A Hard Day’s Night (1964): Turning 50 and Coming to Theatres Again This Summer

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A Hard Day’s Night, directed by Richard Lester, is turning 50 this year. To commemorate, the Criterion Collection is releasing the film in a gorgeous digital restoration with new sound mixes overseen by George Martin at Abbey Road Studios. There will be a commentary track and deluxe special features. Also, awesomely, it is going to hit theaters again on July 4, 2014. It will play all over the country, all 50 states. Here’s the new trailer for the re-release.

The film is a goofball classic, featuring the Beatles racing around London being pursued by a screaming mob of girls. They are about to appear on a variety show, and their manager has a hell of a time keeping the boys on track. Answer your fan mail, show up for rehearsal, be good boys. But they just can’t. They keep sneaking out of the hotel room to go out dancing, or, in the case of Ringo, to try to live life as an anonymous citizen. The situation is exacerbated by Paul’s wacko grandfather, who is basically a revolutionary disguised as a harmless dotty old man, and he is devoted to causing mischief and wreaking havoc.

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Richard Lester directed and it’s impossible to overstate the influence Hard Day’s Night has had on our culture. It is still being imitated today. Or, the imitations are imitating the imitations. The film’s impact has been so completely absorbed that you can’t even feel it anymore. But that’s the beauty of going back to the original: you can see it there, in clear crisp black-and-white, the genesis of so much, the genesis of everything. The film has a wacky screwball vibe, with visual jokes and slapstick elements, all of which land perfectly. There’s one scene where the grandfather, futzing around backstage at the theatre, accidentally flips a switch and he is then propelled up through the floor of the stage, smack-dab into the middle of some ridiculous opera act. It’s a gloriously silly and outrageously funny sight gag (and, of course, shows up again in one of the final moments of the film.)

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At this point in their careers, The Beatles had just appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show, and we all know the mayhem that erupted as a result. They filmed Hard Day’s Night in the wake of that, and it’s that rare document that actually captures the moment in time just as something is “hitting”. Elvis Presley’s three appearances on the Ed Sullivan Show have a similar interest: Filmed over a three month period, during which time Elvis was starting to film Love Me Tender, and was causing riots at his shows in Texas and Florida and elsewhere, the Ed Sullivan appearances were mainstream America’s introduction to the greasy-haired “hillbilly cat” from the South. The regional star went international, almost overnight. And you can SEE it happening in that footage. You can FEEL the seismic shift in the culture. Such moments are rare. A Hard Day’s Night is both a visual evocation of what exploding fame feels like as well as a commentary ON the fame the Beatles had achieved. It doesn’t take itself seriously, which is one of the film’s aces in the hole. It is filled with mockery and humor, cheeky behavior, wisecracks. But it is also an act of myth-making. Seen today, the four boys look so young! So fresh-faced. Such bad teeth! And, at times, achingly beautiful, especially John. But the idolatry is undercut by humor every step of the way, which is a great look, a great feel. It’s a slam-dunk, really. Because fame is seen as so important, and it IS so important … but the best stars know they have to manage it with humor and self-deprecation.

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One of my favorite sections of the film is when the lads bust out of the back door of the theatre, trample down the fire escape, and race across a nearby field, all to the accompaniment of “Can’t Buy Me Love”. Some of it is filmed from the vantage point of a helicopter, a great choice, because it makes them seem so small, first of all, which, ironically, makes them seem completely ENORMOUS. As though they are so huge that they can be seen from space. It’s also a great way to show the four guys catapulting about in space together. There’s a manic Benny Hill feeling to the sequence, and the joy of it still sparks off the screen today. It’s infectious.

George Harrison once said that fame at the level they experienced was like an “assault” on the ego. The only reason they were able to survive it at all was because they had each other. They could hole up in a hotel room and goof off and commiserate and take the edge off of what was happening out there with The Beatles (™). To compare, Elvis was out there alone. No wonder he surrounded himself with a Praetorian guard. He understood the “assault on the ego”. He handled it the best way he knew how. He had no one to commiserate with, no one who “got it”. Even other stars couldn’t “get it” because nobody was as big as he was.

There’s a nod to Elvis in the film. The butler at the hotel room, who is locked in the closet by the escaping grandfather, keeps himself occupied by reading a movie magazine with a giant photo of Elvis on the front page. It’s a reminder of that great anecdote from George Harrison. He was asked what his musical roots were. He said he had none. The only “root” he could think of was riding his bicycle down a street in Liverpool when he was a kid and hearing “Heartbreak Hotel” from out of an open window. Holy shit, is basically what I have to say to THAT.

