A Hard Day’s Night

Here’s a piece written for a 2000 DVD release of A Hard Day’s Night, for Film.com — thus the topical references in the first paragraph. AHDN is my #1 movie of 1964; for full list, click here.

A Happy Masterpiece, by Robert Horton

It should be noted for the record that A Hard Day’s Night is being re-released in 2000 to showcase a minty-fresh print and a digitally restored soundtrack — and, presumably, to garner publicity for DVD sales. It looks and sounds just fine, thank you. Now that that’s out of the way, we can get to the business of extolling A Hard Day’s Night as the happy masterpiece it is.

harddays5And always has been. Unlike its splendid but critically under-appreciated successor, Help! (a brilliant and wonderful movie with a reputation in need of rehab), A Hard Day’s Night has been acclaimed from the moment it hit movie screens in the summer of 1964. Not only did audiences adore it, but serious critics paused in their decoding of the latest Alain Resnais or Ingmar Bergman conundrum to perform handstands, even if they couldn’t tell the mop tops apart. Alun Owen’s inspired screenplay follows the Fab Four through a typical crazed day at the height of Beatlemania, keying on the Liverpudlian rhythms of the lads’ own speech patterns.

It’s arranged like a record album, with different “tracks.” The magnificent songs are part of this, of course, but the comedy scenes go by in their own rhythm, too: a frenzied mob rush, Ringo’s melancholy ramble snapping pictures, George bemused by fashion designers, and John’s mysterious, Samuel Beckett-like encounter in a hallway with a woman who is certain she recognizes him but then decides he looks nothing like what she thought. The giddiness of tone is sustained throughout, including the way the Beatles occasionally send up their own dialogue – Lennon: “Hey, he’s readin’ The Queen. That’s an in-joke, you know.”

Speaking as someone who has made a pilgrimage to the train station from the beginning of the film and spent a couple of nights in Liverpool at a tender age, I pretend no impartiality on the subject. Still, The Beatles are glorious in A Hard Day’s Night, with all the exuberance of their early fame and a little of the residual hunger of Liverpool, too. It must be said that, seen from a distance, A Hard Day’s Night looks even more like Richard Lester’s movie. Lester, the Philadelphia-born “British” director, is in every frame, from the herky-jerky momentum to the documentary-style lighting to the drop-dead surrealism. Working on the fly with cinematographer Gilbert Taylor, Lester gives his camera a life of its own. Sometimes it expresses the energy of The Beatles (soaring above them in the “Can’t Buy Me Love” sequence), sometimes it finds a new angle just for the sheer reason that, by God, nobody’s ever shot a band like this before.

In other words, A Hard Day’s Night conveys not just a joy in music and The Beatles, but a joy in cinema. This movie declares the arrival of Something New, in music and in movies, and Lester was one of the messengers. (Lester, who now appears to be definitively retired, created some marvelous films in the aftermath of A Hard Day’s Night, and is sorely deserving of re-discovery.) One scene in A Hard Day’s Night ends with the camera turning away from the action to watch a pair of dancers walk down a hallway, their ridiculously tall headdresses brushing a hanging light fixture as they walk beneath it. There is no reason for this moment to be in the movie, except that somehow Lester noticed it happening, and it was absurd, funny, vaguely haunting. Suddenly, at this moment in film history, you could stick this kind of thing into a movie just for its own sake. It still feels liberating.

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