in vogue. It is a delightful scene, full of charm and youthful innocence. Of the four, Ringo was the Beatle who maintained his innocence the longest.
Of course, the real gems here are the songs, which rank among the very best of the 20th century. There’s the titular number as well as other classics including “And I Love Her”, “All My Loving”, and “I Should Have Known Better”. Also here is their often overlooked masterpiece “Tell Me Why”. Not surprisingly, the soundtrack to A Hard Day’s Night is among their best albums.
The pillars of the British Invasion (the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, and the Who), became legends precisely because they were so distinct from each other. Lesser bands crawled under their umbrella and emulated their style. But originality and liberation from convention is what immortalized the Beatles and the influence they continue to carry cannot be overstated. The significance of A Hard Day’s Night as a tribute to the band that started a musical revolution continues to increase with each passing band (Oasis is a clear example) that owes more than a nod to the four that invented modern music.