(This is the 9th of 50 pieces that originally appeared in a Facebook group devoted to three of us choosing our 50 favorite movies. I’ll present them un-edited except for typos or egregious errors. I’ll also add a post-script to each.)
Before A Hard Day’s Night, rock and roll movies fell into two basic categories. There were the cheap exploitation films that stuffed as many rock acts into the flimsy plot as possible, and there were Elvis movies. Elvis showed promise in a few of his earlier pictures, but by 1964 he was already reduced to Kissin’ Cousins (and, to be fair, Viva Las Vegas, which wasn’t as bad as most of them). Beatlemania meant that the Beatles were prime candidates for a quickie pic designed to milk the pop culture moment before the kids moved on to something new. So the budget was set at just over half-a-million dollars, and the director’s chair was handed to a TV director with only two features on his resume, a sequel to The Mouse That Roared, and one of the rock and roll quickies, It’s Trad, Dad, which featured Chubby Checker, Del Shannon, Gary U.S. Bonds, Gene Vincent, Gene McDaniels and more.
He also directed the Oscar-nominated short The Running Jumping & Standing Still Film with Peter Sellers and Spike Milligan. It was a plot-less gag fest, with joke piling on joke in a surreal fashion. It was this short, more than anything else Lester had done, that offered hints of what would become A Hard Day’s Night. (You can watch it at the following link.)
For A Hard Day’s Night, Lester and screenwriter Alun Owen gave the producers what they wanted: plenty of Beatle songs, with lots of close-ups of the lads, attached to a minimalist plot about a day in the life of the Beatles. But they were also up to something greater, and the Beatles turned out to be the perfect cast. Owen spent time with the group, forming easy-to-recognize stereotypes that felt precise (John witty, Paul cute, George shy, Ringo Ringo). The dialogue was fun, and Lester pasted over everything with a frenetic editing style that mirrored the frenetic lives of the four mop tops.
The result was a movie that convinced even grownups that these Beatles were A-OK. It didn’t hurt that the music was great (the U.K. album A Hard Day’s Night remains the best of their career). Lester and Owen captured the Beatlemania moment, and turned an unappreciated genre (pop musical) into a work of art. After A Hard Day’s Night, it was a lot harder to sit through a typical exploitation cheapie.
My favorite scene happens to also be Roger Ebert’s, the concert scene at the end of the film that climaxes with “She Loves You.” Ebert calls it “one of the most sustained orgasmic sequences in the movies.” He’s right on target.
Unsurprisingly, given the origins of this group in an earlier trip through favorite music, most of the comments talked as much about the Beatles as they did about the movie. Consensus? The Beatles rooled.