I recently bought A Hard Day's Night on DVD and last night I watched it for the first time in years. The movie holds up quite well, despite the fact that it has been 40 years since its first release. Indeed, it is even better than I had remembered.
Of course, A Hard Day's Night is best remembered as The Beatles' first film. As hard as it is to believe, it was conceived even before The Beatles had arrived in America. What is harder to believe is that it was shot in only six weeks for a cost of only £200,000. In part, the tight shooting schedule was due to The Beatles' own hectic schedule. Prior to shooting they made their historic first trip to America, appearing on The Ed Sullivan Show and performing at Carnegie Hall. Following shooting they left for a tour of Europe. Both the tight shooting schedule and the low budget were also largely due to the thought of financiers and others in power that The Beatles were a passing fad. It was then thought that they had to get the movie into theatres as soon as possible. Never mind that many at the time thought The Beatles were here to stay. At any rate, A Hard Day's Night began shooting in March 1964 and was in theatres by July 1964.
From the beginning it was decided that A Hard Day's Night would be different from previous movies featuring pop acts. Prior to A Hard Day's Night, cinematic vehicles for pop singers differed little from standard musicals, in which the protagonist sings a few songs and gets the girl. Often there would only be a few good songs, with the rest of the soundtrack being made up of "throw away" songs. From the outset it was determined that A Hard Day's Night would not resemble previous movies featuring pop singers, that there would be no "throw away" songs (there would be no "Do the Clam"), and that comedy would be at its forefront.
The director on what was then known as The Beatles One was Richard Lester. Lester was a veteran of both American and British television. In 1964 he may have been bets known for his work on The Goon Show, featuring both Spike Milligan and Peter Sellers. In fact, it was with the Goons that he made his first short film, The Running, Jumping, and Standing Still Film, which was nominated for an Academy Award. Lester would then direct two comedies, It's Trad, Dad! (which capitalised on a short lived resurgence in jazz in Britain)and The Mouse on the Moon (the sequel to The Mouse That Roared, featuring the Duchy of Grand Fenwick.) It was through The Mouse That on the Moon that Lester met A Hard Day's Night producer Walter Shenson. As fans of The Goon Show, The Beatles were quite happy that Lester would direct. Indeed, given his experience in television (which had smaller budgets than major motion pictures, then as now) and his experience in comedy, he was perhaps ideal to direct A Hard Day's Night. Lester was able to bring something entirely different to the project that other, more experienced movie directors might not have been able to.
Indeed, A Hard Day's Night is a very different sort of film. Screenwriter Alun Owen proposed that the film depict a typical day in the life of The Beatles in exaggerated fashion. While very little survived from Owen's original screenplay, the basic premise survived intact. A Hard Day's Night has almost no narrative, showing The Beatles approximately 48 hours before they are to make a TV appearance, goofing around and trying to keep Paul's very clean grandfather (the brilliant Wilfrid Brambell) out of trouble. The movie is shot in like cinema verité, and yet there is a surreality about the film. One moment The Beatles are on a train, the next moment they are running beside it. John sinks into a bath full of bubbles, only to apparently disappear. While A Hard Day's Night looks like a documentary, it has the off centre sensibilities of The Goon Show.
Of course, with A Hard Day's Night Lester has been credited with inventing rock video. It is hard to argue against this. In particular, both the opening sequence played out to the title song and the sequence on the train's baggage car featuring "I Should Have Known Better" resemble rock videos from latter eras.
I cannot deny that I love A Hard Day's Night. The movie is filled with Liverpuddlian humour, bizarre bits of comedy of the sort for which the Goons were known, unstoppable energy, and great music. With A Hard Day's Night, Richard Lester and The Beatles changed rock movies forever. No longer would rock movies be the standard Elvis Presley vehicle or a DJ with a stream of rock acts. Richard Lester and The Beatles proved that rock movies could be funny and artistic.