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'Working Like A Dog': A Hard Day's Night at 50

Written by Rick Wallace.

Photo from the article It was fifty years ago today…well on 6th July 1964, at any rate, that A Hard Day's Night was initially released in cinemas. Since then it has gone on to be remembered as perhaps the integral artifact of the Beatlemania phenomenon. As such hold a key place in The Beatles' popular appeal. It's this film, more than any other Beatles product, which established its stars as individuals, rather than as a collection and thus elongated their lifespan. It's impact can also be seen in the frequently made assertion that due to the innovative depiction of musical numbers in the film (and it's follow-up, 1965's Help!) director Richard Lester was effectively the father of MTV (though Lester himself has frequently requested a paternity test). Given its importance, it is perhaps unsurprising that Andrew Sarris saw fit to call the film 'the Citizen Kane of Jukebox musicals'.

There's no denying that this is an important and interesting film, but it seems to me that what makes it particularly interesting is the way that it brings a number of contradictory elements into harmonious balance. In this article I would like to explore three of them: the tension between the film's status as a landmark film and it's more modest origins; the relationship between the quasi-documentary aesthetic and the moments of near-surrealism that threaten to overturn it; and, thirdly, the way the film's focus on the pressures of fame is almost contradictorily presented as a vibrant, fun and light-hearted run-around.

The opening of this piece has gone some way to suggest the status that the film has developed over time, and indeed at its moment of release it was viewed as significant. However, what's often forgotten in discussions of the film is that to all intents and purposes A Hard Day's Night was devised as a low budget exploitation film. It was produced quickly and cheaply because United Artists held the rights to a soundtrack album that they knew would sell in shedloads, as long as there was a film to set it to; an example of early-1960s conglomeration at its most efficient. It was, therefore, designed to make as much money as possible from a relatively cheap product (it cost around -£190,000), and build around a commodity that was presumed at that point in time to be a flash-in-the-pan. That the time between the start of shooting and the premiere was only a little over four months seems astonishing today.

Given the production context, one of the astounding achievements of A Hard Day's Night, then, is that it didn't end up as a series of limp performances of half-baked songs strung together by a drama-lite plot and shot in a functional, but ultimately uninteresting way, as had become the norm for similar films of the era (think of the mid-60s efforts of Cliff Richard or Elvis). Indeed the film even gestures towards these stale conventions in the build up to the song 'I'm happy Just to Dance With You', when John Lennon follows a Lionel Blair dance routine choreographed to an easy listening version of the song, by excitedly, but with his tongue firmly in his cheek, suggesting that they 'do the show right here!'. The irony of the comment is diffused through the fact that when they do burst into song seconds later, it isn't being performed for us, with the real world melting away into some dream-like space. Instead it is as part of a day of intense rehearsals for a live show, a fact reinforced by the presence of rehearsing television cameras, the viewing screens of which are in turn filmed by Lester's film cameras, creating a complex and sophisticated performance that combines a number of different levels of visualisation.

So this first set of tensions revolves around the fact that such attention was paid to a film that was viewed by the studio as a simple moneymaking exercise. Lester's direction, Alun Owen's pitch perfect script and the Beatles themselves bring a level of invention and freshness to the proceedings that couldn't help but produce something unique. This naturally feeds into the film at both a narrative and aesthetic level, which brings me onto the second major set of oppositions: the creation of a visual style that is at once documentary-like and incredibly stylised.

The Beatles' huge success in America immediately prior to the beginning of shooting could have led to an increase in budget, however this was resisted by Lester and Walter Shenson (the producer) as it was felt that the stylistic effects that they were after couldn't be improved by the addition of (for instance) colour. This wasn't just a sensible move, but an intuitive one, as Lester's conscious stylistic allusion to American monochrome direct cinema documentaries is contingent on a shaky, hand-held, low-budget style. This aesthetic realism is reflected in the script which takes a 'day in the life' structure as we follow the band (who are at no point in the film are referred to as The Beatles) as they rehearse for and finally perform a live TV concert. The film gets the best out of its non-actor stars by placing them in a diegesis that strongly resembles the real world in which they were operating at the time. The lines were drawn from the band-members own vernacular, and as a result John, Paul, George and Ringo look relaxed and the jokes ring true. One only needs to compare the film with the documentary shot four weeks earlier by the Maysles brothers for Granada's World in Action to see the similarities. Almost the only difference between the locations, actions and narrative trajectory of the two films is that the Beatles smoke more cigarettes in the documentary.

