“I don’t think one ever sits down and says, ‘I’m going to do something that will change the face of musical history, and will be known in ten years time as MTV.” – Director Richard Lester
In 1964, four young lads from Liverpool changed the world…
Fifty years ago, a movie was released that accidentally changed the face of contemporary cinema on several levels. On the surface, it brought a fresh and fun, yet rebellious spirit of rock ‘n roll to the movies via the Beatles phenomenon. It propelled the musical group, The Beatles, into larger-than-life, icon status. But deeper than that, it impacted popular culture by influencing a new generation of rock musicians by introducing a new genre of filmmaking (a.k.a. music video), and by becoming a musical film classic. In a sense, it even served as the catalyst of the cultural revolution known as “The Sixties.”
Quite a feat for a movie that was shot in seven weeks, cost $500,000 and was rushed into theaters four months after principal photography. Now 50 years later, A Hard Day’s Night is still looked upon as a landmark in film and the forerunner to MTV with its innovative freestyle of filmmaking.
Who would have known that the Beatles first film would produce an unexpected windfall of millions at the box office, launch their mass appeal public personas, and become known as the “Citizen Kane” of jukebox movies?
Certainly not The Beatles.
Accidentally on Purpose
In October 1963, the Beatles were busy taking Britain by storm. It was also the same month Beatles manager Brian Epstein was approached with a movie proposal by United Artists. UA was more interested in acquiring the rights to a Beatles soundtrack, and they needed a movie in order to release a soundtrack. They put American producer Walter Shenson, the European production head for UA, in charge of the project.
Following the examples of Rock Around The Clock (1956), The Young Ones (1961), and a string of Elvis Presley movies, the project was initially envisioned as another low-budget rock ‘n roll exploitation movie intended to take teenage disposable dollars and run.
Prior to A Hard Day’s Night, the majority of British and American musicals had relied too much upon the long-established tradition of straight lip-synching derived from classical Hollywood musicals, campy beach films and formulaic Elvis movies.
But then a funny thing happened between the months of October 1963 and March 1964 – the Beatles had invaded America and became international icons, which changed the entire dynamic of the movie. Now United Artists and Walter Shenson had the hottest property in the world – the rights to the Beatles’ first movie.
While the Beatles were fans of the silver screen, they were leery of Hollywood. They had seen their idol, Elvis Presley, transformed from the snarling bad-boy of rock ‘n’ roll to a pop star who turned his back on his musical roots to make subpar film fare. Enter Richard Lester.
Lester, a 31-year-old Philadelphia native and resident of the UK since the mid-‘50s was introduced to the project by producer Walter Shenson. Lester’s association with the Goons and his 11-minute film short, “Running, Jumping, and Standing Still,” garnered him instant respect among The Beatles.
When Liverpudlian Alun Owen was hired to write the screenplay, all of the vital elements were in place. Producer Shenson summoned Owen to write a script that was to be an “exaggerated day in the life” of the Beatles. On November 7, 1963, Owen was dispatched to Dublin, Ireland to observe the group, listen to certain catch phrases and capture the mood of the Beatles phenomenon while on tour.
When The Beatles performed on "The Ed Sullivan Show" in the US in February 1964, almost the entire country tuned in. The appearance made the four lads from Liverpool a sensation.
On March 6, 1964, Richard Lester began principal photography and shot the movie over a seven-week period. The decision to shoot at real locations wreaked havoc on the film crew and the people involved behind the camera, but it inspired Lester to come up with new, quick and inventive ways to capture the lunacy of Beatlemania.
Rather than playing it straight, Lester shot the Beatles using innovative camera techniques not in the conventional mode. Lester’s editing background served him well as he used techniques in this picture that would be looked upon by critics as fresh, groundbreaking and innovative.
