A Hard Day's Night Revisited :
The Space Between Before and After
A sociological/cultural deconstruction of The Beatles classic film
by Candice Leonard
A Hard Day's Night was re-released in December of 2000, thirty-six years after
its premier. Critics and reviewers, many of whom were not yet born when the film was first released — or when the Beatles broke up six years later—understood the film's importance. These critics commented on the timeless soundtrack, the groundbreaking camera work and the extraordinary charisma of the film's four leading men—but they also had the benefit of 20/20 hindsight and historical perspective. They seem to be aware—in a way that even the most enthusiastic
critics forty years earlier could not have been—that this film stands in a space between "before" and "after." A Hard Day's Night captured a moment when the world was about to change dramatically, yet was also a catalyst for that change.
During the six-month period between the Beatles' appearances on the Ed Sullivan Show and the American release of A Hard Day's Night, the complex triangle between the Beatles, the media, and the fans continued to develop. This symbiotic triad set the agenda in American popular culture for the next six years—and it was through this relationship that the Beatles—and young people—were empowered as agents of change. Baby boomers, all 76 million of us, had money to spend on records, movies, and clothes, and so the tastes and attitudes of young people became a cultural focus in a way they had never been before. The media's desire to capitalize on the easily targeted youth market was another source of power for this largest-ever generation.
The simultaneous exploitation and empowerment of youth is poignantly illustrated
in A Hard Day's Night when George wanders into an ad agency and is unwittingly cast as a spokesperson for teenagers. This three-way relationship between the fans, the Beatles, and the media began in February of 1964. The Sullivan broadcasts were like a first date: we met the Beatles and it was love at first sight. The release of A Hard Day's Night in August of 1964, six months later, consummated and sealed the relationship for all time.
The Beatles' first visit to America and the hysteria surrounding it was chronicled in great detail by all the major news organizations and magazines. There was a period
in the spring of 1964 when Beatle songs occupied five slots on American Top 40 radio, something unprecedented at the time that has never happened again since.
It is difficult to convey their ubiquity in the media during this six-month period. They became a common cultural reference, a topic of conversation for people of all ages and all walks of life. The Beatles were something everyone knew about and had an opinion about. On playgrounds and school buses, at the dinner table and at the workplace, in rec rooms and boardrooms, people wanted to talk about the Beatles. The after-effects of that first date were rippling through the culture.
The Beatles flew home to England on February 22, 1964, leaving millions of white middle class American kids—and many of their parents and much of the press—in
a daze. Although the Beatles were no longer in the US, they were still very much in our consciousness because of the unprecedented media coverage they continued to receive. The excitement they generated did not subside when they left and was still quite palpable when A Hard Day's Night was released six months later.
By 1964, there was already a tradition of popular singers rushing into films to cash
in on sudden fame while it lasted. A Hard Day's Night was conceived by United Artists as a way to make money on the film's soundtrack while the Beatles were still hot—never for a moment imagining that the film would break records when it re-opened to a new generation in a new millennium. The company was not particularly interested in the quality of the film and certainly didn't set out to create a classic.
United Artists hired American Walter Shenson to produce the film. Shenson asked Richard Lester, an American living in London at the time, if he'd be interested in directing. Lester knew more about the Beatles than Shenson and was thrilled at
the prospect of working with them. The Beatles were equally thrilled to work with Lester, who had directed the Goon Show, a British television comedy series with Peter Sellers and Spike Milligan, characterized by absurdity, clever word play, and British sensibilities. Lester had also directed an eleven-minute experimental film, The Running, Jumping, Standing Still Film that the Beatles knew about and admired. Lester and Shenson asked Liverpool playwright Alun Owen to write a screenplay chronicling an exaggerated day in the life of the Beatles.
Owen traveled with the Beatles for a weekend and after seeing and experiencing
the madness that had become their way of life, he came back and wrote the Oscar-nominated screenplay. A Hard Day's Night was shot in three weeks on a budget of $500,000and opened in 1500 theaters across America only six weeks after filming began.
Beyond the film itself, the timing of A Hard Day's Night was critical to establishing the Beatles' cultural influence. A Hard Day's Night happened just when the energy of Beatlemania might have started to dissipate, when we might have moved on to The Next Big Thing. Although they monopolized the top 5 through the spring, we might have lost interest by summer. But A Hard Day's Night gave us another powerful dose of Beatles—a booster shot—at just the right moment. The film re-ignited the Beatlemania that had broken out six months before. In the period immediately following the release of A Hard Day's Night, the Beatles went from
The Next Big Thing (Again) to The Biggest Thing Ever.
Fans walked into this film not quite knowing what to expect, but it was the
Beatles, so little else mattered. Lester's hand held camera work gave it a natural, documentary feel, and the quick editing gave it a distinctive, high-energy pace—so much so that baby boomers who haven't seen the film in over thirty years recall its frenetic quality. Lester created a completely new style that combined the best of French New Wave, cinema verité, and madcap comedy. In fact, Lester is now considered the father of MTV. Indeed, any song clip from A Hard Day's Night
would be right at home on MTV or VH1.
The film may have been something new cinematically, but on the surface it was nothing more than a day in the life of the Beatles, with a thin plot line involving Paul's grandfather and a live television show. A fun romp with the Fab Four. But right below the surface, it was a call to young people—and anyone else who could hear it—to ask questions, challenge the system, and have fun doing it. Our deep affection for the Beatles made us receptive to the film's message. They captured young people's attention—emotionally, viscerally, and intellectually—in a way that no other media figures ever had before. Lester's engaging technique and the Beatles' music and screen presence drew in viewers. Once inside, the film surrounded them with points of view—literally and metaphorically—that were new to a mass audience. A Hard Day's Night challenged assumptions about age, class, and gender by showing the arbitrariness of these supposedly immutable categories. We were willing to accept these challenges to our worldview because they were offered by these four young men we had grown to love and trust.
Alternative Constructions of Gender
As difficult as it might be to imagine if you didn't live through it, the Beatles' androgynous appearance, especially their hair, caused more controversy than
their music in the early days. It was repeatedly said that they looked like girls.
Shaking their heads during the "yeah, yeah, yeahs" became a trademark in the early weeks and months. And at times, their voices singing in unison would be pitched to a soprano "woo-oo-oo." In the film, dialogue and comedic routines referred to their hair, continually drawing attention to their overt violation of gender rules, and building on this crucial component of our understanding of what the Beatles were.
In A Hard Day's Night, we see them combing their hair, having make-up applied, grooming themselves, bathing, and sitting under hairdryers. They are preparing themselves to become objects of spectacle—a ritual traditionally performed only
by women. Paul's grandfather decides that they are "a bunch of sissies," and they make no effort to refute this. Instead, they mock his concern as if to say, "Lighten up" or "So what?" In the same scene, John points out that Ringo is reading a magazine called Queen, and in an aside to the audience, refers to that as an "in joke." In another scene, John suggests that the television producer is homosexual, based on his mohair V-neck sweater. Both boys and girls are among the throng of young people chasing them down streets and through train stations. And it was a group of young boys hanging out at the backstage door that helped Paul's grandfather sneak back into the theater. In addition to their androgynous appearance, the Beatles express a good-humored tolerance of homosexuality.
The entire film is characterized by a playful approach to gender, and invites viewers to share this playful approach and abandon, blur, or at least question traditional notions of gender.