Let's get the obvious bit over with: The early days of the Beatles, as reflected in Richard Lester's ebullient shout of freedom, A Hard Day's Night, were all about the optimism of the early 1960s, a thrilling and energizing time when young people, and even some older ones, truly believed that the future held great promise. By the late '60s, disillusionment had set in, and the Beatles broke up.
There. Now let's talk about joy, and about wistfulness, because one so often trails the other, and both are woven into the DNA of A Hard Day's Night. To read it as a movie that the future proved wrong — a movie that's somehow "about" our collective, historic innocence, a set of hopes that were dashed by Vietnam, or by Nixon's betrayal, or by anything — is to miss the glorious reality that A Hard Day's Night lives so fully in its particular present. At the end, as the band takes the stage for a televised appearance, the faces of the girls (and a few boys) in the audience complete the story that John, Paul, George and Ringo set in motion at the beginning. If the audience looks incomprehensibly young, the Beatles themselves aren't that much older — there's still hopefulness in them, too. (During the filming, George, after all, met his first wife.) No wonder these kids are lost in the moment and totally of a piece with it, beside themselves with elation shot through with longing. Their future is before them, and before them: Everything they want out of life is up on that stage, both out of reach and theirs for the taking.
That's the beauty of A Hard Day's Night, and the source of its eternal freshness. For a 50-year-old movie, it still looks impossibly youthful, especially in this restored version: In all its satiny black-and-white splendor, it feels more like today than yesterday. I can't imagine what it must be like to be watching, in 2014, A Hard Day's Night for the first time. I didn't catch it during its original theatrical release — I was a bit too tiny for that — but I saw it not so long afterward on television, an event that occasioned much jumping around and faux fainting on the living room couch. I have watched it many times since, each time seeing new things. But this is the first time I've viewed it knowing that there's more of my life behind me than ahead of me, and now more than ever, I understand the faces of those girls.
Even through the mystical blur of my affection for it, I can see that A Hard Day's Night is one of the world's perfect films. Lester, who'd previously directed a trad jazz caper called Ring-a-Ding Rhythm!, knew just what to do with the material (written by Alun Owen) and with the stars, who were already on their way to being (almost) bigger than Jesus.
This is a stylized day-in-the-life picture, and while this particular day does look extremely exciting to us average people, we can also see that it's not much of a life: The movie opens with a chase scene, in which John, Paul, George and Ringo barely outrun a blur of screaming girls in their Balmacaans and parkas, their plaid skirts and skimmers — they're a schoolgirl pride on the hunt.
The boys are on their way to make a television appearance in Liverpool, which, thanks to a series of mishaps, barely comes together: Ringo, feeling unloved and underappreciated, goes AWOL, disguising himself in an oversized, secondhand coat and shuffling through an unfamiliar city looking both irrevocably lost and finally possessed of profound inner peace. And Paul's "very clean" grandfather (the magnificently pinched sour patch Wilfrid Brambell), who has been entrusted to his grandson's care, keeps wandering off to gamble (at the casino) and gambol (with a series of comely cuties, all less than half his age).
Lester must have worked some magic, conscious or otherwise, to bring the personality of each Beatle to the fore so distinctly. George is the lover of off-kilter visual puns: He gives the band's road manager, Shake (John Junkin), a shaving lesson by spritzing foam on a bathroom mirror, neatly outlining the image of Shake's jaw and then swiping the shaver along the surface of the glass. John favors an even more oblique visual gag, daintily blocking off one nostril as he takes an imaginary snort from a Coke bottle. Paul is dutiful in looking after his grandfather, but he's also easily exasperated — he plays by the rules so honorably that he can't abide anyone else's breaking them. And Ringo is the language mangler who says exactly what he means, usually inadvertently — though sometimes his eyes, good-natured but also ringed with dark circles that suggest excessive worry, say more: On a train, he passes a glass-windowed compartment where a stunning young woman sits, stroking a furry cat that rests suggestively in her lap. She sees him, smiles and crooks her finger; he does a double take — that cat! — and then demurs, half-shocked, half-flattered and having no idea what to do.
The mischievous, semi-surreal jokes of A Hard Day's Night — like George's response to the journalist who asks what he calls that hairstyle he's wearing — have become legends unto themselves. (George calls his hairdo "Arthur.") There was a brief time when everyone loved the Beatles, finding them agreeable and charming and cheekily nonthreatening.
But there's real danger, all right, in their music, and the numbers in A Hard Day's Night — filmed by the watchful, clever cinematographer Gilbert Taylor — are the most gently seductive ever put on film. The boys captivate the young schoolgirl played by Patti Boyd — later to become Mrs. George Harrison — with a magically impromptu performance of "I Should Have Known Better" in a train carriage, the song's myriad boy-meets-girl questions wedged between the hands of a card game.
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But it's in the final cluster of songs, an artful melding of "Tell Me Why," "If I Fell" and "I Should Have Known Better," where Lester truly tips his hand. He knows what this movie is about, and he knows who it's for. And if the Beatles have never looked as beautiful as they do in this performance sequence — beautiful even, or especially, dusted with the faintest dew of sweat, visible in Taylor's tight close-ups — they're at least matched by the plaintive, surrendering beauty of the girls screaming and crying over them.
One of those girls, a blonde with a round, heartbreakingly readable face, touched Lester deeply. He would later refer to her as the "white rabbit," and the camera finds its way back to her over and over, because it just can't stay away. Her face is tear-streaked; she can't believe what she's seeing, she can't stand it even just one more moment, but she wouldn't be anywhere else in the world. She mouths George's name, a mute prayer.
I know nothing about this girl, who, I presume and hope, grew up to be a woman. But I can't help superimposing her experience of this moment, of this band, onto mine. Did we get the life the Beatles promised us — at no small cost to themselves — of love and despair, heartbreak and elation, disappointment and exuberance? I want to ask her, as I ask myself, now on the far side of the beginning of everything, was it all you hoped it would be? No. Absolutely not. And yes, a thousand times over.
A HARD DAY'S NIGHT | Directed by Richard Lester | Written by Alun Owen | Janus Films | Playhouse, Cinefamily, and on Blu-ray