A Hard Day’s Night
I’ve just watched A Hard Day’s Night, which I haven’t seen in more than 30 years. It’s a film I have always had a soft spot for, mostly because I totally adored it when I saw it as a teenager (an experience that’s mirrored in the opening chapter of Dana Spiotta’s wonderful novel, Stone Arabia), so I was really interested to see how it held up.
The answer is surprisingly well: although the section on the train at the beginning is a bit long and slow (and the pacing in general is a bit slow by contemporary standard) it’s still funny and sneakily surreal and full of life. And though they’re all surprisingly good on camera, both John and Ringo are particularly good.
But what’s really interesting is that it’s not quite the film I remember. If nothing else they’re all much rougher and much more northern than I remember (and their accents are really thick) and despite the mugging and hijinks the film doesn’t attempt to disguise that. But it’s also very clearly a film about emancipation and possibility, with a surprisingly subversive satirical undercurrent (presumably because they chose the Liverpudlian playwright and screenwriter, Alun Owen, to write it, and there’s a lot of gleeful mockery of establishment figures, decorum and the pretensions of the middle classes (the sequence in the ad agency is particularly sharp). But at the same time there’s a lot of that slightly surreal mode of British comedy that delights in wordplay and absurdity that was perfected by Peter Cook and Dudley Moore and others, in particular in scenes like the long “you look just like him” routine with John in the stairwell. I suppose this shouldn’t be a surprise: John and Paul were huge fans of the Goons, and that pleasure in punning and absurdity is visible in both The Beatles’ lyrics and their public personas.
Some other stray observations. Part of what makes the film so delightful is the lightness of director Richard Lester’s touch, and the playful way it shifts modes, jumping from slapstick comedy to playful parodies of the French New Wave and sequences that play with the conventions of James Bond films. It’s also startling to see how completely magnetic John is, although it’s a magnetism that’s made distinctly edgy by the sense he’s always on the verge of doing something unpredictable and dangerous (something the script plays up but is quite clearly there anyway). It’s also clear that part of what made John such a successful songwriter is the contrast between his tough guy image and the songs of male vulnerability he specialised in, in particular songs like ‘If I Fell’. Similarly, while I never really understood why George was such a sex symbol it’s surprisingly obvious when you see him on screen. And although the film doesn’t attempt to disguise the poverty and wreckage of post-war Britain everybody in it, and in particular all the girls, are incredibly beautiful, which whether deliberate or not, helps suggest a sense of renewal and possibility. But basically it’s a delight.
I rewatched this just the other day too and was particularly bewitched by the lighting and framing. It’s just gorgeous to look at. And how great was the photo session for the album cover? The pics they run through at the end are beautiful. Made me wish I still had my giant Hard Day’s Night poster.
The pictures at the end are fantastic. At one point in Bob Stanley’s history of pop, Yeah Yeah Yeah (a book that, despite its title, is surprisingly weak on the Beatles) he says that part of what made them so exceptional was their ability to look fantastic in photos, even when they were stoned out of their minds or couldn’t stand the sight of each other. But it’s such a wonderful film on so many levels.
Unfortunately I saw it on Foxtel so it didn’t have the extra features that are on the DVD, which I would have liked to see. The question now is whether I should also watch Help (which I remember as being pretty terrible).
Help is pretty awful: very Benny Hill with lots of casual racism. But it does have some glorious moments.
That’s my memory of it. The sexual politics in A Hard Day’s Night are pretty unreconstructed as well, although its fairly frank depiction of their general interest in girls and fun is kind of refreshing in its directness.
girls and fun are both good things.
Saw them both when they were released as a midget. At the time I definitely thought Help was funnier, but you know i rapidly ended up a Stones fan anyway. Have a very strong memory of the rush on George St and the sort of highly charged anticipatory atmosphere. My sister would have been 12ish.
I recall something similar when I saw KISS and the Attack of the Phantoms …