A Hard Day’s Night: Movie Review

A Hard Day’s Night: Disc 1 Collector’s Series [rented disc from Netflix]

A review

1964  Directed by Richard Lester and often considered his best film

Comedy  Black and white  1 hour 32 minutes  Rated G

Starring: Paul McCartney, John Lennon, Ringo Starr, George Harrison and Wilfrid Brambell 

    I don’t often choose a movie that is purely a showcase of talent, but that is the simple premise of A Hard Day’s Night. I quickly realized I wasn’t waiting on a plot to formulate; instead, I was merely asked to sit back and take in the mania and glory that was the Beatles. This movie came out before I was born so although I grew up with the Beatles, I did not go through the teen freakout of the 1960s that was Beatlemania. Viewing the movie today allows current pop culture explorers insight to the elements that made the band so beloved.

For current music lovers this movie is a great example of what “mania” really meant back in the day. The screaming girls often drowned out the songs they came to hear. One of the tropes of musical mania is a voracious mob of teen girls chasing their male idols in such a way that can amount to real pain! In the opening scene the band is running from a frenzied mob and Harrison bites the sidewalk in an obviously unplanned heap. The band duck, weave and hide in order to outwit their fans and end up escaping by train. We also see young teen girls losing their minds during the culminating “show” with close ups of their tears and hair pulling. They wave their scarves in a desperate plea for eye contact. This is a clear window through which modern music lovers can gaze at mania history and see how our mothers and grandmothers used to go insane. Although there is an innocence in that the girls are not up-ending bottles of Jack Daniel’s or passing joints around, there is a strong vibe of being totally unhinged and out of their minds. (The same thing happened to me when I saw Shaun Cassidy in the ‘70’s. I cried all the way home and didn’t know why. I know of what I speak.) Point is, these gals were rabid and would probably tear their idols limb from limb and scurry away with the pieces to place at religious altars to pop music to worship forevermore. A fellow viewer who was equally bowled over by the fanatical energy asked, “What do they hope to gain from this [chasing and pounding on escaping car windows]?” The only idea I could manage was, “A kiss?” More realistically (but totally unrealistically) the girls were most likely ardently wishing that their Beatle of choice would take one look at them, swoon, scurry her away to a gothic castle at which time he would get on bended knee to ask for her hand in marriage. Oh, she’s only thirteen? No worries; we’ll have a long engagement. That the members of the group were at least ten years their senior made no discernible difference to the fans. In a way it is creepy, yet it has been this way since time began. 

Another element the movie provides for young lusties is close up shots of their idols. When you are young and in love, you just can’t get enough of the images of your beloved. A Hard Day’s Night does not disappoint with director Richard Lester really getting the camera in close to revel in every drop of sweat and every tweak of the eyebrow. If young girls of the day could have only paused the movie they would have sat staring and crying while their parents and brothers left to eat dinner. The up close and personal approach is multiplied in one scene in which McCartney is singing and his cute little head is copied and repeated down the line as he sits next to multiple televisions. An added bonus comes at the end of the movie when a variety of headshots is displayed of each of the band members. Each band member sports a black turtleneck against a white backdrop and employs various expressions across multiple shots. The close up clarity and excellence of these photos may have caused a swoon or two while credits were rolling. I suppose movie theater staff had to call some parents for assistance at that point.

The peripatetic plot takes place over the course of two days while the band, one grandpa, and a couple managers travel to perform for a television audience. On the way we get to know each band member and as a bonus, they often spontaneously break into song. Getting to know them is pure pleasure. Although these guys were not trained actors, they have a natural feel and cadence to their dialogue and actions. I haven’t taken the time to look up and watch Beatles interviews from the past so I did not have a feel for each man’s personality. Each is comedic in his own way. The mood is light, fun and fast-paced. Wilfrid Brambell (he of gargantuan teeth and bespectacled shifty eyes) plays McCartney’s grandfather who, for unknown reasons, accompanies the group on their way to perform the TV appearance. One at first supposes he is there to play the straight man but we quickly learn he is cheeky and twisted in quite a different way than the others. One of the themes is that the band (and Grandpa) cannot be kept in hand; they are always running off like errant children with ADD. Supposed to be answering fan mail? No. They end up at a club dancing and drinking. Supposed to be prepping for the TV show? No. They have lost Ringo and are off to find him. The police, managers and television production crew play the exasperated “adults” who are continually aggravated by the group’s shenanigans.

The scene in which Grandpa is giving Ringo life advice is my favorite part of the movie and perhaps the only real conversation we can explore. They both end up at a diner where Ringo quietly sits reading a book. Grandpa, with his famous (and creepy) side eye, begins, “Would ya look at ‘em? Sitting there with his hooter scraping away at that book.” 

Ringo asks, “Well, what’s the matter with that?” 

Grandpa yanks the book from Ringo’s hands and asks, “Have ya no natural resources of your own? Have they even robbed you of that?”

“You can learn from books,” Ringo says, snatching the book back.

“You can, can ya? Bah. Sheeps’ heads. You could learn more by getting out there and living.”

“Like where?”

“Any old where! But not our little Richard…oh, no. When you’re not thumpin’ those pagan skins you’re tormenting your eyes with that rubbish.”

“Books are good.”

“Parading’s better.”

