HOW WOULD YOU REACT if there appeared in front of you a flesh-and-blood vision of everything you ever dreamed life could be? What if you could, at the same time, be your distinctive self and an irreplaceable part of a greater whole? What if that greater whole showed you how work could be inseparable from pleasure? What if camaraderie and romantic love could sustain you while you were working like a dog? What if there was so much happiness available to us that we needed eight days a week to take it in? What if something as simple as walking down the street or riding a train were a gateway to the sort of exhilaration that lifted you off the ground?
By the time the Beatles lift off the ground in the final shot of Richard Lester’s A Hard Day’s Night (1964), the helicopter that allows them to do so seems superfluous. Especially since, in the preceding ninety minutes, they’ve made us feel, time and time again, as if we were levitating from sheer joy.
Whether it’s called hysteria, as news anchors and old-duffer commentators referred to it — insultingly — in 1964, or Beatlemania, the reaction of the teenagers who screamed and wept for the Beatles has long been treated as a laughable bit of adolescent melodrama.
But watching A Hard Day’s Night on the newly restored Criterion Collection DVD and Blu-Ray, whether for the first time or (like me) the 30th, anyone with eyes and ears should be able to grasp that what we’re seeing is anything but hysteria. The blur of screaming fans at the beginning of the movie, chasing the Beatles as they attempt to board a train in Liverpool to take them south to London, and the screaming fans we come face-to-face with in the concert sequence that ends the film, are the movie’s visible, beating heart — the literal manifestation of the awe and adoration that Richard Lester and his cinematographer Gilbert Taylor lavish on the Beatles. What makes A Hard Day’s Night more than an exhilarating, cinematically alive comedy, what makes it a profound statement of belief in the transcendent possibility of art, is looking at those screaming girls and thinking, “That’s me.”
By now, the story of how the film came to be made is a familiar one. An independent producer named Walter Shenson decided to make a picture to cash in on the Beatles’ sudden transatlantic popularity. United Artists, convinced they could make a quick buck, agreed to distribute. Shenson hired Richard Lester, an American living in the United Kingdom whose previous work included “The Running, Jumping, and Standing Still Film,” a short made with Goon Show members Peter Sellers and Spike Milligan. Lester tapped the Liverpool playwright Alun Owen to produce a screenplay that captured the dry, punning vernacular of the group’s byplay. The picture was shot in six-and-a-half weeks from March to mid-April following the group’s first frenzied American tour, edited, and in the theaters by early July. Instead of being the throwaway tripe everyone expected, it garnered exceptionally good reviews. Andrew Sarris called it “the Citizen Kane of jukebox musicals,” and Dwight MacDonald who, in what remains the most perceptive comment made at the time, said it was one of the only truly beautiful film comedies since the silent masterpieces — a judgment which no doubt meant the world to Richard Lester, whose cinematic idol has always been Buster Keaton. It also won praise from The New York Times’ Bosley Crowther, who, true to a career spent always getting it wrong, called the movie a spoof of Beatlemania and ended his review by claiming, “It is good to know there are people in this world, up to and including the major parties, who don’t take the Beatles seriously.”
It’s not like there were a lot of people taking the Beatles seriously other than their fans. And the fans, according to Crowther, had succumbed, to Beatlemania, “the current spreading craze of otherwise healthy young people for the four British lads with the shaggy hair.” On his nightly newscast, NBC’s Chet Huntley reported the arrival of the Beatles in the United States by noting, “Like a good little news organization, we sent three cameramen out to Kennedy this afternoon to cover the arrival of a group from England, known as the Beatles. However, after surveying the film our men returned with, and the subject of that film, I feel there is absolutely no need to show any of that film.”
What Crowther and his fellow guardians of culture got so wrong was this: that far from being a spoof of Beatlemania, A Hard Day’s Night was Beatlemania. The targets of the film’s satire were the Bosley Crowthers of the world: those who regarded the group and its fans as something to be ignored or condescended to when they were acknowledged at all. These figures appear over and over again in A Hard Day’s Night: the teen-clothing marketing exec who can’t tell George Harrison from any other kid on the street and doesn’t believe it matters since something new will come along in a few weeks anyway; the TV director (the wonderful Victor Spinetti) who regards the band as nothing more than a nuisance to be controlled, filmed, and dismissed; the newspaper flacks cadging free drinks and food who don’t even notice when the Beatles ditch their own press conference.
