The Beatles: A Hard Day’s Night is Still The Greatest Jukebox Movie Ever Made

A Hard Day’s Night was more than the Citizen Kane of Jukebox films, it was an early clue to a new direction.

I was a Beatle baby. Still am. I learned to play music through Beatle fake books, learned my morals, politics, philosophy and even how to write from the Beatles. In His Own Write was a children’s book to me. “Yeah yeah yeah” were my first words. 

A Hard Day’s Night is one year younger than me. I have seen it at least fifty times. Once a year, some years twice. Or more. Not only can I recite this movie without a click track, I can do it chord for chord with a guitar on my neck and a harmonica in my gob. You would think this was the review I was born to write. In the words of Tweek from South Park: too much pressure. Control yourself. You’ll spurt.

It’s not that I don’t have words to describe how much joy this film brings me, no matter how many times I watch it and I binge-Beatle constantly. It’s figuring out what to leave out. I mean in my “valueless opinion,” The Beatles are “really fab. I dig them and all those other pimply hyperboles.” But it is more than that. They were “an early clue to a new direction.” They were also “troublemakers” who missed the memo saying “the new thing” was to “care passionately and be right wing.”

They revolutionized music, adding chords and time signature changes and playing around with instrumentation. But they also helped bring revolution nine to the film industry. Motion Pictures would never be able to discount the art in rock and roll movies again. The film is consistently listed in the top 100 greatest movies ever made. Along with Let It Be, which I actually always preferred because the Beatles weren’t acting as Beatles (or wizards or being played by other actors’ voices but) being Beatles, it perfectly bookends a perfect musical career. Yes, as much as I will gush about this movie, it’s not even my favorite Beatle film, so maybe I should curb my adenoidal glottal stop and not carry on for your benefit.

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I could listen to them for hours. There they are up on the screen: The Beatles. And they look just like them. Four working class lads (now, that’s embarrassing) from the north of England trapped in a world they created that they have no control over. They are decidedly straitjacketed. Their existence has been reduced to a “a train and a room and a car and a room and a room and a room.” They are pushed and prodded by Shake and Norm, cut off from sandwiches and sandwiched at all times by screaming fans giving chase. They are only free when they’re plugged in.

Fiftysomething years ago some guy from Philly pointed his camera at four young musicians from Liverpool and created what was, at the time, the Citizen Kane of jukebox movies. Jukebox movies were low-budget quickie films that capitalized on any rock and roll or pop star that happened to be popular the week the movie was shooting. Or they were in the neighborhood. It didn’t really matter, as long as someone drove them back to the hotel and paid for a meal. They’d trot out their latest hit while someone twisted the night away and Alan Freed made small talk.

Jukebox movies were usually named after the biggest song in the film, Rock Around The Clock, Don’t Knock the Rock, The Girl Can’t Help It, or the refrain like Go Johnny Go, or at least have rock in the title, Rock You Sinners, Mr. Rock and Roll, or Shake Rattle and Rock. Jukebox films didn’t have much in the way of plot and less in the way of character development. It usually centered around some kind of rock and roll show that was either happening or being prevented from happening, a stalled car stranding a tour bus or a busboy trying to sing his way out of being a juvenile delinquent or an angry city council pulling out what little hair they had over zoning laws. Or they had Elvis and were about a kid who drove a truck but knew how to swivel his hips and sneer.

A static camera caught the electricity. In Elvis the Pelvis’ case, from the waist up. Jukebox movies were what made a young John Lennon take notice of the stage, the amplifiers and the screaming girls and say “that’s a good job.”

The screenplay for A Hard Day’s Night was written by Alun Owen, a fellow Liverpudlian (leaver-puller?) who was a comic playwright. He spent a weekend with the Beatles and broke them down into easy stereotypes: John the cynic, Paul the cute one, George the mean one, Ringo the lovable one with the nose so large his neck trembled under the very weight of it.

