A Hard Day's Night
Directed by Richard Lester
The occasion for reliving this most exhilarating of all opening sequences is the Miramax rerelease of the film with an enhanced (and much louder) soundtrack. But other factors make the movie timely: the death in October of its producer, Walter Shenson; and the American distribution of the book Getting Away With It, which is Steven Soderbergh's exhibitionistic tribute (part interview transcript, part journal of discombobulation) to the director Richard Lester.
The picture was initiated, of course, as a way to extract a soundtrack from the Beatles for less than their going rate; and, thanks to album sales, it was in the black before it even premièred. That gave Lester—an American living in London who'd made a batch of commercials, some GoonShow episodes, and a 1961 feature It's Trad, Dad! (aka Ring-a-Ding Rhythm)—the enviable freedom to let the Beatles phenomenon dictate the picture's form—or formlessness. What he and his screenwriter, Alun Owen, devised was a day in the life of near-prisoners (of an authoritarian society, capitalism, their own fame) who succeed in remaining free—attaining, by virtue of their wit, talent, and integrity, a sort of cheeky state of grace.
Beyond that frenzied opening, three sequences capture the forces that gnaw at the Beatles from without. In the first, the lads' already-confining train compartment is invaded by a stuffy Englishman who shuts the window and asserts, headmasterlike, his supreme authority. ("And we'll have that thing off as well," he decrees, when Ringo switches on a radio.) The insolently pansexual Lennon leans in and says, "Give us a kiss." When the old gent sputters, "I fought the war for your sort," Ringo responds, not without sympathy, "I bet you're sorry you won." The Fab Four vacate the car, but a second later they're running alongside the train (George is on a bicycle), pounding on the window and yelling like hooligans: "Mister?! Can we have our ball back?!" In one shot, Lester has given the Beatles not simply the last word, but control of the movie's language—its very reality.
The Beatles at least are present in A Hard Day's Night: poised, alert, eager to do what is expected of them. By the time of Lester's Help! (1965) they are heavily into marijuana and have learned to take the attention for granted. The movie has a witty, Magritte-like palette (the cinematographer was David Watkin) and a more self-consciously Dadaist sense of humor. It had far more influence on Pop Art and the camp side of the counterculture than its predecessor, but Lester was no longer feeding off the Beatles' own energies, and the zaniness doesn't seem organic.
Some have argued that nothing in Lester's work was ever organic. In 1967, the critic Manny Farber would write, in an essay called "Day of the Lesteroid," of a "depressing comic-strip world" in which, "despite the frenetic postures, there is no real movement, and the chief effect is a sad, gray, frustrated technology." But in The Knack (1965) and Petulia (1968), Lester was certainly trying to harness that technology to say something new about the ways in which people try, and fail, to act meaningfully. In How I Won the War (1967), he even tried to build an epic out of the tension between historical myths of heroism (in this case the finest hour of the old Englishman from A Hard Day's Night, World War II) and people's absurd impotence in the real world. Farber is even more provocative here, arguing that Lester's was a "cheapster's malevolence": "It occurs where the insurgent artist views his subject matter from a position so far down on the ladder that his work is knee deep in muck, misery, misanthropy."
That muck, misery, and misanthropy would define Lester's costume epics for the next decade and a half—including The Three Musketeers (1973) and its simultaneously shot sequel, The Four Musketeers (1974); Royal Flash (1975); and the florid Robin and Marian (1976). The strategy was to debunk the pictorial heroism with incessant cuts to pigs and squalor and chaos and gore amid the swashbuckling poses. In the Musketeers movies (especially the second) the vision does, finally, gel, but Lester's fractured syntax combined with the limpness of his staging feels like a grim mannerism. On his best late films, the director was strictly a gun for hire. The outrageously entertaining mad-bomber-at-sea picture Juggernaut (1974) has a disaster-genre plot that moves forward on its own momentum while Lester's intermittent doodles add texture and humanity. Superman II (1980) is one of the best superhero adventures ever made—one of the few to juxtapose successfully the superheroic gesture with its precipitating adolescent impulse. Lester's directorial career (to date) came to a sad end in 1989 with the poor sequel The Return of the Musketeers. During the shoot, Lester's favorite actor, Roy Kinnear, was flung from a horse he'd been nervous mounting in the first place and died a few days later. The tension between swashbuckling and the harshness of the real world was no longer so metaphorical.
Is A Hard Day's Night both Lester's and the Beatles' finest hour? That's too depressing to contemplate—and fortunately, it's wrong. In some ways, it's not even much of a movie: Ringo's melancholy wanderings seem ill-motivated; Wilfrid Brambell (an English TV star), as Paul's grandfather, is unnerving but inhabits a slicker showbiz universe; and the Keystone Kop chases don't work at all. But A Hard Day's Night remains a pop-culture phenomenon: a movie with perfect feelers. Lester and his team pick up and distill everything in the air on the eve of the counterculture: now capturing events with documentary realism, now stylizing them with gleeful surrealism, always managing, by impishly flouting the rules of "proper" storytelling, to keep alive a sense of barriers being blasted. By embodying what its makers set out to document, Lester achieved something dazzling and rarely equaled. The film will always be in the present tense: a reference point not merely for the birth of the Beatles as a mass phenomenon, but for the emergence of a wildly attractive youth culture that has transformed the world. The youths who inspired it might be sexagenarians (or dead), but in A Hard Day's Night, their spirit is stubbornly, subversively alive.