A quasi-verité document of The Beatles at the height of Beatlemania, A Hard Day’s Night (1964) is the unlikeliest of triumphs. The fact that Richard Lester makes the disparate elements work is tantamount to a cinematic miracle. The odds were aligned against him; a pop group who hadn’t acted, an overbearing manager and an almost entirely plotless narrative. Indeed, the film is a rare instance of the stars perfectly aligning; a form of artistic alchemy predicated on the director’s broad still set and his mainline into the zeitgeist of the Swinging Sixties. It’s a film that succeeds thanks to the unique tension created by its competing elements. Crucially, writer Alun Jones’ humorous script is a key foundation.
A Welsh-born, Liverpool-raised TV writer, Lester had a deft grasp of the group’s Goon Squad- inspired humour and dry northern wit. The tone of the dialogue veers between the spontaneous and the constructed, but Jones’ brilliance is in making the latter so archly contrived that it becomes a joke within itself. A fantastic moment in which Ringo reprimands a meddling drum technician is a hilarious example; “There you go, hiding behind a smoke screen of bourgeois clichés.” This is not a great rock ‘n’ roll rebellion; it’s a very northern form of defence-by-deflection. Indeed, The Beatles’ constant ribbing not only exposes a cultural gap in the Britain of the sixties, it taps into a gulf in sensibilities between the North and South. In this sense, the apparently mild-mannered rebellion takes on increased resonance.
The tomfoolery isn’t a juvenile version of rock ‘n’ roll raging; it’s a British form of antagonism that is pervasive throughout the county’s rich cultural history; it’s the plot against Malvolio in Twelfth Night, or the Pythons against the Church of England. Lester Bangs – the American high priest of rock criticism – overlooked this subtlety: “Fuck the Beatles…the most rock-and-roll human being in the whole movie is the fucking grandfather!” Paul’s grandfather – one of the film’s more outlandish contrivances – is a Monsieur Hulot-like figure, constantly finding himself in hot water; he’s a terrific addition to the foursome with his wily schemes and Carry On impulses. The question remains – what is A Hard Day’s Night? It’s not a jukebox musical in the traditional sense, nor is it a knockabout comedy or documentary.
What Lester’s film was, in fact, was pure lightening in a bottle; a fortuitous combustion of English attitudes and American vision. Lester, with his background in advertising, crafted a living pop art instillation; a commercial work full of subversive undercurrents. It scoffs at the notion of image construction while simultaneously marketing the band. In that sense, A Hard Day’s Night is a Warholian construct that feeds off the contradiction of the times. Lester would go on to make one of the defining films of the sixties with Petulia (1968); it’s almost as if he had a sixth sense of the direction the counterculture would take. It all started with A Hard Day’s Night.
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