A few months before the movie was released, the British papers were all atwitter over John Lennon’s scandalous cheek during the Royal Command Performance when he instructed the people in the cheap seats to clap and everyone upstairs to rattle their jewelry. What must the Queen have thought during the Royal Premiere of A Hard Day’s Night when Lennon spots a lonely terrier in the baggage car of a train and says, “They usually reckon dogs more than people in England, don’t they? You’d expect something a little more palatial.”
Right alongside the ebullient physicality and wit of A Hard Day’s Night are the images of a country that, almost 20 years after the end of World War II, still had the scrounge and grime of austerity on its buildings and its people. You see it in the patched clothes and dirty faces of street kids playing hooky, in the seedy thrift stores and pubs Ringo trawls in the lyrical sequence of his solo escapade, in the general look of the buildings themselves; they are the architectural equivalents of impoverished aristocracy, regality trying to overcome weariness and encrusted smoke and soot. It was an atmosphere you could already have seen in stage productions of the era’s Angry Young Men plays: John Osborne’s Look Back in Anger and The Entertainer, and Shelagh Delaney’s A Taste of Honey.
But like all protest art, there was a way in which Osborne and Delaney and their peers acceded to the very conditions they identified. By allowing those conditions to define their lives, they didn’t just acknowledge the dispiriting state of life in postwar Britain, they affirmed the power of the ruling class over them. The Beatles refused that power. The joy of their music negated anything that wasn’t fun or exhilarating, just as the negations of the punks 10 years later disguised an affirmation. Just as the punks, rudely and snottily, would turn on the remnants of the counterculture, the physical exuberance of the Beatles and their fans stood for a generation who were tired of hearing about the Suez and Anthony Eden, Profumo and Keeler, the whole British establishment.
The makers of A Hard Day’s Night seem tired of all that, too. They gave Paul McCartney an Irish grandfather (Wilfred Brambell), one who called himself a “soldier of the Republic” and spewed contempt for British authority. Scarecrow-thin Brambell would inspire Lester Bangs to later write, “It’s BLATANTLY OBVIOUS that the most rock-and-roll human being in the whole movie is the fucking grandfather!” Richard Lester’s filmmaking and Gilbert Taylor’s photography were the perfect expression of the Beatles’ spirit. They too wanted to explode the kitchen-sink realism of British cinema. Looking to the French nouvelle vague filmmakers who wanted to escape the strictures of the well-made French studio films of the ’50s, Taylor and Lester took to the streets, using handheld cameras, shooting fast and sometimes on the fly.
In an essay accompanying the Criterion release, the indispensible Howard Hampton identifies the film’s aesthetic comrades as Godard’s Breathless and Band of Outsiders and Truffaut’s Shoot the Piano Player. None of this is to repeat the myth that the movie was mostly improvised, or that its visual freedom precludes any formal appreciation. Just think of the gorgeous aerial work as the boys caper around a field to the accompaniment of “Can’t Buy Me Love.” Or the way the cameras stay close to the Beatles as they are outrunning fans or piling into getaway limos. Think of the almost cubist manner in which we see the band during the performance footage: shots of Ringo’s bejeweled hands drumming, a Cuban-booted foot hitting a petal, or the way the fringe of George’s bangs frames one of his eyes. This is the heady combination of fan worship and high-art fetishism. As much as the Beatles themselves, Taylor’s camera imparts the movie with its sense of physical freedom and release. It moves left to right behind the band and looks out at the screaming audience in the final concert number. It mimics the chugging motion of a train inside a cramped baggage car when an impromptu card game turns into a performance of “I Should Have Known Better.”
