Still 'the Citizen Kane of jukebox musicals'
When it comes to band films there’s one that takes the lead and leaves all the others as mere backing tracks – the standout soloist of the species. No, it wasn’t the first, the most expensive or even the most listenable, but, as critic Andrew Sarris put it, it is “the Citizen Kane of Jukebox Musicals.” I am of course talking about The Beatles’ first foray into film, A Hard Day’s Night.
Shot over a few weeks in March 1964 on a budget skinnier than a guitar string, it was never intended as an amazing piece of art. Rather, the Beatles’ team saw it as an extended promo piece for their new LP – a chance to exploit the bands’ explosive rise to the top before the whole thing burnt out and got boring.
The film’s premise is pretty simple; A Hard Day’s Night follows a typical day in the life of the band. Not much happens: they travel on a train, trip around a TV studio, piss about in a park and, of course, play a few songs. That said, a few themes and motifs do emerge.
Firstly, The Beatles are portrayed as overgrown schoolboys. They torment their teachers (or rather, their various managers), tease one another, pull silly faces, put on funny voices and generally prat about. This makes the fact that they’re being chased around by twelve-year-old girls slightly less disturbing – although it is still a bit disturbing – and, since it all feels so natural, it’s a lot of fun to watch.
Secondly, The Beatles undermine or overthrow all authority figures. From TV directors to train passengers, no one escapes their withering words and scouse sendups – class, privilege or having more pounds in the bank won’t win you any favours from the fab four. In the drab (and apparently still black and white) world of 1964 this made them as refreshing as washing your personal parts in minty mouthwash.
Thirdly, the whole thing is done with unadulterated joy. John, Paul, Ringo and George can’t stop smiling (and not because of copious cannabis intake, unlike in the follow up Help!), and deliver their lines with infectious élan. Considering the whole film was a cynical attempt to make some quick cash this is quite an achievement.
Much of this is down to the superb script of Allun Owen, who followed the Beatles around for a week, not only to get sense of their speech but also a feel for what it was like to be on the inside of Beatlemania. It was a far more mundane experience than you might imagine – all studios, cars, stages and hotel rooms rather than anything truly exotic – a truth that Owen’s kitchen-sink script sticks to.