A Hard Day’s Night (1964)

Blog reader Hurdy Gurdy Man gave me a slew of Beatles-related information some weeks back. More specifically, information related to a film—A Hard Day’s Night—which starred the Beatles and was about them. Not a bio-pic, not a completely fictitious story (as many of Elvis’s films were, with him playing characters in no way related to his real self). But something in between. Fact and fiction.

Hurdy Gurdy Man informed me that the Beatles’ album A Hard Day’s Night had released in the UK on July 10th, 1964. Just four days earlier, on July 6th, 1964, the film of the same name had also been released in the UK (it was released in August in the US). Also, other than Paul McCartney (whose 76th birthday was on June 18th), the only other surviving Beatle—Ringo Starr—has his birthday today.

In celebration, therefore, a review of this very watchable little film about four wildly successful young men who—in the course of a mere decade (they teamed up as a quartet in 1960, and fell apart in 1970)—changed the way pop music sounded and was perceived. The legendary Beatles, acting as themselves, in a film about themselves.

The credits roll (and the title song plays) even as the Beatles race to catch a train. The race isn’t an easy one, because while the train will probably wait for them, they are being held back by a mob of screaming, ecstatic girls, grabbing and pushing and shoving and generally wanting them.

Finally in the train, they sit down in their compartment and, one by one, ask Paul (Paul McCartney) who’s the old gentleman sitting with him. This, it turns out, is Paul’s grandfather (Wilfrid Brambell), and they pretty much talk about him (the most common comment being that he’s “clean”) as if he wasn’t sitting there, right in the midst of them. (That comment about him being ‘clean’, is, it turns out an inside joke: Wilfrid Brambell had previously acted in a popular TV show in which he was repeatedly referred to as a ‘dirty old man’).

The band’s manager, Norm (Norman Rossington) comes by to make sure all is well, that the ‘boys’ are seated, and that they’re being good. The boys are generally being good, but Granddad soon begins to show his true colours. Going off to the dining car with Norm, he manages to shake off Norm and finds his way into the private compartment of a lovely lady. When Paul finds him, Grandpa announces that he’s engaged.

Well, that lands him in the luggage van, where the boys crowd around and play cards to keep him entertained, and where some schoolgirls—Beatles-crazy, of course—arrive. The situation segues into a song (I should have known better), and soon the train has arrived at their station.

This is London (the boys have come from Liverpool to London for a recording—they’ll be performing live in front of a large crowd, and the entire performance will be televised). And London, as everybody knows, is a big, bad place. A place rife with opportunity. Opportunity to gamble (as Granddad soon finds out).

Opportunity to make some quick money on the side, cashing in on the obvious and runaway success of the Beatles (also as Granddad soon finds out).

With Granddad running amok all over town, with the Beatles escaping and having some wholesome fun on their own, and with Ringo suddenly going off by himself to do some exploring, Norm is pulling his hair out. George gets mistaken for a tramp who’d want to make a quick buck in an ad, and the producer in charge of the shindig begins to throw his weight about, telling Norm that if the Beatles aren’t ready and in place on time, that’s the end.

And all the time, there are their fans, going crazier by the moment.

It’s difficult to explain the story of this film, because it’s not the broad story that’s important; it’s the little details. The vignettes, the laugh-out-loud moments, Granddad’s loony antics (no, he’s not senile; he’s just a complete opportunist, and he seems to have few scruples).

What I liked loved about this film:

The music. Of course. The Beatles were at the height of their popularity at this time, and they were churning out some fabulous, fabulous songs: And I love her, Can’t buy me love, A hard day’s night, I wanna be your man, She loves you… and more. All of them are woven well into the narrative, and because the narrative itself is such that it doesn’t follow a very tight plot line, the songs fit in perfectly.

The Beatles. For four men who were singers, not actors, John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Richard ‘Ringo’ Starr make for surprisingly good actors—or are they merely acting as extensions of themselves? Possibly the latter, since Alun Owen, who wrote the screenplay, observed them for many days before using the phrases they used, their mannerisms and actions, in his script. The result is a close and sometimes beguiling look at four young men trying to cope with unbelievable fame, yet giving in to their own need to escape, to be themselves. (In one memorable sequence, literally—the four of them escape, run out onto a large field, and indulge in some playful rough-housing by themselves).