The “Can’t Buy Me Love” section is such a beautiful and hilarious sequence of both together-ness (seen from far above, symbolic of the fame that was isolating them) and individuality. Even from the helicopter, you can tell which one is which. They seem to take great joy in one another, and really just seem to be a bunch of young Liverpool lads having a blast. There’s that great quote from John Lennon, one of the best examples of understatement I can think of: “We were four guys… just a band who made it very, very big. That’s all.”

Oh. Is “that all”?

Director Richard Lester took a goofy screwball approach, packing the film with visual gags and hijinx (I love when the boys carry John by the window of the train compartment), and filling it with inside jokes, like Ringo’s sense of inferiority. The songs are woven through, sometimes we see a straight performance, and other times, like the “Can’t Buy Me Love” section, it’s a music video. The pack of screaming girls pursuing them throughout the film seem like a wild collective beast, and during the final performance, seen on the variety show, there are some great shots from behind the band, looking out at the theatre filled with screaming girls. There’s one girl Lester keeps focusing on, a blonde girl, with tears down her face, her heart literally breaking at the sight of the four guys up onstage.

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It was touching, and a powerful reminder that sniffing dismissively at teenage girls’ mania for the things they love is not only cruel but idiotic. Teenage girls are often RIGHT about things before the culture is ready to accept it. When teenage girls decide to love something, they break down police barriers to get to it. Instead of making fun of teenage girls for losing their ever-loving minds about something, perhaps critics should follow the sound of the screams and try to understand what the fuss is about. Don’t judge them. Listen to them. Because more often than not, they are onto something.

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A Hard Day’s Night still feels fresh, still feels vital and fun and exciting. I’ve seen it before, of course, but never on a big screen. It’s an overwhelming experience. I saw it at the small screening room in the Criterion offices and I brought my aunt Regina as my date. In 1964, when my aunt Regina was 11, she went to go see Hard Day’s Night with her group of friends. My grandmother drove them all to the theatre. Regina remembered the screams, the mania, and how much fun it was to go see the movie, what an event it was. 50 years later, Regina sat next to me, guffawing with laughter at some of the bits, sighing with appreciation at some of the beautiful closeups, and singing along. She was not alone. The whole room felt like that.

It’s an exciting “documentary” of a moment in time, a film that captures the moment just … just … as the gigantic wave was breaking.

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31 Responses to A Hard Day’s Night (1964): Turning 50 and Coming to Theatres Again This Summer

  1. Jessie says:

    Oh, this movie! You lucky bastard seeing it on the big screen, I would die to. Great story about your aunt. I hope it comes out down here. It’s eternal. They’re mythic, they’re everyday; slapstick but dryly sarcastic; clever but silly; happy but thoughtful; a team but individuals. Watching this as a teen in the late 90s the delirious fannish pull of it was huge. Which one was MINE? How would it be to be NEAR that — a part of it? Maybe…..maybe if I met one of them…..

    And this is thirty years after the fact in a household where early Beatles was considered far inferior to later. It’s a bloody good movie that makes the ineffable tangible like that.

    • sheila says:

      // Which one was MINE? //

      I know!! There’s that great scene with John in a bubble bath, his little jaunty cap on, playing with a toy boat. It’s ridiculous and so sweet and sexy and snarky – all in the same moment. With George Harrison shaving at the mirror. Like, they are on TOP of each other. Roomies.

      It’s getting a pretty wide release – which is so exciting!! Look for it this July – it was so fun to see how well it holds up. It’s not an artifact. It’s still this vital living thing!!

  2. Sylvia says:

    I will have to buy this when it comes out. I’m your aunt’s age, and I have such fond memories of “my life” with the Beatles. They did shape my adolescence, for sure. First record album I ever bought was “Rubber Soul,” and I played it over and over and … . When I moved to a new neighborhood at age 13, I became friends with two sisters, one a year older than me, the other a year younger, and they each had their own collection of Beatles albums! Endless conversations about the boys and their personalities and, as Jessie said above, which one was “mine.” (Of course Paul was the starter boyfriend, but then I found each one appealing at different times!) Lovely memories.

    • sheila says:

      How I wish I had been alive for the mania. I love to hear about it. Rubber Soul is one of my favorite albums of all time!

      I love that Paul “was the starter boyfriend” – ha!!!