Of particular note were the musical performances in the film. Author Bob Neaverson explains in his book, The Beatles Movies (1997): “Lester ensures that they [musical sequences] are shot with a more formally adventurous and self-consciously ‘cinematic’ style than had previously been seen within the genre or on such contemporaneous performance-based television shows as Top of the Pops (1964) or Top Beat (1964). Here, group-based studio performances were shot in a largely ‘passive’ and unpoetic manner, filmed statically from front and side (from perhaps two or three angles)… [while] the group’s [Beatles] renderings are shot from a multiplicity of angles (from above, behind, sideways and front) and camera movements, with extraordinarily fast-paced editing…”
Lester rarely let the Beatles sing their songs “straight,” but rather each one was a send-up. The Beatles rarely acted along to the words in a series of wildly cut bits, allowing the boys to absurdly run down a fire escape to square dance and play children’s games on a field during the sequence for “Can’t Buy Me Love.” The action was wacky, self-mocking, spontaneous and over the top, all the while spoofing themselves and then intelligently segued back into the plot – the first offering of a backstage pass that fans had never before had access.
This “backstage pass” had a large impact on the success of the film. Neaverson writes, “The film not only refuses to patronize its audience, it actually privileges it into a position of ‘fly on the wall’ voyeurism which, until this point, it had seldom been offered. The audience is allowed to see a pop group in intimate, ‘behind-the-scenes’ scenarios which are essentially ‘real’, or at least, realistic… Ultimately, it enabled the audience to leave the cinema feeling that they had come to ‘know’ (and love) the group as ‘real’ people, rather than that they had merely been ‘entertained’ by a pop group acting out a totally fictitious plot.”
Alun Owen’s script not only caught the humor of the Beatles, but many critics and older fans alike made comparisons of the Beatles to the legendary Marx Brothers. About a dozen ad libs made their way into the final cut, most notably from John Lennon. During post production, most of these off-the-cuff remarks were put in to spice up extended periods of silence.
“You see, there’s another illusion that we were just puppets and that the great people like Brian Epstein and Dick Lester created the situation and made this whole fucking thing,” John Lennon said. “But it was really precisely because we were what we were, and realistic.”
The goal of the film was to “build on the proven success of the group’s pre-existing image”, explains Neaverson. According to Neaverson, the three ingredients the film sells to its audience are 1) The Beatles’ trademark humor; 2) The Beatles’ identity with the working class; and 3) the individualism of the four members of the group. “This notion of individuality had, by 1964, already become integral to the Beatles early success with the media, their widespread appeal deriving partly from the fact that each member appealed more strongly to different factions of their audience.” (Neaverson, 1997)
Phil Collins narrates in the documentary, The Making of A Hard Day’s Night (1994): “While Owen’s script was fiction, it was still based on what he had observed. Subsequently, what we saw in the movie became The Beatles for us. Even though the onscreen personalities weren’t complete portraits, they were close enough to the real thing that, forever after, the fictional Beatles in the movie are what The Beatles would be to the world. Nothing, not any controversy nor the passage of time, would materially alter the way we viewed John, Paul, George and Ringo as they were presented to us in A Hard Day’s Night. John – the sarcastic, quick-witted leader; Paul – the cute, clever peacemaker; George – the wry, sly humor; and Ringo – alone in the back, always separate and yet everybody’s favorite.”
Roger Ebert commented: “A Hard Day's Night made each of the four Beatles into an individual and after that movie was released, everybody knew the names of the four Beatles – everybody.”
Box Office Success
A Hard Day’s Night premiered at the London Pavilion on July 6, 1964, a miraculous four months after principal photography. The film’s distributor, United Artists, wanted to capitalize on the Beatles “craze” before they faded from the pop culture landscape. The premiere caused an unprecedented ruckus that resulted in the closing of Piccadilly Circus, and a ruckus at the box office as well. The movie was instant gold.
In the US, the film was expected to be a minor success, but proved to be one of the biggest box office hits of the year earning $11 million in theaters, and later sold to television for $2.5 million for four television airings. “I think they (United Artists) got their money back in the first hour of release,” quipped producer Walter Shenson.
Phil Collins narrated, “not only did we worship their music, but their attitude was something we wanted to emulate, their slang was something we needed to learn.”
