Criterion Project #45: A HARD DAY’S NIGHT (1964)

A Hard Day’s Night

Spine #711

Year: 1964

Director: Richard Lester

There’s a chance I’ve made a similar proclamation before in this very space, but here goes – A Hard Day’s Night is easily my most watched film in the Criterion catalogue. I’m sure Enter the Dragon, The Princess Bride, Dazed and Confused, The Breakfast Club, and Fast Times at Ridgemont High would like to quibble over the final numbers, but I stand by it. And while many of those films mentioned also boast killer soundtracks, none of them have provided me with as much sheer joy as our beloved Fab Four. Not even close.

Now, if you’re looking for a plot-heavy narrative involving the four most popular musicians of their generation, you’ve come to the wrong place. To be fair the film is not entirely plotless, it just takes a different path. There’s a loose structure to the story that’s built around the band’s live television performance happening later that day. Most of their time is taken up with train rides, running from screaming fans, dress rehearsals, sound checks, running from hysterical fans, parties, corralling Paul’s mischievous grandfather, and playing impromptu and, many times, magical performances of the soundtrack songs where instruments appear out of nowhere!

And I love every second of it.

The movie opens with that jarring opening chord of “A Hard Days Night” and everything is right in the world. Then we see the boys running from a horde of adoring fans, looking like they’re having the time of their lives. It’s an iconic opening that has been repurposed on a number of occasions (e.g. the opening credits of Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery (1997)). You have John, George, and Ringo posted up in the phone booth while mustachioed Paul and his grandfather hide behind newspapers like unassuming tourists as hundreds of fans rush by. It sets a perfectly playful tone. We get these goofy disguises and whatnot at the outset and it really sets up some of the sillier things we see later in the movie, like John in the bathtub and the scene in make-up & hair with the opera cast. The guys are being allowed to be playful, and they spend much of their time playing around and toying with their surroundings like physical comedians. And they’re great at it!

They finally reach the train just as it’s pulling out of the station (what timing!) and we get our first taste of the best scenes of the film – hanging out with the group. They get situated in one of the train’s cars and you almost feel immediately at home with them. The room consists of John, Paul, George, Ringo, and a little, “clean”, old man sitting next to Paul. Naturally, the first words out of John’s mouth are, “Who’s the little old man?” Paul plays it straight and details that the old man is his grandfather who’s along for the ride because he’s nursing a broken heart. George follows with a wry comment and then the conversation is punctuated with a goofy joke and a laugh from Ringo. If you’re a kid like I was and completely enamored with this legendary band, this is all surreal. And that was for a kid in the late 1980s, I’m sure it felt more so in 1964. Being in the room with these guys, experiencing this dynamic, getting to be a fly on the wall and feel that you’re getting to know them is incredible. And it would seem Director Richard Lester knew exactly how to capture their essence.

The banter moves along and we meet their manager, Norm (Norman Rossington), and stagehand, Shake (John Junkin), who have the unfortunate task of keeping the boys in line and on schedule. I actually feel like these supporting characters are not only memorable but imperative to the film. The interactions and arguments between each other and between them and the band feel like worn territory, like this is how these people ALWAYS argue and not like these are lines being read from a script. John and Norm, in particular, have a cantankerous relationship that genuinely sticks out as one of the most memorable and humorous bonds in the movie. The supporting characters have to feel real because they’re playing opposite real people (or slight variations of real people) and I think that’s part of why the film is so good.

And you can’t mention memorable characters from A Hard Day’s Night without talking about Paul’s grandfather – simply credited as Grandfather (Wilfrid Brambell). His line readings appear in my head, at random, to this day and he just gives one of those performances that keeps the movie going when the music stops. Much of the story with the band revolves around their busy schedule and those few brief windows of freedom away from supervision where they get to run amok like children. But they also have to spend a fair amount of time reigning in grandfather and his shenanigans, which kind of makes him an important part of the fun. From shotgun engagements and gambling halls to forgery and conspiracy, it’s a role and a performance that has to stand toe-to-toe with the mega-sonic star power and charisma of the freaking Beatles in 1964. And he did it wonderfully.

Now, if we’re discussing which movie soundtrack I listened to the most from the Criterion Collection, this is it by a landslide – and it might even be the overall movie soundtrack champ for me as well. As was the case with Enter the Dragon, my Beatles fandom is a result of my dad’s fandom being passed down to me. He introduced me to the music on vinyl and I was hooked. It was years later we watched the movie and by then I was more familiar with the songs on the soundtrack than anything in the movie. And I certainly wasn’t disappointed to find out the movie has so much more going for it than just the soundtrack.

Which, for my buck, is the best non-score soundtrack in the history of film. There’s no connective tissue binding any of the music to the narrative, but as a collection of pop/rock songs it’s hard to beat. It opens with the aforementioned titular track and is followed by perhaps my favorite song of the film (depending on which day you ask me) and perhaps my favorite “performance” in the movie with the harmonica-driven track, “I Should Have Known Better”.

Previous to this song being played, they haven’t been on the train very long and Grandfather has already gotten himself into trouble, which lands him behind bars in the pet/luggage car. Before long the whole gang joins him in incarceration for some card games and playful shenanigans. Suddenly an audience of schoolgirls have gathered around their cage and the boys break into song – complete with full band set-up. Between the spontaneity of the act and the sudden appearance of musical instruments that weren’t present moments before, it’s just a perfect introduction to what this movie will be. When I hear the harmonica rise up during the makeshift card game, I’m in my happy place.

There is, of course, the iconic sequence that we all know and love just before the 3rd act when the boys frolic around a playground to the catchy vibe of “Can’t Buy Me Love”. They even sprinkle in a non-soundtrack in a dance club with the peppy “I Wanna Be Your Man”, which I was on the official album. I, personally, love when George gets to take the microphone for his dance jam, “I’m Happy Just to Dance With You”, not to mention his complete non-sequitur with the trendsetters that was shoe-horned in just so he had something to do in the film. I just love this song from him. And that’s without mentioning the outstanding ballads, “If I Fell” and “And I Her”, and the sorrowful “That Boy” that scores Ringo’s big sequence late in the movie.

The entire film culminates in a slapstick police chase that really injects some adrenaline into the film leading right into the big performance. The boys barely make it in time and then we get a lively show of featured songs we’ve mostly heard before, save for a personal favorite of mine, “Tell Me Why”. Humorously, during a live performance in the final moments of a movie entitled A Hard Day’s Night, the big number that gets played from start to finish (most of the other songs are played in clips) and seals the climax of the film is “She Loves You” – a gigantic hit for the group, but it’s not featured on this album. I’d give the film a minor deduction for that but I’d never deduct points for playing “She Loves You”.

This film is an all-timer for me. One of my favorite mood-boosters and an undeniable comfort film. It’s one I’ve been watching since I was young and listening to my dad’s old Beatles records in my room. The combination of the superb music and the band’s chemistry with the script and the supporting characters is flawless. As a film it’s as entertaining a movie as you can find, and as a musical experience I think it’s one of the most fun and engaging musicals I’ve ever seen and/or heard.

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