      Years later, my aunt Regina was on Broadway in Blood Brothers (with Petula Clark and the Cassidy brothers) – and got to meet Paul McCartney who came to the show. She said he was lovely. Pretty amazing dovetail: that 11 year old girl eventually getting to meet one of the Beatles! And HIM coming to see something SHE was in. Life is sometimes beautiful like that.

  3. Well, yeah (yeah, yeah). First time was at the Varsity Theater in Evanston, Illinois, October, 1964. Screaming girls, so I missed the dialogue throughout the first half hour or so. Worse though, was my 13th birthday about a month later, when my parents went to see the AHDN on a weekday night, and left me at home. I did see the Universal rerelease with the added prologue, and then the Miramax rerelease. I have the Miramax DVD and it seems that most of the extras from that version were ported over to the Criterion version, but I need confirmation.

    Agree on “Cam’t By Me Love”, and posted an identical screenshot.

    And have you seen, It’s Trad, Dad? Lester’s first film seems in many ways like a warm up, with a reworking of many of his visual ideas. Even though most people write about the Beatles choosing Lester because of Running, Jumping, Standing Still, I’m pretty sure that the Helen Shapiro connection in It’s Trad, Dad also was a deciding factor.

    • sheila says:

      // Screaming girls, so I missed the dialogue throughout the first half hour or so. //

      hahahahahaha Awesome.

      I haven’t seen It’s Trad, Dad – but it’s just so obvious that the sensibility of Lester was perfect for The Beatles particular brand of fame and personality. Anything too serious would have sunk the ship with its own weight.

  4. Sylvia says:

    Goosebumps!

  5. allison says:

    i can’t wait for this! i’m reading the first book in a new 3-part anthology about the beatles called tune-in and am mildly obssessed with them at the moment….especially john.

    miss you!

    • sheila says:

      Let’s go see it when it comes out in the theatre, allison!

      and let’s see each other soon. Miss you like crazy.

  6. allison says:

    would love nothing more. you are the perfect and only person to see this movie with. so much to catch up on, too! love you, my dear friend.

  7. Helena says:

    //Such bad teeth!//
    Hahahaha!! Couldn’t get away with that now.

    • sheila says:

      I know!! The choppers are just overwhelming. Overlapping and jutting out every which way – and of course none of it takes away from their good looks.

  8. allison says:

    also, i love how you stress the humor in this piece. “the idolotry is undercut by humor every step of the way.” they were such goofballs…they were nothing if not goofballs, never taking themselves too seriously. i love the stories in the book about all their naughty jocular hijinks. john was the worst (or, really, best) of them all.

    • sheila says:

      It’s all very British music-hall, fast, furious, dirty-minded (but still just good clean fun), and joking about everything.

  9. sheila says:

    There’s an endless running gag about a car thief trying to break into a car – while behind him, back and forth on the sidewalk, run the Beatles being pursued by a group of cops. Each time the group runs by, the car thief hides behind the car – then thinks the coast is clear and starts jimmying at the window again – only to see the mob running by yet again. Finally he’s like, “Fuck it” and breaks into the car in full view of everyone – AND the button of the joke is that one of the cops hitches a ride in the stolen car, trying to catch up to the fleeing Beatles.

    Law and order has completely broken down.

    Ba-dum-ching.

  10. Helena says:

    One of my earliest memories is of seeing Beatles films over Christmas TV -the BBC showed Beatles films IN THE MORNING! Because the Beatles were GODS! Just wow. I’d have been 6-7 years old. And they were funny like nothing else going was funny – even a seven year old could tell that.

    • sheila says:

      Beatles films in the morning!!

      I know that I “got” the Beatles at a very young age too. My parents had all their albums. They did not seem too “grown up” the way some of the artists in my parents’ record collection seemed – they were so accessible.

  11. Jennchez says:

    My 10 year old daughter will be over the moon. Ever since the crib my husband has played it for her, her bouncing on her chubby little legs screaming with pure joy. Now at 10 she has the whole thing memorized and does not understand why so many of her friends don’t know who the Beatles are. As she said the other day to a friend “Dude, the Beatles, what’s wrong with you”!! Her dad had to wipe a tear from his eye. :)

  12. Maureen says:

    I love this movie so much! I hope, hope, hope it makes it up here on the big screen-I can’t imagine what it would be like to see it with a large group of people. I was 4 when this movie came out, but I do think the Beatles were instrumental in getting me started as an Anglophile. Their humor appealed to me so much, I loved their wackiness. John has what I call the “Gene Tierney quality”, which to me means that he is so much more than just good looking-he has that spark that mesmerizes!