They can be flirtatious with the girls, they can pull off pranks (in one scene, as a tailor holds out a tape measure between his hands to measure the Beatles for suits, all of them hurriedly leave on one errand or another, and the last one to leave grabs the tailor’s scissors, snips the tape measure and pronounces it open).

This—the funniness of the script (and the dialogues), and the acting of everybody, not just the stalwart actors like Wilfrid Brambell (who, by the way, is hilarious)—is what makes A Hard Day’s Night such a delightful movie. It has its moments that made me think: Poor men, how did they cope with all those screaming girls? What was it like to be so famous at such a young age? —and I think I got an answer, at times, in the film. The way Ringo Starr runs off, for example, with only a camera. Going about, mostly unrecognized, acting like any other young man exploring a big city.

Plus, for me—born after the Beatles were no longer a band, and growing up in an era even after the John Lennon phenomenon was legend, a thing of the past—A Hard Day’s Night had yet another dimension that was almost surreal: being able to see the Beatles as they were in their heyday. Not merely in a music video where they’re singing and playing music, but more. Not in a documentary that traces their rise and fall (there is nothing in this film—or not that I know of—which is in any way biographical about any of the men). But in a light-hearted, fun film that also touches on how it might have been to be the Beatles, to be one of their roadies, or to simply be a hard core fan.

Happy birthday, Ringo! And thank you for the music, you and your friends.

(And, to Hurdy Gurdy Man: a special thank you).

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29 thoughts on “A Hard Day’s Night (1964)

  1. I guess Hurdy Gurdy Man is a fan of British rock music? He must have gotten his name from the Donovan song. (Oh, and now that I think about it, Donovan was in India with the Beatles at some point, digging the Maharishi, etc.)

    I was two or three years old when Hard Day’s Night came out (and when the Beatles first came to my home town, New York City). I think I’ve seen this film a few times in my lifetime but scattered over many years. The film’s a bit fuzzy in my memory. I’ve also seen bits and pieces that people were fond of posting online.

    So, thank you for the nice summary, Madhu – now I have a better idea of what the whole film, together, was like (again).

    I think a lot of people consider this the best Beatles film. Their next film, Help, was a bit more of a mess. But one interesting thing about Help is that,it provided George Harrison with his first opportunity pick up a sitar (while they were filming a scene that involved Indian musicians playing in a restaurant!). I don’t think anything happened during A Hard Day’s Night that changed the Beatles’ music much. They were still doing the basic, western rock’n’roll “Merseybeat” stuff – which is also very nice, but, though this helped to make them hugely popular, I doubt The Beatles would have become so significant historically had they not moved on to those other things. (So, when was their heyday? I think, if we’re talking about their artistic peak, it was a couple of years later, in 1966…even though that’s also when they burnt out on playing live.)

    By the way, the Beatles also probably gave me my first introduction to Indian music, when I was very small. Though I would find many more influences in that direction later in life… :)

    • Yours is a very interesting comment, Richard, in that it made me realize that there is perhaps a difference in how a Westerner would perceive Western pop music and how an Indian – especially the average, not-too-enthusiastic, middle-class Indian back in the 70s and 80s – would. My sister and I, thanks to a mother who had been nuts about Jim Reeves and Perry Como and Elvis (and a father who seems to think The Golden Quartet were gods!), grew up listening to those. I think I was in my very early teens when I first truly became aware of rock, and then I immediately decided what I liked was the sort of music the Beatles popularised – back in the 40s.

      Later, I was to go through a phase of being very keen on Springsteen and Queen and Michael Jackson, but I ended up never really associating the Beatles’ best music with what they churned out around this time. When MTV arrived, we were suddenly catapulted into what the West was listening right then, and somehow it didn’t appeal to me. Till now, all my favourite singers – perhaps with the exception of Michael Buble – are the real old timers. There is of course the occasional ‘newer’ song that I like, but they’re few and far better.