“Parading?”

“Ah! Parading the streets, trailing your coat, bowling along…LIVING!”

“Well, I am living.”

“You? Living? When was the last time you gave a girl a pink-edged daisy? When did you last embarrass a sheila with your cool appraising stare?”

“You’re a bit old for that sort of chat, aren’t ya?”

“Well at least I got a backlog of memories when all you got is that book!”

Ringo fights back. “Oh, stop picking on me. You’re as bad as the rest of ‘em.”

“Ah, so you are a man after all.”

“What’s that mean?”

Grandpa states, “Do you think I haven’t noticed? Do you think I wasn’t aware of the drift?” [This scene is enhanced by Grandpa moving about the diner in search of sugar while he doles out his advice.] “Oh, ya poor unfortunate scruff. They’ve driven ya into books with their cruel, unnatural treatment. Exploiting your good nature.”

“I don’t know.”

“Ah, sure, that lot’s never happy unless they’re jeering you. And where would they be without the steady support of your drumbeat? That’s what I’d like to know.”

Ringo agrees, “Yeah, that’s right.”

“And what’s it all come to in the end?”

Ringo beginning to turn, “Yeah. What’s in it for me?”

“A book.”

Ringo throws the book on the table. “Yeah. A bloomin’ book.”

“When you could be out there betraying a rich American widow or sipping palm wine in Tahiti before you’re too old like me.”

“Yeah, funny really, ‘cause I never thought but being middle aged and old takes up most of your time, doesn’t it?”

With a sad expression Grandpa says, “You’re only right.”

Ringo picks up his stuff and heads for the door. Grandpa asks, “Where you going?”

“I’m going parading before it’s too late.”

Out of ten stars I would give this a solid eight, especially if you are into pop music history, teenage mania and Merseyside/Liverpool-ish/”Scouse” dialect. Recommended.

Synopsis with light commentary and dialogue:

The movie opens with the band being chased through the streets until they escape by train. We discover their cute accents. We get our first evidence of magical realism letting us know that this story is in no way nonfiction. We see the guys leering inside a train window from outside the moving car; seconds later they reappear inside. We see a train passenger reading a Son of Mad magazine. Ringo says he plays the drums to make up for his short stature. They lock Grandpa in the luggage area, deal cards, then are suddenly playing a song with instruments that magically appear.

Next they arrive at a fancy hotel. Ringo asks if he snores. Paul says, “With a trombone like that it wouldn’t be natural if you didn’t.” Grandpa chides, “Paulie, don’t mock the afflicted. It may be a joke, but it’s his nose. He can’t help his great big hooter…and the poor little head tremblin’ under the weight of it.” The band manager commands them to stay in and answer pounds of fan mail, but the guys escape to a club while Grandpa finds a gambling hall. The manager has to round everyone up. Lennon ends up in a bubble bath with his hat on. When the water is let out John walks out of the bathroom perfectly dry. 

The band has a press conference where they are asked only dumb questions. A stage is being prepared but the guys perform a song before everything is ready. It miraculously sounds perfect. Instead of getting ready in the dressing room, the guys take the fire escape. These days they would use a drone, but there is a long shot from above that watches the guys run around an open green area. The manager laments that it is “a battle of nerves between John and me.” Everyone smokes cigarettes.

Next we see Harrison wander into a fashion office but says fashion is “grotty” and that trendsetters are “a drag.” Grandpa has a money making scheme by taking the band’s promotional photos, signing them, then selling them on the street. The band has no patience for wardrobe fittings or makeup. There is a great shot with Paul singing with multiple TV screens focused on his face. The Beatles knock a dance troupe off the stage to do another song. They have a one hour break. Lennon leaves with a girl. Now that Grandpa has filled Ringo’s head with “notions” they don’t know where to find him. Ringo is out on the town taking pictures. He buys thrift clothes for disguise and plays near the water. He talks with a boy who is skipping school then Ringo becomes a troublemaker at a pub and gets thrown out. The stage manager is freaking out: where is Ringo? He is found by the police and taken to the station. Grandpa is brought in too. (That’s what they get for parading.) The general consensus is that “all coppers are villains”, but then the cops offer their prisoners tea. Grandpa, with his wiley ways, escapes the cops and goes to tell the manager where to find Ringo. They make it just in time for the cure all: a cup of tea and then on to the show.

The Beatles perform three songs and break a sweat. We see long shots and close shots of the screaming female audience; not a boy in sight. With the fourth song Grandpa escapes his handcuffs and the theater. The band runs straight from the show to a waiting helicopter. The movie ends with headshots of each of the band members. They are all taken with a white background. Each band member sports a black turtleneck and employs various expressions. These are excellent photos.

The songs that we get to hear during the movie sound excellent and appear as follows:

“A Hard Day’s Night”

“I Should Have Known Better”

“I Wanna Be Your Man”

“Don’t Bother Me”

“All My Loving”

“If I Fell”

“Can’t Buy Me Love”

“And I Love Her”

“I’m Happy Just to Dance with You”

A Ringo instrumental called “This Boy”

An instrumental of “A Hard Day’s Night”

A reprise of “Can’t Buy Me Love”

A reprise of “I Should Have Known Better”

“She Loves You”

And the reprise/closing credits of “A Hard Day’s Night”