When the Beatles were offered a three-picture deal in the early ‘60s, the United Artists honchos didn’t even know them. They’d heard about this musical sensation in Britain and figured they might make a quick buck, and that was it. Likewise, they were not all that concerned about petty things like a script or schedule or whatnot. Once director Richard Lester and writer Alun Owen were hired, they were given a budget and then it was “See you at the premiere.” All this contributes to how unusual and refreshing “A Hard Day’s Night” turned out to be. Far from the staginess of the Elvis flicks, the Beatles’ big screen debut is a unique piece blending cinéma vérité, very English humor and what would become the blueprint for music videos.
Owen’s screenplay is a breezy slice of silliness that pretty much has the Beatles playing themselves. Owen followed them for a couple of weeks as they played gigs, did promotion and so on and he condensed what he observed into a narrative which follows the Fab Four during a day. They take the train, talk with journalists, go to a TV studio, rehearse a bit and then play in front of hysteric teenage girls. That’s it, that’s the movie. There are a bunch of digressions here and there, like the antics of Wilfrid Brambell as Paul’s very clean grandfather and a third act twist which has Ringo leaving the group and getting arrested, but for the most part this is a hanging out movie.
Even the musical numbers feel matter-of-fact. Oh, these are some damn good songs, but what I mean is that there aren’t any elaborate dancing or mise en scène. The title sequence has the guys running away from screaming fans, then in the back of the train they play “I Should Have Known Better”, later on they go running around in a field to the sound of “Can’t Buy Me Love”… Lester keeps it simple and natural, but this is still a stylish film, with gorgeous black & white cinematography and dynamic editing. And then of course there’s the Beatles themselves, charming and funny gentlemen that they are: deadpan George Harrison, cheerful Paul McCartney, goofy Ringo Starr and smart-ass John Lennon.
The Miramax DVD release of “A Hard Day’s Night” is a gorgeous 2-Disc affair which features a new half hour special on the making of the film and hours of interviews with everyone from Sir George Martin to Richard Lester, some of the cast, the producers and various crew members… But most peculiar is the complete absence of any of the Beatles. What, McCartney didn’t have any insights to give? You’re telling me Ringo’s too busy to chat about his experience shooting the film? Still, we learn much about the context in which “A Hard Day’s Night” was created, and the film itself looks and sounds great.