However, despite this commitment to realism in style and content, there is a concurrent surreal streak that runs mischievously alongside and which threatens to overturn the otherwise sobering visual style. The realism of the situation and of the camera movements and image grain means that the move from a game of cards to a musical performance ('I Should Have Known Better') feels far more natural, but also far more challenging and interesting than any of the 'audio dissolves' (to use Rick Altman's formulation) found in contemporary pop musicals - Cliff Richard spontaneously bursting into song at a bus mechanics this is not. The band members appearing outside of a moving train to taunt a 'square' establishment figure, and Lennon's impossible tub disappearance half way through the film are both brilliantly ludicrous (and there is a resonance in the latter example with Harry Lime's famous disappearing act at the conclusion of his first appearance in The Third Man, a film which similarly upsets the realism of the situation with its stylised camera angles). The balance between the spontaneous documentary look and the artistic nature of the film is perfectly captured in one specific camera movement that Lester has suggested took several hours to prepare (hardly the on-the-fly filming that the style suggests). This occurs during the 'rehearsal' (I put rehearsal in scare quotes here, because although narratively this is a rehearsal, from the point of view of the cinema audience this is a full-blown performance) of the song 'And I Love Her' and the hand-held camera makes a seemingly unsteady and uncertain circular track through 90 degree, moving from a close up of the front of McCartney face to his profile. It is transformed into a moment of magic due to Lester's decision to shoot directly into one of the lighting rigs, thus saturating the image with light before the singer's face intervenes to create a harshly rendered silhouette; it is a moment where meticulous planning is made to look spontaneous.

This balancing of the 'serious' documentary form with the fun and innovative interjections is characteristic of The Beatles themselves and was a key part of their star persona, particularly during these early years. The refusal to play by the rules is something that fits the Beatles perfectly, so the playful mix of styles, modes and tonal registers is a perfect star vehicle. This is moved another level further thanks to the relationship with the third major paradox at the heart of the film. It is important here that the film takes the 'day in the life', because whilst the 90 minutes of screen time bring us closer to our idols and provide a sense of what it might be like to be a Beatle there is an underlying sense that this is only one day. We get to spend one day enduring the trials and tribulations of the press conferences, the hotel rooms, the fan mail, the rehearsals, the make-up rooms, the invasions of privacy etc. but this is routine of The Beatles' lives every day. That A Hard Day's Night doesn't show us a particularly special day, just an average one, is the key aspect of the film's effect in two contradictory ways: it lets the fans experience everyday life s a Beatles, whilst also demonstrating how trying and unpleasant this life must be for them. The film begins as we arrive by train from the previous assignment, and when the film concludes with the band leaving London via helicopter to 'push on to Wolverhampton' for a midnight matinee we realise just how much of a hard day's night life it really is for our leading men.

The key success of the film, then, is that it doesn't try to be trite, sentimental and saccharine about the joys of stardom. Instead it offers an ironic satire of the trappings of fame, where the only genuine escape seems to be to do some work. Any form of relaxation is cut short in the film, it's when they're playing their music (and it's a flawless soundtrack) that they seem to be really enjoying themselves. That the film manages to offer such a complex commentary of the conditions of the pop industry whilst always maintaining the veneer of the exhilarating and fun pop musical is its key strength and this is played out through the tensions that I have outlined throughout this article. Ultimately it is a satisfying film because its surface simplicity masks a denser and subtler critique that can be appreciated more clearly as time goes on. It's why it still fascinates me dozens of viewings later, and it's why it's selling out cinema screens around the world 50 years later.

This article was published on July 14, 2014.

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