The beloved film critic Roger Ebert maintained that what we now remember as the “the 1960s” may actually have started in 1964, as the magnificent sound of George Harrison’s new 12-string guitar opened A Hard Day’s Night.
At the time, it had every promise of being a forgettable flick: low budget, quickly made, unknown director and some trendy band that was probably going to be forgotten in a few years. But faster than you could say “She loves you, yeah, yeah, yeah” emerged movie magic that holds up very well a half century on.
There isn’t much plot (and why should there be?). The Beatles run from screaming fans, dance with admiring birds, make wisecracks and eventually arrive at a big concert, where they drive the on screen and movie theater audience into ecstasy. Along the way they play the title tune, “I wanna be your man”, “Can’t buy me love”, “This boy” and many other wonderful songs. Everything about this movie is as buoyant as the music; the Fab Four were naturals on screen and it’s impossible not to share in their fun.
Looking back, you might think “How hard could it have been to make a good movie with The Beatles?”. But remember that no one knew at the time what enduring, globe-spanning stars the Fab Four would become, and, that most movies starring pop music stars over the years have been shoddily-scripted, boringly-shot, products designed to make a fast buck. Alun Owen could have been lazy and let The Beatles’ charm and popularity sell movie tickets, but instead he wrote a funny, clever, original screenplay that deservedly netted an Oscar nomination.
Meanwhile, Richard Lester and Gilbert Taylor may well have created the modern music video with this film. If you look at typical rock musicals in the 1950s (e.g., Elvis Presley’s films) there are many static set-ups on the musical numbers, almost as if you were watching a big Broadway number on stage in front of you. But the camera is everywhere in a Hard Day’s Night, including a number of shots from the Beatles’ viewpoint during the final concert, which works perfectly for a film that was trying to convey what their lives at the time were like from the inside. The resulting visual look is fresh, exciting and high-energy.
Put it all together and you have not just one of the best rock-and-roll movies ever made, but one of the Silver Screen’s best musicals of any sort.