      • Madhu, I’m getting a little confused by the chronologies in your comment, but anyway, yes, we all discover things at different times, depending on our place and circumstances.

        I actually love old rock’n’roll, Elvis, and rockabilly, and I like some of the old-time pop music, too. (Curiously, I got to appreciate 50s rock’n’roll much more after the late ’70s, because it was revived a lot by people involved in punk rock and new wave.- which was maybe a genre you didn’t experience much if at all, but it might have helped to bring me back to some of the same old music that you love. :) ) Actually, I went through a phase of being crazy about rockabilly in the early 1980s – and I think a few other people did, too.

        My comment about the Beatles not reaching their heyday when they did the more basic rock’n’roll wasn’t to belittle that music at all; it’s just that I think the Beatles made their particular mark in pop history when they started experimenting, going beyond basic rock’n’roll, which also involved bringing in Indian classical influences.

        I mentioned 1966 because that was when they released what I would consider their best album, Revolver. I’m not the only one who thinks so; I know a lot of people agree. I know a lot of other people cite Sergeant Pepper (their next one) as their masterpiece, but I would say that there, they were already getting a little self-indulgent and Revolver was where they achieved the perfect balance that marked their peak. (By the way, songs from both those albums can be found in their film Yellow Submarine, which I first saw when I was six or seven. :) )

        • Hehe. Yes, looking at the chronologies mentioned in my comment, I can see how confusing they must be – I was talking about how my own knowledge of (and taste in) music changed as I grew, and as India changed, too. Sorry about rambling on like that.

          Punk rock I don’t recall having ever encountered. I had friends who were deeply into hard rock and acid rock, but I somehow never got around to anything ‘harder’ than soft rock. :-)

          I had forgotten that Yellow Submarine was also a movie. Any good?

          • You never encountered punk rock or even the broader, related late ’70s and ’80s “new wave”? Maybe you did encounter something in that area without knowing that it was being classified as such. Maybe I will get back to that another time. :).

            Yes, I think Yellow Submarine is an animated film classic. I enjoyed it at the age of 6 or so and when I watched it as an adult too!

            There is a lot of psychedelic pop-art imagery in the film that is peculiar to the time period, particularly the mid and late 1960s,, and anybody who used that imagery now would be instantly recognized as being deliberately “retro.” But I don’t think that should get in the way of enjoying the film during any time period.

            Most of the music is great,also.:)

            • “You never encountered punk rock or even the broader, related late ’70s and ’80s “new wave”?

              I don’t think so. Never knew the term, and a quick look at the search results for ‘punk rock greatest hits’ doesn’t throw up a single song that rings a bell. So yes, that perhaps went right past me. I think my sister and I were also possibly biased because we were highly influenced by my mother’s taste in music – which was firmly 50s and older – with Elvis and the young Beatles perhaps being the ‘new’ pop stars she liked. So even when the radio stations here in India probably played newer songs, my sister and I preferred to listen to the ones that played the old songs.

              Yellow Submarine perhaps is something I should check out. Thank you for that!

              • You’re welcome re. Yellow Submarine. As for your search for “punk rock greatest hits,” I shudder to think what that would yield. :) Punk rock actually ended up having a much more narrow definition a few years after it started; now people will recognize “punk” as being only a certain hard-edged branch of the movement, not even knowing that the range of musical possibilities used to be much broader. At the same time that this narrowing started to happen, a lot of the bands that emerged from punk rock scenes started to get called “new wave” (though that term more or less died out by the end of the ’80s, to be replaced by the possibly more vague “alternative rock” :) ).

