A Hard Day’s Night (spine #711) is a 1964 musical-comedy directed by Richard Lester and starring The Beatles. It is Lester’s only film in the Collection.
The Beatles, who play themselves, get into a series of wacky misadventures while on the way to a live television performance. From a modern perspective, the decision to make a film about The Beatles starring the band as slightly fictionalized versions of themselves fascinates me. The fact that the characterizations are so down-to-earth alongside the fact that the group would have been going on long trips to play concerts all the time makes the choice to not simply make a documentary ostensibly arbitrary. The most recent point of comparison to A Hard Day’s Night is that One Direction documentary from a few years back. While undoubtedly manipulated for cinematic effect, the antics and personas of those five boys aren’t dissimilar from those of The Beatles. And yet what’s presented as reality today was openly presented as fiction fifty years ago.
Back in the day, there seems to have been a wholehearted (if subconscious) embrace of the idea of the “star persona.” The Beatles were already fictional characters, more or less. They built up a powerful image for themselves, and it’s always impossible to gauge how much any star’s image is genuine. But for whatever reason, people just didn’t care. The film leans so heavily into that image that it might as well be a documentary, and the band themselves are conspicuously bemused at the “characters” they’re asked to inhabit.
Today, though, fans demand truth in their entertainment. They want to feel like all the media they consume is “real,” because there’s a thrill in brushing up against the divine, such as it is. If you’re a One Direction fan, the only reason to see a One Direction movie is because you want insight into their “real” lives. You get to feel like you’re a part of their personal lives because of that insight. Beatles fans must not have cared about that authenticity. Entertainment was entertainment, and the fun was in seeing these four young men who you idolized goofing around with each other. It amounts to more or less the same thing, but abandoning the pretense of reality lets the movie focus on what really matters: entertaining the audience. And A Hard Day’s Night does a bang-up job of that. It’s kind of miraculous how well this movie plays outside of Beatlemania, in my experience even for people who have no context for who The Beatles were. It’s just a fun road trip movie with four goofy musicians. It was made to capitalize on a trend, but its craft is skillful enough to keep it relevant long after that trend faded away.
Criterion proves its cinephile bonafides with the supplements on this release, focusing almost entirely on director Richard Lester and not on the ubiquitous band at the center of his film. Special features about The Beatles would have likely made for a more marketable disc, but Criterion — ever the auteurists — packed far more documentaries about Lester’s work onto it. There are a handful of appearances by the group; a piece called In Their Own Voices compiles some archival interviews with them alongside behind-the-scenes material, and a 1994 making-of doc, called You Can’t Do That, obviously talks about them as well. But the majority of this release is about Lester, with three pieces about his methods and style. One fun inclusion is Lester’s 1960 short, The Running Jumping & Standing Still Film, which was nominated for an Oscar. As someone largely unfamiliar with Lester’s filmography, this release made for a great introduction to him as an auteur.
A Hard Day’s Night remains a light and charming experience a half-century after its initial release, and Criterion’s edition is typically excellent work.
Criterion Grade: A+
Film Grade: A+
Featured Image: United Artists