All four Beatles were natural comic actors. Well, maybe not Paul. McCartney was a lot of things: a natural musician, wordsmith, and melody maker; a truly innovative bass player, not that bad a guitarist or drummer either; a casual wit and exuberant performer. But he was a self-conscious comic actor. He flubs timing, rushes cues, and reacts to lines before they’re said. There is a photoplay book of the full A Hard Day’s Night shooting script and Paul’s solo scene is written and there are pictures, but it didn’t make it into the final film. He’s the only Beatle without solo screen time. He’d get better. By the time The Beatles made Let It Be, he was probably the funniest in the group. His Mario Lanza impression in “Besame Mucho” has Lennon cracking up, though the audience never sees it. Richard Lester later apologized for Paul, explaining that the cute Beatle had an actress-girlfriend and may have tried too hard.

Ringo acted naturally as a comic performer. He was a mocker, but he was also an everyman. Trade in his Pierre Cardin suit for a cloth cap and his Emperor’s new clothes leave him naked. Ringo looks like he’s actually acting, but he was only nursing a hangover. God knows what they’d unleashed on the unsuspecting south. It was wine, women, song ,and acting gigs once for Ringo once he got the taste for it. Ringo would go on to play and star in quite a few films, like Magic Christian with Peter Sellers and the spaghetti western Blindman.  I love Ringo doing a bit of jazz drumming with the TV band, riding that cymbal, snare-hits tumbling blindly.

George was also a natural, though they should have realized the phonies were so much easier to deal with. George twisted his face to look scornful, but delivered drop dead social commentary through a bored veneer. The wretched nit tells the truth about that posh bird who get everything wrong on TV. She’s “a drag, a well-known drag. Turn the sound down on her and say rude things.” It’s dead grotty.

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But the breakout comic performance comes from the rhythm guitarist and mouth organ player. A Hard Day’s Night is a laugh a line with Lennon, the film caught Lennon’s casual acerbity. Lennon was famous for keeping people at a distance with his biting wit. His very first exchange with Paul’s grandfather is an attack. The clean old man has been nursing a broken heart. Lennon squeezes pop menace from every syllable. He finds so many ways to call Norm a pig. From asking if he knows he’s a swine, to telling him he’d “look great with an apple in your gob” to just snorting and pointing, he gets his message across. Notice the true menace in his eyes the split second before he scissors the measuring tape in declaration of an open bridge.

Lennon also gets to do a couple of pervy turns with just the downturn of a mouth (“I bet you can’t guess what I’m in for?” “orgy orgy”). I always thought John wrote cunnilingus as the hobby that made the woman reporter gasp. He often said that “Please Please Me” was about oral sex, which by extension would make “I’ll Get You” in the end about anal sex. In later life, Lennon would also sing “sometimes I feel like going down” and “going down on love.” So I’m confident of that interpretation.

Besides the Beatles, A Hard Day’s Night featured Norman Rossington as Norm, kind of a stand-in for Brian Epstein, who is said to have a small bit part in the movie, though I haven’t caught it (though I did catch Mal Evans carrying a cello in the “she looks more like him than I do” scene), but probably more resembling the Beatles first manager Allan Williams. Williams was the guy who sent them to Hamburg.

John Junkin plays Shake, Ringo’s Son of Mad-reading sister and the band’s road manager. Victor Spinetti plays the TV director. I can’t think of another actor who so commits to a role. There is a madness to his method. Years later, when discussing the role of director, Victor would lose that delicate thread that separates actor from role and once again inhabit the part. He dove so far into it that I wonder if he ever got out again. Spinetti would take time away from his wife (Probably doesn’t even have a wife, look at that sweater) to act for the Beatles again in Help! and Magical Mystery Tour. He also adapted and directed a play based on Lennon’s In His Own Write that was staged at London’s Old Vic theater. Spinetti died, sadly, on Paul McCartney’s birthday, June 18, 2012.

The stuffed shirt in a derby on the train is played by Richard Vernon. The ad exec, Simon, who I quoted so liberally in my opening, was played by Shakespearean actor Kenneth Haigh. He said he didn’t know who the Beatles were when he recorded it and hated that part. Yeah, hated it all the way to the bank. Haigh was hot off his almost featured role in the blockbuster Cleopatra.

