John is gone. George is gone. Paul is now Sir Paul. Ringo is… Where is Ringo anyway?
2004 marks the passing of 4 decades since Richard Lester (director) and “the boys” gave us A Hard Day’s Night. For the Beatles the release of the film in September 1964 framed a sensational year that began with their first appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show on February 9, an event witnessed by an unprecedented 70 million television viewers.
From the moment the images of A Hard Day’s Night first hit the screen, the film has occupied a prominent and important place in American cultural iconography. Many have suggested that the extraordinary impact of the film was helped by the timing of the British musical invasion – The Beatles made their prime-time television debut just 3 months after the assassination of President John F Kennedy, and the film burst to life on American movie theatre screens only days in advance of the first anniversary of Kennedy’s death.
A Hard Day’s Night is recognized as an important film because of the role it played in film-making. It is not remembered for its masterful scriptwriting, although it has lots of Pythonesque quips and repartee that impishly make their way into witty conversation. It’s not renowned for its character development – The Beatles are the characters playing themselves, and it’s the film’s job to get out of the way so we can see them. The film is the first rock video in which the film serves the music and the performers (quite unlike the Elvis, Frankie, and Annette films that required some sort of story, no matter how thin, to create an excuse to introduce the music).
In ways somewhat similar to post-war theatre that was breaking down the conventions of formal staging – pressing through the proscenium, coming face-to-face with the audience, dragging the audience into the experience, shamelessly propagandizing – the film broke free from the waning generation of movies featuring rock ‘n roll stars like Elvis Presley. But Elvis’ bad boy image existed within tightly scripted romantic storytelling. A Hard Day’s Night introduced a new level of realism in the tone of movie story-telling and in the relationship of the screen personality and the audience. The film feels like a home movie with the kids mugging for the camera knowing that they are on film and that the audience is watching them. The film is not a mockumentary a la Christopher Guest’s A Mighty Wind and Best in Show – it is an uninhibited invitation to enter the life of the Beatles for a day and play, and with all the playfulness aside it is an attempt to make us feel like we have really gotten to know “the boys.”
Lester, while not the inventor, was a big-screen innovator of the hand-held camera. The camera movements led to a fast-paced quick-cutting editing style that deconstructed the video line of the movie – he gave us quick hits and sound bites in a realistic setting that suggested a new speed of life. Life is fast, energetic, sudden, emotionally charged, orgasmic. Life is exhilarating, but exhausting. Life is buoyant, but smothering. What do I do when I need to escape, get away, find myself? Yet, I am unwilling to completely detach myself from the energy of the crowd.
There is in A Hard Day’s Night a seamless and perhaps unconscious weaving together of technology and life. We see lives in which media, images, and information are beginning to blend together in ways that today we recognize as normal, but was quite new at that time. It seems to be an admission or a realization that we had become a media culture. It was a kind of techno-confession that we in fact do… and in fact want to look at the world through an artificial lens… perhaps because we find that view more interesting, or more palatable. Perhaps we wanted to hide; perhaps we were hoping to find a better world; perhaps because the world as we were coming to know it was too much to bear.
We will never see “the boys” more innocent than they appear in this film. We will never see the movement which this film inaugurates more idealistic and joyful.
But we still have the music.