The Things That You Do Will Make Me Feel Alright: Richard Lester’s A Hard Day’s Night (1964) – in cinemas and on Blu-ray
Working like a dog? John, Paul, George, Ringo and honorary ‘fifth Beatle’ Richard Lester make the band-to-film transition look effortless, and heaps of fun.
A Hard Day’s Night
(Richard Lester, 1964)
Last year, there was much anticipation at the fact that One Direction’s first movie was being directed by Morgan Spurlock – an iconoclastic American whose track record suggested something surprising might be in the offing. It wasn’t to be: however skillfully done, This Is Us was a fairly standard tour movie. It’s another reason to cherish A Hard Day’s Night, in which a British group’s first movie was directed by an iconoclastic American, only this time the director’s maverick ambition survived into the final cut.
Fifty years old? This would still seem fresh, funny and inventive if it was new. Back then, it must have seemed like an explosion, with shards of French New Wave spontaneity, social comment of the British New Wave, and some solid Hollywood credentials. It’s as important a landmark in British cinema as it is as a document (not, note, a documentary) of the Beatles. This marks the point at which the barricades finally toppled on British cinema under the pressure of Room At The Top, Saturday Night And Sunday Morning and the other kitchen-sink assaults on the ‘proper’ way of making films. Those films revolutionised content; this, following the example of Billy Liar, revolutionised form.
Richard Lester throws into the mix whatever comes to mind. While it’s the proto-promo tartness of the opening sequence which remains most indelible, the entire film is a giddy rush of trying things, regardless of plot logic or continuity. Some of it – the group suddenly appearing outside the train they were only on seconds before, or John Lennon disappearing from the bathtub – are properly surreal sight gags. Meanwhile, the story motors not on any record-company sanctioned soundbites but on screenwriter Alun Owen hanging out with four lads and capturing them warts and all: sarcastic, impudent and having the time of their lives. The four are really likeable, with Ringo the breakout star, and you get the sense of how cool it must have been to have pop stars with such personality to back up the talent.
It’s a study of being young and famous before anybody really knew what being young and famous entailed, and the result is thrillingly naughty, a paradigm shift in culture. Four working class kids are treated by gods, and it’s no wonder they have no time for authority when all they can hear is the collective scream of their fans (and Lester edits one number entirely on the rapturous faces of those teenage girls). There are few scenes of class war as pertinent and playful as the moment when a bowler-hatted member of the Establishment is torn a new one by the band: when he wheels out the usual line that he fought the war for the likes of them, quick as a flash, Ringo counters, “Bet you’re sorry you won.”
As Bob Dylan would sing within a few years, “something’s happening and you don’t know what it is, do you Mr Jones?” and this film is the British version of that sentiment. Owen makes the smart move to include Paul’s grandfather, a cheeky Irish reprobate, as if to say, there’s always been this undercurrent of anarchy, you’ve just not let us show it before. It helps that Wilfred Bramble plays him like Spike Milligan’s more devilish elder brother – and remember this was the period in which the Goons were breaking into film, too. Indeed, cinematographer Gilbert Taylor shot this the same year as he did Dr Strangelove with Peter Sellers, while Lester had already shot The Running Jumping & Standing Still Film with both Sellars and Milligan – indeed, that film was the very reason John Lennon wanted Lester to direct this.
The big question: would it be a classic had the Beatles split up shortly after, and never made Revolver, Sergeant Pepper and the rest? It’s easy to pin the film on their genius: of course, why shouldn’t they make better music films than everybody else – and the songs sound as glorious as ever in the newly supervised mix by George Martin’s son Giles. But I think it would have survived: Lester’s freewheeling style is infectious, and along with Blow Up it’s the definitive study of 1960s pop culture in England. Ultimately – and this is what One Direction (and pretty much every other band who ever tried their hand at a movie) never understood – it’s not really a Beatles movie at all, but a movie that has the good sense to star the Beatles.