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.