That sequence, and the surrealist doodles that dot the movie — John seeming to go down a bathtub drain only to appear unscathed seconds later; the group running alongside a speeding train to taunt the businessman with whom they’ve been sharing a railway carriage — are demonstrations of the corporeal world itself giving way before the will of wit and style and play. This is a movie in which the world seems to exist as nothing more than a challenge that the Beatles easily master — outrunning fans and cops, scampering through the streets and across stages, turning trains into playgrounds and a hotel room into a place to get your breath before the next round of play.
It would not seem so free when Lester and the Beatles reunited the next year in the unfairly maligned Help!, a cartoon outing which would lead John Lennon to complain that the group were co-stars in their own movie. He wasn’t wrong, but that was also the point. Help! — the gags, brilliant as they often are, strain where the jokes in its predecessor had an offhand elan — is a contrivance that functions as a metaphor for the world in which the Beatles found themselves, an increasingly sealed-off pop domain where they were in danger of coming to seem as much of a fiction as James Bond. Unlike A Hard Day’s Night, Help! zips all over the world from London to the Alps to Bermuda, and yet never leaves Beatleland. The bubble of fame surrounding the band keeps them perilously close to prisoners in someone else’s fantasy. A year later, the Beatles would stop touring and retreat to the studio.
But the concert that ends A Hard Day’s Night shows the kind of communion that was still possible between the group and its fans. The cliché about the Beatles’ concerts is that they were so loud no one could hear any music, including the group. Watching this performance, though, and listening to the still mostly unreleased tapes of the 1964 and ’65 Hollywood Bowl concerts, what strikes you is the Beatles’ desire and determination to connect. These are not the sounds of a group going through the motions. These performances are the reasons they’ve gone through everything else in the picture.
As the sequence goes on, we see less and less of the Beatles and more and more of the fans, and that’s the point. The fans are not people reduced to a screaming mass for our superior amusement, not sociological case studies in mass hysteria but individuals who, collectively, complete the group. Caught in the moment, the audience does its best to honor the Beatles’ directness by communicating back as directly as they can. This is what a utopian pop moment looks like. Just as the Beatles together were more than their individual parts, they are bigger face-to-face with their fans.
And then there’s the White Rabbit. That’s the name given by Lester and his crew to one lovely blonde girl we see in two separate shots, crying through the entire performance, softly mouthing the Beatles’ names with no hope of being heard. She is the embodiment of the melancholy that A Hard Day’s Night now leaves us with, and that melancholy existed long before John Lennon’s assassination and George Harrison’s death, because the promise of this moment had predeceased them. The White Rabbit represents the mourning the film invites for a time so irrevocably lost. And now there is even more reason to mourn.
The critic Joyce Millman has written of how teen idols are marketed to teen women as potential boyfriends. Teenagers screaming for pop idols, whether from the past or the present, can seem quaint to us. But the screaming for the Beatles has much less to do with teenage girls (or maybe the boys screaming on the inside) wanting John, Paul, George, or Ringo for a mate than wanting the exhilaration and fullness of life they collectively represent. It’s an instinctive response to a profoundly felt moment, a moment that can never come again, not just because the Beatles can never be replicated but because the conditions don’t exist for any performer to dominate the popular consciousness in the way the Beatles did.
The overwhelming cultural meaning of the digital age is segregation, the endless dividing and subdividing of the pop audience into niche markets and genres, the ruthless realization of a separation that defeats the possibility of the unity promised by the idea of popular entertainment. Every rock critic or former rock critic, every fan or blogger who proclaims the empowering democracy that the digital age has made possible is in fact denying the possibility for the kind of pop moment that, as with Elvis or the Beatles or punk, called everything into question, made us ask what it was we wanted of our life, and fed that energy into political and social ways those changes could be realized. They are celebrating their own irrelevancy.
No artist in any medium has ever meant as much to me as the Beatles. Few of the onlookers caught by the lens of history have been able to contain as much meaning for me as the White Rabbit, in her exhilaration at what was before her, in her grief for what, her tears proved, she knew would soon be past. For those of us who look at A Hard Day’s Night and feel that mixture of elation and mourning, she is us.