How did an opportunistic flick featuring Britain's fad-of-the-moment band turn into the best pop movie anyone had seen up to then? Let alone "the Citizen Kane of jukebox musicals," in critic Andrew Sarris's—and no pushover, he—oft-quoted rave at the time? It helped that the fad was Beatlemania, the director was 32-year-old Richard Lester, and the movie was A Hard Day's Night. Coinciding with the July 4 release of a digitally remastered Hard Days in U.S. theaters, the Criterion Collection has just put out a lavish 50th-anniversary joint Blu-Ray/DVD edition of the film with a whole second disc's worth of extras—multiple docs and interviews, plus Lester's Oscar-nominated 1960 short The Running, Jumping And Standing Still Film—and wow, does it ever suck. Nah, kidding.
While the carousing imagination and headlong fervor of both entities involved would be hard to fault, how much the Beatles helped create the '60s and how much the '60s helped create the Beatles is one of the great chicken-and-egg questions. Half a century later—and with all due respect to Harry Potter creator J.K. Rowling, one of the few people on the planet who can converse with Paul McCartney as an equal, not to mention The Godfather, Star Wars or Michael Jackson's Thriller—the Beatles’ advent is still popular culture's ultimate Big Bang. That makes A Hard Day's Night a key artifact of what Salman Rushdie used to call the West's last big outbreak of the Optimism Disease.
With all due disrespect to boomer vanity, the phenomenon we know as "The Sixties" was a piddling thing compared to its world-historical granddaddies: the revolutionary tides that swept Europe periodically from 1789 to 1848, which began with the Bastille's fall and ended with Karl Marx's invention of communism. One relative novelty was that our Mini-Me version of revolution was launched by Elvis-and-all-that upheavals in pop culture—hell, showbiz, a realm the Fab Four never entirely dissociated themselves from even after Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band was getting them compared to T.S. Eliot—and politics had to play catch-up. It's as if the "Marseillaise" had provoked the French Revolution instead of the other way around.
At least until Vietnam-and-all-that, 1968-and-all-that, or Nixon-and-all-that turned the Weather Underground into bungling—yep, there's always a silver lining—bomb-makers, another novelty was that the floodgates sprang open in an atmosphere of euphoria and affluence, not discontent. That's what Beatlemania crystallized. However complicated they, their music, their audience and their relationship to ye olde Zeitgeist all got down the road, at the outset they were all about joy.
Partly because people were catching on even then that the Beatles were, you know, the Beatles, it would be a considerable exaggeration to say A Hard Day's Night was conceived as just another quickie teen-culture ripoff. Far from the usual yard-goods hack who gets tasked with overseeing such things, Lester—one of the first filmmakers to see not only artistic but potentially crowd-pleasing gold in the French New Wave's cinematic innovations—was an obvious up-and-comer. Not much less vital was the contribution of screenwriter Alun Owen, a well-regarded TV playwright who probably didn't know he was making his most enduring contribution to Western civilization. Owen may deserve the honorific "Fifth Beatle" as much as or more than the band's studio enabler, George Martin, since the shorthand personalities he devised for our boys—impudent John, winsome Paul, laconic George and bumpkin Ringo—have stayed resilient for five decades. And counting, may I add.
Plotwise, to the limited extent there is one, the movie is a simple-minded backstage musical. On the literal run from the opening image onward, the band has to get to a Big Show, and various circumstances interfere—most famously, Ringo's Camus-for-beginners vacation from fame, an interlude that has the other Beatles in a tizzy as they try to track him down. Crammed in everywhere else you look and listen are jokes, absurdist non sequiturs, and various other kinds of upstart commedia dell'arte. Along with—oh, yeah—a bunch of incredible songs, starting with a title tune whose effervescence hasn't faded a whit in five decades. And counting, may I once again add.
The real modernity of A Hard Day's Night is that its subject is Beatlemania itself—simultaneously capitalized on, wittily reflected upon, and dramatized in quasi-documentary style. Elvis's movies had and would cast him as fictional characters in conventional genre stories that incidentally let him sing some, but the Beatles were playing Owen's version of "themselves"—a gimmick with some Hollywood antecedents, but not really all that many. (How many cinephiles out there get misty-eyed about real-life WW2 hero Audie Murphy playing Audie Murphy in To Hell And Back? I thought so.)
If the depiction is still uncannily vivid, that's mainly because Lester's cinema-verité photography captured the same humdrum-to-gimcrack cityscapes his fellow U.K.-based directors were using to indict postwar Britain's shabbiness. All of a sudden, all that drab architecture was a stage set for mass exhilaration—proving, as Robert Christgau said of Elton John, that even the bleakest and blandest eras teem with life.
Given what had been the conventions of both backstage musicals and teen flicks up to then, perhaps the movie's most remarkable omission—remarkable because so few viewers even notice it—is the absence of any romantic entanglements, the odd bit of flirtation aside. The romance here is between the Beatles and their fans, and one way the connection feels so prescient about countercultural utopianism that it's collective on both ends. Sure, Owen did a lot to delineate the band members' separate images for consumers' benefit. Yet what made them consequential as individuals was that they were part of a unit, even as what made Beatles fans epochal in their own right was that their most private fantasies and generational self-identifications were giddily, irreversibly public.
If there's a more rhapsodic 20th-century sight than teenage girls ululating their heads off as John, Paul, George and Ringo play, I don't know what it might be. And by way of postscript, there are worse subjects than this one—a movie that helped make it possible for the likes of me to have careers mulling pop culture's wonders—to say goodbye with. "Well, that happened," as Alec Baldwin immortally said in David Mamet's State And Main, and the Prospect and I are going our separate ways. My thanks to Kit Rachlis for tossing me the gig, and to my various print-edition and website editors—Sarah Kerr, Gabriel Arana, Bob Moser, Clare Malone, Jaime Fuller and Adele Stan—for putting up with my wayward interests. Thanks, as well, to all of you, whether you stuck around week in and week out or just dropped in whenever it sounded like there might be something interesting going on.