                And here, I started to type a critical history of the movement, but I figured it would be unfair to go on such a long tangent, so I’ll just mention a few of the groups that helped to bring me back to some of the older music that you might have learned about from your mother. :)

                Blondie (with the famously gorgeous singer Debbie Harry): Originally, they were called punk; they were one of the first acts in the the New York City punk scene (back in about 1975). But few people would call them “punk” now; sometimes they’re remembered as “new wave.” Debbie Harry was obviously influenced by ’60s girl group singing while other members of the band actually were fans of ’60s bands like the Beatles (the drummer Clem Bruke has talked about being a huge Beatles fan). (BTW, they managed to get their biggest selling hit by trying something more disco, but much more of their music, especially in the beginning, was basic rock’n’roll and pop. And they definitely encouraged me to get back to the ’60s girl groups, too.)

                Robert Gordon and the Cramps: Both these acts were very influenced by ’50s style rockabilly and encouraged me to delve into the original versions of the ’50s songs that they covered. That’s maybe a better example of how this supposedly radical scene of the ’70s caused me (and a lot of other then-young people) to love a lot of the music that you may have learned to love from your mother’s old records. :) (BTW, I learned a few years ago that Greta aka Memsaab was also a fan of the Cramps.) In England there was the Clash (who would probably pop up in that “punk rock greatest hits” search), who covered some early ’60s and late ’50s rock’n’roll numbers and eventually revealed themselves to be very fond those styles.

                These tendencies make a lot of sense, because one of the main reasons punk started was as a remedy to the dullness, pretentiousness and general over-production of much of the mainstream rock of the ’70s… The idea for many early punk rockers, especially in New York City, was to make rock music as exciting as it once used to be.

                In the UK, though, there was a also a much more political and highly rebellious element – which was fine with me too. :)

                And speaking of the UK, going in a different direction… I just realized that you do know about David Bowie. His music from the early and mid ’70s was a strong influence on many punk rock bands; some people even say he was “proto-punk.”

                And I’ll stop the long tangent there. There is much more that could be said, but I’m sure I’ve already said too much. :)

                • Hmm. Interesting – and finally something I recognize: Blondie! Yes, I remember hearing Blondie on radio, but unlike Abba or Baccara or Boney M (Boney M were very popular in India at one time – they even toured the country), I wouldn’t be able to name, on my own, any songs of Blondie’s.

                  And David Bowie. Of course!

                  Thank you, Richard. I may have not known it was called punk (or proto-punk), but yes, it seems I was not completely unaware of it, even if it was on the mere fringes of my world.

                  • Thank you, Madhu, for appreciating my long and irrelevant digression. :)

                    I knew you had to recognize the name Blondie. I had a poster of Debbie Harry, which I had bought in a very specialized little record store, when I was 15 and almost no one had heard of them. I’m proud of what they’ve done over the years. :)

                    Boney M were sort of on the periphery of my memory. When I rediscovered them within the last few years and posted them on Facebook, all my Indian friends responded very positively; I wondered why.

                    I think I discovered Baccara, on YouTube, only within the past few years. They are wonderful (in their own way). :)

                    I think these two acts were thoroughly considered disco outfits, right? I did not follow disco all that closely back in the day.

                    But Abba… Yes. everybody has heard Abba everywhere.

                    • Baccara happened to me one winter when I went to Calcutta. My uncles and aunts and cousins had all gathered there, and my cousins had recently discovered Baccara – and we ended up listening to them pretty much all the time. Usually, our home in Calcutta at Christmastime used to be filled with Christmas carols; that winter, it was only Baccara all the way. I think we gave them a break only to play a Belafonte ‘calypso Christmas’ LP, but that was it.

                      Yes, Baccara was definitely disco. As was Boney M. And disco was pretty big in India back in the 70s and 80s (as you could probably tell from the way Hindi film changed around that time – there was a definite leaning towards disco beginning in the 70s, I think).

    • @ Richard: Yes, I am a fan of not just British but rock music in general, from the 50s through the 70s. Beyond that I haven’t explored much yet, and the rock scene started dwindling in the 80s anyway under the assault of disco and synthpop.

      Yes, my handle is taken from the Donovan song. I first encountered it in the 2007 film Zodiac.

      You are correct that the Beatles’ rock in the first half of 50s was quite basic, romantic pop. They became more ambitious later which was good for them, or else they might have disappeared from the public conscious like The Dave Clark Five, their closest competitors back then.

