Just as I’ll be telling my kids that they simply can’t imagine what the Harry Potter frenzy was like, and just as Harry’s fans today simply can’t imagine how huge Star Wars was, I simply can’t ever genuinely know what Beatlemania was like, seeing as how I was still in diapers when the Fab Four broke up.
But A Hard Day’s Night gives me something of a hint. For me, the Beatles have always been part of the cultural background — “Yesterday” is, alas, Muzak piped over supermarket loudspeakers — and yet this 36-year-old film still feels fresh and spontaneous. Captured forever here in a filmic bottle is pop-culture lightning, not only Beatles magic and energy but the spirit of the early 60s that sustained it.
Night is a day in the life of the Beatles, astutely playing not themselves but their own public personae: the cute one (Paul McCartney), the intellectual one (John Lennon), the quiet one (George Harrison), the clown (Ringo Starr). Not a documentary, it nevertheless could be, following as it does the lads from Liverpool to a London television studio, evading hoards of fans who have “gone potty,” enduring ear-piercing screeches from besotted teenage girls, sneaking out of their hotel for a night on the town, befuddling journalists at a press conference, evading their handlers, driving to distraction the producer of the wacky variety TV show they’re set to appear on, and generally goofing off and having the time of their lives. Paul’s (fictional) grandfather (Wilfrid Brambell) stirs up trouble for no good reason along the way.
Directed by Richard Lester in a groundbreaking style that uses handheld cameras, fast cuts, and a sporadic narrative that slams to a halt for set pieces edited to the beat of Beatles tunes including “All My Lovin’,” “Can’t Buy Me Love,” and the title song, Night is the first music video… one that has yet to be equaled for sheer toe-tapping exuberance. But perhaps more important than its stylistic influence on moving pictures of all kinds — from film to TV to music video — is that A Hard Day’s Night heralded a shift in the music industry and pop culture in general, a new paradigm that would reach its ultimate form through MTV, 17 years later. After the arrival of the Beatles and A Hard Day’s Night, the rock musicians who would become the biggest stars could no longer be only musicians — they’d have to be actors playing ever-changing fictional versions of themselves, all the time. The Beatles weren’t the earliest pop phenoms to make the transition to movies — Frank Sinatra and Elvis Presley did so successfully — but they were the first to play themselves onscreen, and to later riff on themselves to create new characters, as in Yellow Submarine (even though other actors performed the Beatles voices, they were still variants on John, Paul, George, and Ringo). Fortunately for them, they were natural comic actors all, and Night (and the later Help!) can stand firmly and surely amongst such classic film comedies as those of the Marx Brothers. Unfortunately for audiences, with the advent of MTV, anyone who hoped to be a success in music also had to play larger- than- life versions of themselves, in video after 3-minute video — and few of them were as funny or charming as the Beatles were. Those artists who did it best, like Madonna, knew that their personae would have to evolve faster than the propensity for audiences to get bored.
It’s hard to see today how four such cleanly cut, nicely dressed young men performing cheerful pop music could have caused such a sensation… until you watch A Hard Day’s Night, again or for the first time. From the famous opening chord on, I began to understand what made all those girls scream in ecstasy, and I felt so happy all over that I wanted to get up and dance in the aisles and sing along.