Consequently, this movie influenced a future generation of rock stars. Roger McGuinn of the Byrds describes, “When we walked out of AHDN, David [Crosby] just grabbed one of the lightpoles and went around it a few times like Gene Kelly and said ‘we got to do that, that’s the coolest thing!’ And we did!”
Ebert continued: “I don’t think that people often go to the movies and have their ideas change. But I think people can go to the movies and have their feelings change. And those feelings lead to ideas. AHDN is obviously not a political film in an overt way. Yet out of AHDN came the sixties.”
Not only teenagers, but adults also came to the movie theater in droves. As stated in the Making of A Hard Day's Night video: “It would broaden their popularity to include an adult generation, who to that point regarded the Beatles as somewhat of a noisy nuisance, something they had mainly tried to wish away.”
“The form and ideology of the film appealed more to the aesthetic tastes of an adult audience than any previous pop movie…. In short, the crossover into film helped to furnish the Beatles with a total mass appeal hither to unprecedented in pop.” (Neaverson, 1997)
Producer Walter Shenson sums it up: “A Hard Day's Night converted the non-believers.”
When all was said and done, A Hard Day’s Night won the approval of some of the harshest critics in America. Andrew Sarris of the Village Voice wrote: “It’s the ‘Citizen Kane’ of jukebox musicals, a brilliant crystallization of such diverse cultural particles as the pop movie, rock ‘n’ roll, cinema verite.”
Bosley Crowther of the New York Times, opened his film essay, “This is going to surprise you – it may knock you out of your chair – but the new film with those incredible chaps, the Beatles, is a whale of a comedy.” Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. called A Hard Day’s Night the astonishment of the month.
The movie garnered two Academy Award nominations – one for the screenplay by Alun Owen and the other for Best Original Score by George Martin.
Film critic Roger Ebert called the picture “one of the five best musicals of all-time.” He added, “Certainly one of the tests of a good film is whether it stands up over the course of time and over repeated viewings. I’ve seen A Hard Day's Night at least 25 times, and on at least 5 occasions, I’ve taught it to film classes one shot at a time.”
“The more I look at it,” Ebert concluded, “the more I’m exhilarated by it.”
The Test of Time
Since its release in 1964, A Hard Day’s Night has become one of the most influential films of its time. The film’s look, feel and style is believed by many to have been the model for the birth of the music video, which fully revealed itself as MTV in 1981. Shenson commented, “I think Dick [Lester] invented rock video. Certainly he was one of the very early pioneers in that style of filmmaking.”
Brimming with The Beatles irreverent and iconoclastic sense of anarchy and Lester’s inimitable comic timing, A Hard Day’s Night set the standard for the multitude of madcap musical films to follow, including a wildly popular television series called “The Monkees.”
As for The Beatles and cinema, they went on to make three more movies and acquired mainstream acceptance.
“The complexity of the poetry in many Beatles lyrics, along with the sophistication of the filmmaking in their screen vehicles, lent an aura of respectability and acceptance to rock ‘n’ roll, allowing its pop idols to enter the mainstream of American – and world – culture for the first time,” quotes the book, The Films of the Sixties.
Lester, now 82 years old, went on to have a long and distinguished career and even became the highest paid director in the world at one time for Superman (1979). He later regrouped with Paul McCartney to film Paul’s triumphant 1989-1990 World Tour in Get Back.
Both The Beatles and Lester, however, never managed to recapture the glory and magic of A Hard Day’s Night. Like a work of art, the film remains timeless.
Film critic Roger Ebert wrote an essay in the late 1990s on the continued vitality of A Hard Day’s Night: “Today when we watch TV and see quick-cutting, handheld cameras, interviews conducted on the run with moving targets, quickly intercut snatches of dialogue, music under documentary action and all the other trademarks of the modern style, we are looking at the children of A Hard Day’s Night.”
Thirty-five years later, producer Walter Shenson (who passed away in 2000) was still awed by Ebert’s effusive praise.
“I couldn’t believe this man,” said Shenson. “You’d think I’d paid him to say these things.”
Marshall Terrill is the author of more than 15 books and his latest is a co-write with Laurence Juber on "Guitar With Wings" (Dalton Watson, 2014).
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