Just in time for its fiftieth anniversary, The Beatles‘ first movie is getting a special re-release in cinemas and new 4K restored Blu-ray. There had been pop-music movies before this (Elvis Presley had already done about thirteen by 1964), but this one immediately changed the way these were approached. Not just in terms of the way the songs and star personalities were used but in the way they were filmed. With a far more experimental technique used, one can see the seeds of the way music videos would later be done sown here. The film’s biggest surprise though; it’s five decades later, and it still has all the charm, style, and energy, and works as well as it ever did.
The Fab Four (John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison, Ringo Starr), having just wrapped up in Liverpool are off to London for a TV appearance. In tow are their managers (Norman Rossington and John Junkin), and Paul’s grandfather (Wilfrid Brambell). However, between the band’s attitude to the management, Grandfather’s trickster nature, and Ringo having issues of his own, things go anything but smoothly…
Right from the word go, the stars establish the tone of the film; all four fit in well to their personas here, in a very witty script from Alun Owen. Script may be too strong a word, because there was a lot of on-set improvisation and ad-libbing, all of which fits the wonderfully anarchic sense of humour at work well. The story plays a lot of games with the perception of the Beatles as a band, and as a musical movement. There’s also a strong theme of sending up authority in various ways, especially with one scene of George meeting a style guru who’s convinced himself he’s an expert in youth marketing. The subplot of Grandfather McCartney follows this well, with his constant hedonistic scams clashing with the band’s more innocent larks. It’s all topped off with some wonderful dialogue, such as the way John in interviews can make “No, we’re just good friends” be the answer to every question.
It’s brought to life in cutting edge direction from Richard Lester, who worked with the band again after this with HELP! While the black-&-white photography at some points has a documentary edge (especially in some of the performances), the rest is pure new wave in the vein of what was coming out around Europe at the time. The Beatles chose him originally because of his short The Running Jumping & Standing Still Film, and he brings much the same energy here, especially in the Can’t Buy Me Love number. It takes a real skill to come up with shots like one where George shaves a reflection in the bathroom mirror. There are few films of the time that the same sort of energy to their filming as this.
The film really works though in its main goal as a vehicle for their music. The titular opening number set against the band fleeing from fans, has since gone on to be a classic movie music moment, homaged more than once (most obviously in the first Austin Powers). The other songs are all chosen well, even for scenes as simple as the band rehearsing. It’s full of memorable tracks from If I Fell to She Loves You, and the new restored sound mix helps them truly pop. It is impossible to be downbeat while watching this film while these songs are playing.
A Hard Day’s Night has been hugely influential, and not just in terms of The Beatles subsequent film careers. The style of direction can be seen in huge numbers of films and shows in the late sixties and beyond, especially the use of real locations. What’s more, even after so many inspired works from The Monkees and many ‘60s spy capers onwards, this original still feels like a breath of fresh air today. The restoration does look fantastic, giving a very natural transfer to the film, with a very sharp contrast to the photography. The Blu-ray is worth the buy for the exhaustive Making-Of featurettes alone, but it cannot be recommended enough seeing this on the big screen while you have the chance, if only to experience the soundtrack in full cinema surround sound.