When United Artists arranged to produce the Beatles’ first feature film, “A Hard Day’s Night,” in 1964, the company’s sole intention was to cash in on a craze before it fizzled out — which, considering the fickle tastes of teenagers, they expected would happen in about six months.
Instead, “A Hard Day’s Night” became a classic, winning over critics with its fast-paced wit and innovative visual style (Andrew Sarris in the Village Voice famously hailed it as “the ‘Citizen Kane’ of jukebox musicals”).
The film’s 50th anniversary is being celebrated with a new DVD/Blu-ray set, released as part of the prestigious Criterion Collection. It also returns to theater screens across the country in July.
At the time the movie was released, rock films were typically low-budget exploitation movies designed to make a quick buck. But this film’s creative team had something different in mind. American-born/British-based director Richard Lester had the kind of off-the-wall comedic sensibility that made him a good fit for the Beatles. As soon as they learned he’d worked extensively with Peter Sellers, one of their favorite performers, Lester was in.
Lester and Liverpudlian screenwriter Alun Owen opted to take a docudrama approach, presenting a fictionalized day-in the-life of the group. The film’s underlying premise — the Beatles are prisoners of their success — was something of a cliché, but the Beatles’ good-natured exuberance made it feel fresh.
This was a new generation coming into its own and giving the old guard a tweak in the process, as Britain emerged from wartime austerity (rationing was still in place in the U.K. until the mid-50s), The Beatles were cheeky, but not disrespectful. When an elderly gent huffs at the group, “I fought the war for your sort,” Ringo Starr’s snappy retort is “I’ll bet you’re sorry you won!”
The extensive use of handheld cameras gives “A Hard Day’s Night” a feeling of cinema vérité, further enhanced by the decision to shoot in black and white (for budgetary, not artistic, reasons). The musical sequences are particularly impressive, marking the first time rock music had been treated seriously in a film.
The briskly edited sequence when the Beatles cavort around an open field as “Can’t Buy Me Love” plays on the soundtrack is an unabashed visual delight that’s since been much imitated. The “And I Love Her” scene, with its tight close-ups, slow dissolves and dramatic lighting is a perfect visualization of one of the Beatles’ most romantic songs.
“A Hard Day’s Night” captured the first giddy rush of Beatlemania, showing the lovable mop-tops taking on the world with style and panache (and a cache of great songs). But it also looks to the future. It’s the moment when rock music moved from being adolescent fodder to something with artistic merit.
“A Hard Day’s Night”
July 4-10 at the SIFF Film Center (special screening 11:30 a.m., July 5, at the Uptown, with pre-screening performance by British Export). Rated G. For more information: siff.net