A Hard Day’s Night is a film that rewrote the rules for how cinema and popular music work together and 50 years on the energy, wit and sheer joy of the film are undiminished. However, the template that it set was one that few if any have worked to the same level since, including the director and stars.
The loose plot simply follows a fictional day in the life of The Beatles (John, Paul, George and Ringo all play fictional versions of themselves), as they travel by train to London to perform on a TV show. Along the way they are mobbed by fans, arrested by the police, separated, reunited and introduced to Paul’s mysterious, trouble causing, grandfather (played by Wilfrid Brambell of Steptoe fame)
Alun Owen was brought in to put the script together, as the Beatles were fans of his Liverpool based play No Trams to Lime Street, and, having grown up in the area, he had an ear for Scouse dialect and dialogue. While never meant to be anything other than two-dimensional comic characters, the four Beatles that he creates each have distinctive personalities, while also having a definite group identity. It's almost a shame to think that much of this wonderful wordplay would have been lost on the films initial Beatlemania audience, who would have been too busy screaming the house down.
Director Richard Lester was born in the USA but moved to London in the 1950s, working on commercials and TV shows, before making the 11-minute short The Running Jumping Standing Still film with Peter Sellers and Spike Milligan. The film became a firm favourite of the Beatles and led to Lester getting the job directing A Hard Day’s Night, and it is easy to see its influence on the innovative montage sequences of this film, with the sped up footage and radical idea of cutting the film to the rhythms of the music. A less obvious influence is the French New Wave, which can be seen with the handheld camera shots and use of real locations and people, as well as a casual disregard for rules and the "proper" way of making a film.
The final element that makes this film so good is The Beatles themselves. They are not trained actors, and some lines fall flat, but generally they give a very good account of themselves. It does not surprise me that musicians can sometimes make a go of acting, as they are still used to performing, and in some respects, playing a role on stage. Plus, there is their wonderful music, with no hint of psychedelia or the complex studio experiments that would follow later in their career, just breathless exuberant 2 minute pop classics.
A Hard Day's Night is one link in a fairly long cultural chain, one which spans a generation and an ocean. Lester clearly likes the energy of American silent trailblazers like Buster Keaton, and surreal invention of the Marx Brothers, the latter being a big influence on The Goon Show, two members of which (Milligan and Sellers) Lester worked with on The Running Jumping Standing Still film. The Goon Show had a fanatical fan in the shape of one John Lennon, and he would talk enthusiastically of the influence it had on both his work and his outlook on life. And, let’s not forget that the Goons also influenced Monty Python, whose Life of Brian was rescued at the last minute with a large cheque from George Harrison.
Few groups or directors have managed to recreate the magic or energy of A Hard Day's Night, including Lester and the Beatles themselves. The following year they would team up again to make Help, but the end product feels lethargic and sloppy, straining too hard for laughs, with a general feeling of nobody caring as much this time around.