John Bluthal plays the car thief and Derek Nimmo plays Leslie Jackson and three of his 10, I mean 9 Disappearing Doves. The mini-Ringo deserter kid is played by David Janson. His buddies, Ginger, Eddie Fallon and Ding Dong, are each budding Quarry Men, (Gingers’ mad says things, Eddie’s good at spitting and punching, and Ding Dong, well he’s a big head. He fancies himself, but it’s all right because he’s part of the gang). Somewhere in the concert sequence, Genesis drummer and all around abacab Phil Collins swears he can be seen.

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What can be seen is Patti Boyd as one of the giggling school girls who is pushed away by Paul’s grandfather but breathlessly listens to “I Should Have Known Better” in the baggage car. Boyd is the one with the line, the one who tries to touch Ringo, the one with the sexy overbite. George Harrison would make an honest woman of her until she caught a dose of the Clapton. The other girl in the dining car is played by Prudence Bury. Oh, the homeless guy you see when the Beatles go through the little tent thingy looks like Paul’s real-life father. Don’t know whether that’s him, never saw a reference. Gotta check that.

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Who did I leave out? Ah, Wilfrid Brambell who plays Paul’s grandfather, because he’s entitled to two. He played a dirty old man on a British TV series called Steptoe and Son. It was remade in the United States as Sanford and Son where legendary blue comedian Redd Foxx played the dirty old man.

Neither the clean old man, nor the Beatles, nor the film itself, were as clean as you’d think…no matter how many baths John gets torpedoed in. The movie is intentionally sloppy, you see lights and ladders, control panels, all the things that are usually hidden from film, demystifying it all into mythology. There is constant bad continuity. The shirts the Beatles wear are replaced by turtlenecks mid-scene, but it’s got to be an in-joke. It’s almost surreal, something the Beatles would explore later. There is subtle political and social comment hiding behind bourgeoisie clichés, “the community and the workers and all that,” “betrayed your class,” “taxes caught up with us at last?”

The movie also takes on indolent cops and subtle racism. All coppers are villains. When Ringo is arrested for conduct liable to cause a breach of the peace, the cop calls him a little aborigine. Paul’s grandfather sees the cops for what they are, ugly great brutes with sadism stamped all over their bloated British kissers who have matured hands for pounding defenseless boys like Ringo. Cops who would one day trade the rubber hoses they beat people with, for fear of leaving tell-tale scars, for pepper spray and riot gear in the later sixties. When these cops get you down the floor you’d better watch out for your brisket, pulp by now.

The filmed press conferences were only almost as funny as the real ones. The film mocks the afflicted. Like British men dancing. Or jumping up and down, doing the Freddy. That’s an in-joke, you know. A Hard Day’s Night is filled with in-jokes. We don’t get all the references, we don’t care. Though that pose is out, Sunny Jim. The “We’ve become a limited company” line is funnier in England than in America because it’s a play on a British business term. And lines, ducky, how they handle lines, even the smallest of bit parts are acted with comic brilliance. Listen to the actor who Lennon threatens with “Do you want a punch on the frog tunic?” He answers no as if it was a real question.

Besides the in-jokes and dialogue in general, A Hard Day’s Night has set pieces that could have gone into any Marx Brothers movie. The timing of that cantina coffee cup scene, where the filthy rich Lord John McCartney abandons his coffee cup in a search for sugar only to find that the cup has been bussed by the time he gets back to the table, is perfect. 

Throughout the beginning of the film, The Beatles know how to behave, they’ve had lessons. The authority figures in the film, the professionals, the middle aged boy wonders, squeeze them tighter as the film progresses. They don’t notice what they’re doing to the talent because being middle aged and old takes up much of their time. (“Don’t breathe on me Adrian.”) The ceilings are low and the rooms are cramped. The band escapes to an even smaller space, among the amps and suitcases in storage. The movie gets more and more claustrophobic even after the young musicians are released from the confines of the train and everything gets narrower until they find a fire escape.

