Low-budget, seemingly off-the-cuff and filmed in cheeky black-and-white, the Beatles’ 1964 feature debut, A Hard Day’s Night, has often been identified as a whimsical cousin of the French New Wave, benefiting from then-recent and revolutionary improvisational techniques both actual and artificial. But while the film’s relocated American director, Richard Lester, was certainly aware of the fresh esprit which had arisen across the channel, it’s often forgotten that the English had engendered their own New Wave, one less antic and concerned with self-referential cinema than the French, but equally anxious to move away from what had become, by the ’50s, a calcified movie tradition of style and subject.
In England the movement was general, extending to plays and novels and eventually music, and its touchstone film was director Tony Richardson’s 1959 adaptation of John Osborne’s original angry-young-man play, Look Back in Anger. The engine of the movement was not just aesthetic discontent but a desire to democratize the arts, to depict life as it really was among the neglected masses. Working-class antiheros became the order of the day, whether they were charming louts (Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, dir. Karel Reisz, 1960), juvenile delinquents (The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner, dir. Tony Richardson, 1962), slackers (Billy Liar, dir. John Schlesinger, 1963) or even unwed mothers (A Taste of Honey, dir. Tony Richardson, 1961).
Come 1964, this tendency had pretty much run its course and by the time the Beatles, four upstarts from the provincial North, arrived on the scene, the inclusive mood in English culture was shifting from anger to celebration. On its surface, A Hard Day’s Night is neither more nor less than an extended outburst of blissful, youthful energy centered around the latest pop sensation. In the context of its time and the country of its origin, it was the first crest of the new order — from now on entertainment and art, that nexus where the Beatles flourished, would more closely reflect the world of its audience (or so it seemed).
In America, the context in which the film was received was different. It was seen by many adult critics, with some amazement, as a “youth” film that wasn’t boneheaded. Lester’s faux-cinema vérité approach was appreciated; the witticisms in the script, most of them courtesy of Irish playwright Alun Owen, were quoted as examples of a new anarchic style; and the playful personalities (as well as the overwhelmingly charismatic gestalt) of John, Paul, George and Ringo, won over many who still thought of the group as fodder for teenage daydreams. One critic called it the Citizen Kane of movie musicals, while several others evoked the Marx Brothers. In retrospect, this seems a little extreme.
For those who haven’t seen it, the film is very slight, a mockumentary on a day in the life of the Fab Four. Besieged by fans, the band spends a lot of time bundled away in enclosed spaces, a bonded quartet of sanity in a world of nutty adults. There’s a half-hearted subplot involving Ringo’s momentary abandonment of the group, and some nice character turns by Wilfrid Brambell as Paul’s meddling grandfather and Victor Spinetti as a hypertense TV director. The jokes, which seemed at the time to be state-of-the-art non sequiturs, are pretty sophomoric, but benefit from their deadpan Liverpudlian delivery.
But if some of the film now seems quaint, the music, which from our distant perspective often sounds closer to folk than rock, still has the ability to charm. And when the group breaks loose from its handlers to run amok to the strains of “Can’t Buy Me Love,” all the movie’s claims to classic status seem justified. Even though as a film it’s only good, as a cultural artifact it remains essential viewing.
Showing exclusively at the Main Art Theatre (118 N. Main, Royal Oak — call 248-542-0180) and the Michigan Theater (603 E. Liberty, Ann Arbor — call 734-668-8480).
E-mail Richard C. Walls at email@example.com.