Anarchy in the UK may have been more than a decade away, but the Fab Four’s debut big screen feature must have felt like a shot of joyous adrenaline to the youth of a country still recovering from the war.
The Beatles were in the right place at the right time to exploit the cultural revolution that had been bubbling away and, through a mix of catchy songs, natural charisma and clever marketing created a phenomenon.
The giddy chaos of the opening few minutes (still one of cinema’s great credit sequences) as John, Paul, George and Ringo leg it from a horde of screaming girls and guys over the film’s title track can be seen as a visual metaphor for a generation of young people hungrily going after something they can claim as their own.
A Hard Day’s Night is light on plot (the band travel by train to a TV gig in London, sit around in a hotel and get involved in various scrapes), but rich in character, satire and great tunes. They entrusted their feature debut to American director Richard Lester, primarily for his work in bringing the spectacularly successful Goons radio show to the small screen and his collaboration with Peter Sellers and Spike Milligan on The Running Jumping & Standing Still Film (1960).
Lester’s love of Buster Keaton also married well with the band’s natural wit, while Merseyside-based screenwriter Alun Owen was brought on board to exploit their dry sense of humour and character traits.
Widely regarded as having invented the music video, the film is clearly influenced by the French New Wave and fills the space in between the musical numbers with often surreal interludes that bring to mind Luis Buñuel; such as when George gives road manager Shake (John Junkin) a ‘shave’ by spraying foam on the mirror where Shake’s stubble should be and gliding the razor along its surface.
Another turn for the quirky comes when, having got on the nerves of a stuffy city gent who grumpily exclaims that he “fought the war for you sort”, the band ask him for their ball back, only to suddenly appear running and cycling alongside the train a second later asking the same question.
Get past the cartoonish exterior of this scene, however, and there’s plenty more going on; particularly a two-fingered salute to the establishment in the way four working class lads sit merrily in the first class carriages and ignore the hectoring of their supposed peers.
A Hard Day’s Night is careful not to laugh at the Fab Four’s hysterical fans; rather its satire is targeted more at the nonsense that goes with superstardom. A scene in which the band take part in a fast and loose press conference descends into a merry-go-round of inane questions and increasingly ridiculous answers, most amusingly when Paul responds conspiratorially “no, we’re just good friends” to whatever question he’s posed.
The film also takes a swipe at the homogenising impulse of marketing, as symbolised by Kenneth Haigh’s cynical publicist Simon, who tries to use George as a mouthpiece for some new clothing he’s planning to flog to the masses. Simon sees the band as nothing more than fresh meat on a conveyor belt and responds to George’s failure to play ball by derisively saying: “Here’s this kid trying to give me his utterly valueless opinion when I know for a fact within a month he’ll be suffering from a violent inferiority complex and loss of status if he isn’t wearing one of these nasty things.”
They’re not shy about sending themselves up either; Ringo especially, who endorses George’s observation that he has “an inferiority complex” by responding: “Yeah, that’s why I play the drums.”
In spite of Ringo’s inferiority complex, the film is pretty equitable in the screen time it gives to each of the Beatles as well as those around them, the inimitable Wilfrid Brambell in particular who has plenty of fun playing Paul’s Irish ‘Grandfather’. Famous at the time for his role as cantankerous “dirty old man” Albert Steptoe in BBC sitcom Steptoe and Son, there’s a running gag throughout that his character always looks so clean.
A Hard Day’s Night may be a product of its time, but its infectious energy and immortal songbook means it remains as fab today as it did 50 years ago.