Music in the movies: A Hard Day’s Night

In this week’s column, Glen looks back at A Hard Day’s Night, The Beatles’ seminal 1964 movie that influenced a generation of music videos and films…

With this year marking the 60th anniversary of the formation of The Beatles, I thought I would take a look at their cinematic debut, A Hard Day’s Night.

The Film

Directed by Richard Lester, A Hard Day’s Night is the first of five Beatles movies. Of all the features they appeared in, this is undoubtedly the band’s high point. This and Yellow Submarine aside, the rest are fairly forgettable affairs that only appeal to obsessive fans of the band (of which there are many).

Although this is undoubtedly a Beatles film, the name of the band isn’t, interestingly enough, mentioned once during its runtime.

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Lester and writer Alun Owen took cues from slapstick comedies and films of the French new wave to provide an exaggerated look at a day-and-a-half of life in The Beatles, with the goal being for them to get ready for a big TV appearance. There are numerous comedy vignettes throughout and, as you would expect, lots of musical numbers.

The production was somewhat rushed and the budget relatively small (especially by modern standards), but that doesn’t show in the final product, which still holds up well today.

The film would change pop music, but also had a huge impact on cinema. Many of the scenes that feature in the film have been mimicked since, particularly the opening sequence where the band is being chased by fans.

Slick editing sees the comedic set pieces seamlessly intercut with numerous musical performances. The style Lester adopted for A Hard Day’s Night would prove influential on how music videos were made after its release.

One thing that’s particularly impressive is the quality of performances from the members of band, especially given the fact that this is their debut feature. Sure, they had plenty of years performing under their belt and frequently gave entertaining interviews, but acting is a very different type of performance altogether, and many musicians have failed to make convincing transitions to the big screen.

It, no doubt, helped that the band were playing themselves in an exaggerated version of their life, but there were signs of quality from all of the cast members.

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Of the four, it’s Ringo that comes across the best. Ringo’s performance includes great comedic timing and slapstick elements that are part Chaplin, part Marx Brothers. His delivery is dry and understated, so a lot of what he does throughout the film can go unnoticed on first viewing, but upon re-watching the film, it’s his performance that proves to be the most rewarding, with subtle comedic gems being uncovered on each viewing. He may not have been the best musician in the band, but on the evidence of this, he was certainly the best actor.

Another fine performance is from Wilfred ‘Uncle Steptoe’ Brambell who plays Paul’s grandfather. He provides a lot of the film’s moments of bad behaviour. The constant use of the phrase “He’s very clean” provides a nice counter to the phrase You dirty old mandirected at him in Steptoe And Son.

Ringo is also credited as being the inspiration for the film’s title, following him using the phrase in an interview. He didn’t put the idea forward for it to be used as the title, however, and there’s some dispute over how it came to be the title. Lennon and Lester’s version is that the director heard the phrase in the interview and decided that it would be the title, whereas McCartney would later claim that it was the band that came up with the idea of using it.

To add further confusion, the film’s producer, Walter Shenson, claimed that he decided upon the title after Lennon had run through some of Ringo’s many classic quotes.

There’s not a wasted minute in A Hard Day’s Night. It’s a relentlessly entertaining film that is not only the best film to feature The Beatles, but one of the finest British comedies of all time.

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The Music

The cultural significance of this production is incredible. The success of both the film and the accompanying soundtrack proved influential to a number of musical artists and opened doors for many of The Beatles’ contemporaries to achieve international as well as domestic success.

In terms of sheer quality of musical material contained in a movie, there aren’t many films that can rival A Hard Day’s Night.Capturing the band at the peak of Beatlemania, when they were effortlessly churning out pop hit after pop hit, few film soundtracks can boast the success of its accompanying record. The official soundtrack sold in excess of a million copies within a week of release, and the single from the film, Can’t Buy Me Love, sold similar amounts the day it hit stores.

The accompanying album was the band’s only album written exclusively by Lennon and McCartney, and was released through United Artists, who exploited a loophole in the contract the band held with Capitol that didn’t cover the release of film scores. The deal still allowed Capitol to release singles from the album, so this goes some way to explain why Capitol released as many as it did. That, plus the fact that Beatles singles were guaranteed to be big sellers.

Capitol would also later release a singles collection entitled Something New, which collected some of the material they released from the film’s soundtrack.

Not only was it the first Beatles record written entirely by Lennon and McCartney, A Hard Day’s Night was also the first album the band released that contained all original material, and marks a high point of the band’s output from that period of their career.

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