It wasn’t expected to be a classic.
Conventional wisdom had it that the Beatles phenomenon would last a year or two, and then quietly give way to the next big thing. European success in 1963 had yet to translate into international success, but that would soon change. With their appearances on The Ed Sullivan Show, their American domination commenced. Unsurprisingly, talk of making a full-length film began—a natural progression for a rising musical act. They were apprehensive about it—the British cinema had been overrun with low-budget, B-movie quality films, and the band didn’t want to appear in just any movie—it would have to prove of interest to the group, and it would have to be original.
For this endeavor, the Beatles hired Richard Lester to direct their film—a film that hadn’t been written or even conceptualized. When a research crew traveled with the band for a few days on tour, they witnessed the insanity of Beatlemania, and quickly realized that perhaps the very best thing to do would be to capture a day in the life of the group—fictionalized just enough to have a plot, but biographical enough to accurately capture the band’s persona and charm.
Once the idea for the film had been solidified, the filming was slated to begin in March 1964. Unbeknownst at the time was the scale of what awaited them when they visited the United States. The band that agreed to make this little picture in October of 1963 was not the same band that showed up that March. Now they were truly international superstars, and what began as a little project now had much more significance.
The resulting film proved to be something quite magical, something quite special. Indeed, A Hard Day’s Night set in stone each band member’s personality and reputation, all of which are still accepted to this day. John Lennon was the prankster who took nothing seriously. Paul McCartney was a dapper gentleman and the straight-man. George Harrison was quiet, but when he did speak, he always said something worth hearing, while Ringo Starr was seen as the sad-eyed clown, mopey underdog. Separately, they were charming in their own ways, but together, they were an unstoppable creative and comical force—created, in part, by the real-life absurdity that their lives had become, as exemplified by Lennon’s comment to Richard Lester, where, upon being asked how a visit to Stockholm had been, he replied: “It was a plane, a train, a car, a theater, a show, a hotel, and a cheese sandwich.”
If anything, the film’s brilliant and innovative style had as much to do with its director as it did its subjects. Lester was an inspired choice for director; he won favor with the band for his work with The Goon Show, and he applied the inanity and insanity to the band’s antics, perhaps best seen in the “Can’t Buy Me Love” scene, where the band gallivant about on a soccer field, releasing the pent-up stress and palpable frustration built up in the previous 40 minutes. Its parallels to The Goon Show are evident, as are the similarities to Lester’s Oscar-nominated short film, The Running Jumping & Standing Still Film, which features venerable comedy force (and future Ringo Starr collaborator) Peter Sellers.
This 50th anniversary collection is chock full of extras. There are no fewer than five documentaries to be found; two are on the film itself, compiling a thirtieth-year anniversary documentary with Phil Collins (who appeared in the film as an extra) as its host; a 2002 short documentary, an interview with Beatles expert Mark Lewisohn, a documentary about the style of the musical numbers, and a biography of Richard Lester. The film has a commentary track featuring quite a number of people involved in the film, but, sadly, no Beatles are featured. That’s made up for by an eighteen-minute montage of outtakes, film footage, and interview footage of the Beatles talking about the film. One of the true jewels of this set is the rarely-seen 1960 short The Running Jumping & Standing Still Film, and one can most certainly see how Lester and The Goon Show helped to define Sixties-era British comedy. This collection also includes a lovely little 80-page book that features tons of photos and a lengthy interview with Richard Lester.
A Hard Day’s Night is an important film in rock and roll history, and Criterion has served it well with a comprehensive, detailed reissue that really captures the magical time of Spring 1964 All in all, this reissue is an essential film for any Sixties fan, comedy fan, or music fan.