The Deep Art of A Hard Day's Night

A cinematic masterpiece disguised as a generic rock-and-roll film turns 50.

I first saw A Hard Day’s Night in a junior-high music class, and it thrilled me. When the schoolday ended, I booked it—as we said at the time—to the library, where I voraciously stuck in front of my face one write-up after another about the Beatles' first film, which celebrates its 50th anniversary today.

They pretty much all said the same thing: the film was a solid, cheeky, blend of Marx Brothers style comedy—on account of the “snappy,” peppy,” “lively” dialogue—and early rock and roll films like Rock Around the Clock and Rock, Rock, Rock!

Rock Around the Clock; Rock, Rock, Rock!—those titles sound pretty generic, don’t they? That’s because they were generic, I quickly realized. You’d have Chuck Berry doing his lip-synching thing, as “the cats” juked and jived, with only the barest thread of a plot.

Even then, having no clue about film history and cinematic techniques, I knew that A Hard Day’s Night was getting undersold. And I soon learned it was wrong to call it a Beatles film, really, when it was more properly a Dick Lester film—a film that was auteured, if you will, rather than bashed out factory-style, like those other early rock films.

More than two decades and 250 screenings later, watching Criterion’s new, awesome-looking Blu-ray, I’m more blown away than ever at what you can call A Hard Day’s Night’s deep filmic art.

Right from the opening sequence at London’s Marylebone Station, with an endless gaggle of girls in pursuit of this rock band on the lam from their own stardom, you know this is a film unlike the genre had ever produced. To that point, you had the occasional sterling effort like 1958’s King Creole with Elvis turning in his best-ever performance. But by ’64, the French New Wave and the British kitchen-sink realist movement had happened, and both were going into the hopper for director Lester.

What is arguably the most famous chord in Western popular music starts the film just as it starts the title album. But here the chord cues a series of cuts that function like the cuts of some battle scene filmed by D.W. Griffith crossed with Godard at his least verbose. The Beatles are awkward in this sequence, as Lennon himself would say. They’re conscious of being in a film, but the prismatic cutting overrides that lack of actorly chops, and the viewer feels lost in the maelstrom, until, at last, the band boards the train that provides sanctuary. At which point you start to think that, hey, maybe this isn’t an extended rock-and-roll video gussied up as a film, but a legit stand-alone film with some rock and roll music in it.

The frantic realism of the opening exodus sheds freneticism and becomes, intriguingly, more realistic in the 15-minute travel section that follows. Orson Welles used to delight in telling interviewers of how he and cinematographer Gregg Toland would cut chunks out of the floor while working on Citizen Kane so they could shoot up at characters and ceilings, and we get that same mélange of angles here. High levels, low levels, shots partially obscured by doors, porters, passing travelers.

The Beatles clash with an old war vet who objects to their portable hi-fi as they share a compartment together. Funny sequence. They exit the cabin with a cheeky retort or two, and you’re pleased, that’s good, and then boom, there they are outside of the train, running and biking along, continuing the joke with the old man. It’s surrealism flecked with reality, which both Buñuel and Disney would have understood, and it manages to surprise every time you see it. We are grounded in the actual world you and I live in, but also in the world of the Beatles, which—as Lester and screenwriter Alun Owen intuited even at this early date—featured a kind of magic. No band, maybe no artists ever, had a greater capacity for displaying and inducing wonder. And here we have that wonder made visual.

Repairing to a baggage car, the band opts for a game of cards. The camera picks up on some swaying luggage, like this world has suddenly started rocking. Cut back to the Beatles, who do just that with “I Should Have Known Better.” Again, the surrealism is at play—cards have been replaced with instruments, Georges Méliès-style. But the music we all know is present too, being used for a cinematic vision. Consider the second bridge of the song. Until this point, Lennon’s vocal is double-tracked, but here it’s more natural, everything going through the one channel, and Lester, for the first and only time in the sequence, gets John in a straight-on close-up. There’s no artifice in that moment, just a synchronizing of what the ears are hearing and the eyes are seeing.

Touches like these abound. Watch the “And I Love Her” sequence, when an almost full-frame of soft white light obscures Paul McCartney’s face. It’s something that wouldn’t be out of place in a Pasolini film, or a work by Carl Dreyer when he was less intent on scaring people.

The film’s most revolutionary scene for rock-and-roll movies occurs when the Beatles, increasingly hemmed in by the pressures of their world, bust out of a television studio to frolic in a field. All of the film’s shots, the confinement of the band into tight quarters, lead up to the orgastic payoff here.

Ringo yells “we’re out!” and “Can’t Buy Me Love” somehow always sounds louder here than it does on record. Lester undercranks his camera, so that Paul McCartney appears to come flying faster than is humanly possible right into the forefront of the frame just as the song’s ripping guitar solo begins.

Yes, the music is wickedly good, and these are some of the best songs the Beatles would ever write. But if this was some mediocre band, or some invented band, A Hard Day’s Night would still be a legit, honking, gravitas-slathered cinematic masterpiece. It’s one of the rare works of art from the ‘60s that’s in the same league as, well, the Beatles.