The explosion of “Can’t Buy Me Love” is pure filmmaking. It is the camera having fun. It is the best music video ever made. It’s got humor, excitement, fun and sport. Slo Mo. Fast mo. No Mo. Mo. Aerial shots, panning shots, bank shots. And ends on a bit with social bite. The freedom of “Can’t Buy Me Love” is reprised when the Beatles have to liberate their forlorn drummer from the stipendiary in time for the big shoe.

The whole movie builds to the concert. It opens with the unbridled enthusiasm of “Tell Me Why,”  those drums – that triplet and cymbal crash – those harmonies – so exciting. It drops in tempo to “If I Fell,” with that implied melody. Listen to the song again, the melody that you think is there. The thing you sing when you hum along to it, it doesn’t exist. The melodic line is created by the opposing harmonies. They break into “I Should Have Known Better” and on the line “hey hey hey,” The Beatles invented Fat Albert. The concert ends where it all began: “She Loves You.”

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According to Beatle mythology, the closest thing to a religion I’ve ever studied seriously, Walter Shenson, who was producing the pic, told Lennon the movie title was A Hard Day’s Night and, oh, he’d better write a song to go with it. Lennon cursed and fumed and bitched and moaned, but came back with it ten hours later. He didn’t want Paul to come up with something in the meantime. Paul sang the middle eight because Lennon said he couldn’t hit the notes. My favorite moment of the song itself is at the end of the second middle eight when McCartney screams “Tight Yeah” and Lennon moans “mmm.”

And that chord. That opening chord. Two guitars: one electric, played by Harrison, one acoustic, played by Lennon; a piano, played by George Martin and one note on the bass from McCartney. For forty years guitarists have been showing me how to play that chord, all wrong. The closest I’ve come was when I accidently dropped a de-tuned guitar while it was plugged in. It probably wasn’t close at all, but it echoed that way. I have to take out the mystery.

Guitar World quoted George Martin as saying it’s an “F with a G on top.”  Guitar World’s resident guitar geek says the easiest way to play it is a G seventh suspended fourth, with an added A. They call it an Fadd9. It’s a fucking X Chord. It exudes excitement. Fourier’s be damned.

Let’s talk about Richard Lester. Lester liberates the camera, lets it run as wild as the singing moptops. Lester showed up in England when they knew nothing about filming TV shows and became a master class teacher and was teamed up with a radio clown show called The Goon Show to present them on TV in a show called The Idiot Weekly. The classic British comedy troupe was created by Spike Milligan and featured loons like Harry Secombe, Peter Sellers, and Michael Bentine. The Goon Show squad invented Monty Python, but that’s an entirely different story.

Lester made a short film with the Goonies called The Running Jumping and Standing Still Film. He made it for 75 pounds. Lester pointed his camera as Peter Sellers, Spike Milligan, Mario Fabrizi, David Lodge, Leo McKern, Graham Stark, Bruce Lacey and Norman Rossington ran, jumped and stood still. It you can sit through it without laughing, you should seek counseling. The Beatles saw it and were taken by Lester’s “useless amateurism.” Walter Shenson, the producer, told the American director, on behalf of the group, that he had passed the audition he never knew he took.

Lester decided that the Beatles had to play themselves, not something like The Three Musketeers, though, you can watch a Tiny Tim version of that somewhere I’m sure. That useless amateurism caught ladders and boom boxes in the frame, things proper movies would never show. His cameras shot right up the nostrils of what was being packaged as a kind of boy band. By trampling all over the conventions of filmmaking, Lester was able to capture something wild and fun. If A Hard Day’s Night is nothing else, it is fun and it will never cease to be fun. Monstrous marauding aliens can find a time capsule of this millennia after our sun collapses on itself and if they don’t laugh, they should seek counselling.

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A Hard Day’s Night was nominated for two Academy awards. It’s on the wall in someone’s office. 

Culture Editor Tony Sokol cut his teeth on the wire services and also wrote and produced New York City’s Vampyr Theatre and the rock opera AssassiNation: We Killed JFK. Read more of his work here or find him on Twitter @tsokol.


5 out of 5