Richard Lester kicks off A Hard Day’s Night at full speed—no studio logo, no establishing shots, just the crash of the title’s song opening chord and three moptops (Paul turns up later) running frantically toward the camera, pursued by rabid fans. This sense of immediacy is so crucial to the film’s appeal that Criterion, which has reissued it on DVD and Blu-ray just in time for its 50th anniversary, opted to omit its own elegant logo, which usually introduces all its releases. Thing is, though, the opening conveys a feeling of liberation that the Beatles didn’t actually possess, as A Hard Day’s Night will go on to puckishly demonstrate. The Fab Four are smiling broadly as they make their mad dash for the Liverpool train station in the opening sequence, as if they’re having the time of their lives, but it’s significant that the screenplay they commissioned from Alun Owen is almost entirely about how trapped they feel, just a few months into Beatlemania (a term that was coined in October 1963—shooting started in March 1964).
Structurally, A Hard Day’s Night builds toward a climactic television performance, depicting what’s ostensibly a typical day in the life of the Beatles. This mostly involves efforts to elude their manager (a fictional one, here, played by Norman Rossington), who’d prefer to see them locked down in a hotel room answering armfuls of fan mail, and have a bit of fun. In the film’s most iconic sequence, the lads sneak out a fire-escape door as they’re being shuttled back to the room following a rehearsal, cavorting around a field accompanied by the effervescent “Can’t Buy Me Love.” Lester sometimes shoots them in fast motion, sometimes in a flurry of quick cuts, sometimes from a great height—whatever will best capture the giddiness of having temporarily slipped away from the straitjacket of their unprecedented fame. At the same time, though, A Hard Day’s Night is careful not to make the Beatles seem ungrateful; there’s no discussion, for example, of how little the band came to enjoy performing live (to the point where they eventually gave it up completely), due to their inability to hear themselves over the noise.
Ironically, the film’s musical numbers, which were its primary reason for existence, have aged less well than the madcap material designed to support them. The genealogy of the music video leads straight back to this movie, but there’s a reason why the form quickly evolved beyond simply having musicians stand on a stage pretending to play their hits, as the Beatles repeatedly do here. “I Should Have Known Better” benefits from a charming setup in which the band impulsively plays it in a train’s luggage compartment for a couple of fans, but the other (often poorly) lip-synced performances are notable mostly for Lester’s ingenuity in framing shots that contain two Beatles at once, with one in profile in the foreground and the other facing the camera in the background, or vice versa. The relative tameness is especially apparent when the band trots out “She Loves You,” a song they’d performed live on The Ed Sullivan Show and elsewhere, to far more electrifying effect. Layering random screams over the record just isn’t the same thing—the film doesn’t even include the hysterical shriek that always accompanied Paul and George shaking their heads together at the same microphone as they sing the “oooooo” leading into the chorus.
Five decades later, however, that no longer matters much. The music endures on its own, and the movie endures because it offers so much more than the music. Speaking lines frequently cribbed from their own remarks at press conferences, the Beatles seem wholly relaxed playing mild caricatures of themselves, with Lennon in particular demonstrating enough natural skill that Lester wound up casting him in How I Won The War a few years later. Some scenes, like the one that sees George wander into an advertising agency and get asked for his opinion on some “grotty” shirts, are sharply satirical enough that they’d arguably work without any Beatles at all, and the movie in fact hands over a remarkable amount of solo screen time to Wilfrid Brambell, playing Paul’s troublemaking (fictional) grandfather. (Brambell was well known to British audiences of the day, as he was then starring on the TV show that would be remade in the U.S. as Sanford And Son.) Mostly, though, A Hard Day’s Night preserves a particular, unrepeatable moment in pop-culture history, having been made at exactly the right time by exactly the right people. That opening shot of the boys being chased down the street was staged, but that doesn’t make it false.