    “Instead of making fun of teenage girls for losing their ever-loving minds about something, perhaps critics should follow the sound of the screams and try to understand what the fuss is about.”

    I love that you said this-how many times were these girls way ahead of the curve-knowing someone was special before even the industry itself?

    • sheila says:

      // John has what I call the “Gene Tierney quality”, which to me means that he is so much more than just good looking-he has that spark that mesmerizes! //

      He really does. Some of the closeups of him here … my aunt and I literally caught our breaths looking at him.

      And seriously, I am so sick of people rolling their eyes at whatever teenage girls choose to be into. First of all, I sense a lot of envy in it – from male critics who feel “left out” – “Sheesh, why aren’t they into ME?” is a ridiculous subtext to have, but there is a lot of that – and there certainly was a lot of that in the reaction to Elvis. Maybe not so much the Beatles – but that’s only because Elvis went through the fire first. He primed the pump. But also: how often do teenage girls point at something and scream, “ME LIKE THAT” and then whatever that thing is becomes the biggest thing EVER. I mean, it happens all. the. time.

  13. I was so in the middle of all that back then. Sophomore in college and such. Was a Lennonist then and remained thus. Oh hippie me.

    • sheila says:

      I do love John Lennon although I have also said that if the lyrics to “Imagine” were his political platform, I’d run for the hills and never vote for THAT.

      He’s so BOYISH here, with the cap, and the harmonica, and the silly faces, and playing around in the bubble bath. Such an appealing and odd guy.

      I love in the Cant Buy Me Love clip how we see each of the guys flying through the air in slo-mo – except for Ringo. Who tries to jump, and can barely get off the ground. Funny – it got a huge laugh in the theatre, one of those visual silly jokes that really help make the film.

      Can’t wait to see it again in a theatre!

  14. Kim says:

    When I was a little kid their music was all around me. My babysitters were mad for John. My aunts, who were teenagers when I was born, were mad for Paul. I even remember watching AHDN on tv at a neighbor’s house. My mother was of the Elvis generationand wasn’t really into The Beatles. I’ll be visiting my aunt in July, & will make a point of taking her to see AHDN. Will it play in the megaplexes? Or will we need to see it at an art house theater?
    This is timely, as my grandson proudly told me last Sunday that he had 2 new t-shirts, Pink Floyd and the Beatles. He knows Pink Floyd, the lines from the Wall “teacher, leave those kids alone” resonate with his 7 year old soul. But The Beatles, a more difficult subject. When asked if I had any Beatles music I had to confess that I didnot. All my vinyls, the White Album amongst them, were lost many years ago in the move from Greece back to the states. (I actually procured the White Album through nefarious means from my uncle.) We had a very one sided discussion about why they were important. I tried to explain how they were the genesis for much of modern music. But really, how do you explain genesis to a 7 year old? I probably should’ve explained it as an origin story for rock and roll.

    • sheila says:

      Kim – according to the publicist, it will be a wide-ish release, meaning that it won’t be just playing in one theatre in all of Texas, or whatever – but there should be more options – multiple theaters. I would bet the megaplexes will be showing it. They’ll certainly sell out.

      I love that for George Harrison (and all of the Beatles) the origin story was Elvis. A white boy singing blues. It opened up a whole world. If he can do it, we can do it, and etc.

      I love that your grandson loves The Wall – that’s so hip!!

  15. Kim says:

    I’ll probably have to drive in closer to DC to see it unless it gets really wide release. Very excited, I bet it looks different on the wide screen than it did on the tv when I was 7!
    It’s quite a musical lineage from Elvis, to the Beatles, and beyond. Genesis (bibllical reference intended.)
    My grandson also likes Blondie, Metallica and musical theatre. I expect him to have quite a catholic musical education.

  16. Tom Hartman says:

    Saw it in 1964 on the big screen. Crazy exciting to see them like that, remember…we hadn’t really seen them since the Sullivan Show in February. It wasn’t like today where you see starts on Entertainment Tonight every night…which was great because it kept you curious.

    We could not BELIEVE how long their hair was the next Summer when “HELP” came out! What a magic time, with timeless music.

  17. Helena says:

    Gosh, went to see this the other night. The funniest bit for me? Right at the end, when the helicopter comes down out of the sky and the manager shouts something like, ‘OK boys, next stop – WOLVERHAMPTON!’

    I grew up near Wolverhampton, and let’s just say, it’s not Las Vegas.

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