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Arts & Culture

Film Review: 'A Hard Day's Night' Still Rocks 50 Years Later

The Beatles on the set of "A Hard Day's Night."
United Artists
The Beatles on the set of "A Hard Day's Night."

Digitally Restored Film Opens In San Diego

Back in 1963, many people thought the Beatles were just a passing fad. When United Artists suggested that a low budget comedy be made with the Fab Four, they were thinking of just two things: United Artists Records would get to release the soundtrack and cash in on the Beatles popularity before it faded.

What they never considered was that Richard Lester's “A Hard Day’s Night,” a film shot in seven weeks for less than a half million dollars, would become a genuine classic and would define a hip new style of filmmaking.

At the time of its release, critic Andrew Sarris proclaimed it as "the ‘Citizen Kane’ of juke box musicals." A digitally restored “A Hard Day's Night” opens July 10 at Reading Grossmont and Gaslamp theaters for a limited run.

Call it a “mockumentary” or a “rockumentary,” “A Hard Day’s Night” is really the first and one of the very best fake documentaries.

“This Is Spinal Tap” owes an obvious debt of gratitude to the film. The idea for the film came about when Alun Owen, a Welsh writer the Beatles had suggested because he had grown up like they had in Liverpool, was asked to make a script based on an exaggerated day in the life of the Beatles. Since Owen had no idea what that was like, he was sent to spend a weekend with the lads. When he came back, he had the idea that “they were prisoners of their success. They go from the airport to the hotel to the theater or stadium or concert hall back to the hotel back to the airport. In any city it’s always the same.” Now the film needed a title.

John Lennon mentioned that Ringo misused the English language and called an all night recording session “a hard day’s night.” That was all producer Walter Shenson had to hear, and that’s how The Beatles' “A Hard Day’s Night” came to be. (Watch the re-release trailer.)

The Beatles in their own voice: A Hard Day's Night

Richard Lester, an American-born but British-based filmmaker, was deemed perfect to helm this project based in part on an inventive short film he'd made called “The Running, Jumping and Standing Still Film" (the film is also the precursor to Monty Python's style of visual comedy). The film featured Spike Milligan and Peter Sellers who were veterans of the British radio comedy program “The Goon Show.” That show along with Lester's film were favorites of the Beatles. That short film's inspired lunacy combined with a savvy sense of old school silent movie comedians and hip filmic sensibility, made Richard Lester the choice of both the Beatles and producer Shenson. And it would be a match made in heaven.

All would combine again for “Help!“ but that film seemed less spontaneous and more calculated to cash in on the success of “A Hard Day's Night.” Lester would go on to work with just John Lennon in the film “How I Won the War,” and Lester's “The Three Musketeers” had at one point been considered as a project for the Beatles.

Companion viewing

"Help!" (1965)

"Petulia" (1968)

"Let It Be" (1970)

"The Three Musketeers" (1973 and directed by Richard Lester),

"This Is Spinal Tap" (1984)

Even though 50 years have passed, the film remains as fresh, irreverent and inspired as when it first came out. The Beatles, writer Alun Owen and director Richard Lester formed a perfect collaborative alliance — they all displayed a willingness to break with conventions, challenge the establishment and have a ball doing it.

The Beatles supplied the appealing on-screen talent and a score of wonderful songs. Owen provided a witty script that played slyly off the Beatles’ real personalities as well as their pop icon images. And Lester, a brilliant but under-appreciated director, mixed elements of the French New Wave, cinema verite, the Marx Brothers and even TV commercials to create a freewheeling style to match the energy of its young stars.

The film moves with such joy, humor and fluidity that you can’t help getting swept up in the frenzied action.

Paul McCartney on the set of "A Hard Day's Night" with director Richard Lester.
United Artists
Paul McCartney on the set of "A Hard Day's Night" with director Richard Lester.

There are also a host of great scenes. When the lads finally escape their confines to have a romp in a field while “Can’t Buy Me Love” plays on the soundtrack, it is one of the most exuberant scenes ever put on film. It is also where today's music videos find their roots.

There’s also a savage take on marketing when George has an encounter with a TV director who thinks he has his finger on the pulse of British youth. George shocks him with some real opinions and even makes fun of the TV show’s teen host (‘we turn the sound down on her and say rude things,' says George). The man panics and fears that George might be “an early clue to the new direction.” But then he looks on his calendar and assures himself that the change isn’t due for three weeks. And of course there’s Paul grandfather, “a very clean old man.”

At a time when Hollywood is finding it more and more difficult to deliver anything fresh, you’re best filmgoing bet is an old classic like “A Hard Day’s Night.” It won’t disappoint you and it might even make fans out of a new generation of filmgoers.

I started showing “A Hard Day's Night” to my son when he's was 3 (my theory was why let him watch things like “Barney” when he could watch things that we both could enjoy), and for a time it was his most requested film to watch.

When I was in elementary school, it was the film I had seen more than any other — 14 times! And that was much harder to do back in the days before VCRs and videotape. My son enjoyed the film so much that he would grab his play guitar and sing-along to “I Wanna Be Your Man.” Make every effort to see this classic.