      • Oh, I didn’t know “Hurdy Gurdy Man” was in any film, let alone a recent one! I encountered it not exactly when it first came out (1968) but definitely by the early ’70s. It’s one of Donovan’s best songs (found on an album by the same title). Did you know that the song includes instrumentals by most of the members of Led Zeppelin before they released their first album?

        Anyway, thank you for confirming what I was saying re. the Beatles. I think you are exactly right that if the Beatles did not move beyond what they were doing in the first half of the ’60s (btw, you did commit a typo there :) ), then they would have ended up like the Dave Clarke Five and other such bands.

        Regarding synth pop, I actually like some synth pop. That was one of the genres that grew out of the “new wave” that I mentioned before.

        I think that mainstream rock actually declined a lot in the mid and late ’70s, especially in the U.S. As a teenager in New York City, I was happily exposed to the earliest bands in punk rock and “new wave.” (I always put “new wave” in quotes because I never liked the term much; it included a few forms of music that were better defined by other terms :) – but it is convenient sometimes because it is so broad.) The punk movement in the mid and late ’70s was an exciting proverbial breath of fresh air for me.

        I got very involved in such rock scenes in the late ’70s and early ’80s and started writing about the music. Throughout the ’80s and ’90s, I worked as a pop and rock music critic part-time for several magazines that specialized in what was being called “alternative rock,” which included a lot of new stuff. Via good old snail mail, I would get stacks of LPs and CDs by bands that most people probably didn’t hear of (yet). I think the mainstream of rock did get a little more boring again through, say, the mid and late ’80s, so it was good to be able to find out about things that weren’t being pushed on the big radio stations or MTV. I think there’s always good rock or pop music somewhere; sometimes the better stuff is just more hidden. :)

        • The song plays a pretty major role in the film. It bookends the story as it features in the opening as well as the closing scenes.

          I knew an extra verse was written by George Harrison but did not know about future LZ members’ involvement. Thanks.

          Yes, that was a typo. It happens sometimes.

          It was enlightening to know about your background as a rock music critic. Are there any archives available online where some of those music reviews you wrote for magazines may be read?

          • You’re welcome, Hurdy Gurdy Man!

            Unfortunately, I did all my rock criticism when print still ruled, and I could not find archived copies of my reviews.

            One magazine I wrote for, Alternative Press, can be found in some form online, but if they have any archive that includes reviews written 20 years ago, I certainly couldn’t find it.

            Fairly recently, I got in touch with the editor of a magazine that I used to write for called Option, inquiring about a feature review I’d written of a compilation of female rockabilly singers from the ’50s… He was good enough to send me a pdf copy.

            Eventually, I’m going to take that pdf, combine it with a transcription or scan of some reviews that I did (for which I do have hard copies) and combine those with some other things I also want to put online (or transfer from other places online). But that’s going to take some work and I haven’t started yet. :)

              • Thank you, Hurdy Gurdy Man. Maybe it won’t be that long into the future when I finally get to the task. I have to admit, though, that I like a lot of the writing I’ve done about Hindi films and Indian dance, etc., on my current blog more than I like most of my old rock reviews. :)

  2. Like you, I came to The Beatles somewhat late. S was always a huge fan, though he too was in his infancy when The Hard Day’s Night came up. Interestingly, S and I were talking about The Beatles only a couple of days ago – and how, during their US tour, the ushers were disgusted – not with them, but the many fans who were so excited to see them that they peed their seats. Apparently, they had to hose down venues after each show.

    Lennon also made evangelical Christians supremely mad when he claimed The Beatles were more famous than Jesus Christ. And when told on television that they were stamping on Beatles’ records in Detroit – breaking them – he retorted, ‘Where’s Detroit? We’ll stamp out Detroit.’ Their tour in Detroit was cancelled. :)

    I think, for a rock band, The Beatles were the sort of young men you could take home to mother. All clean-cut, clean-shaven, well-dressed young men. Which also probably accounts for their immense popularity among teenage girls.

    Now I want to watch A Hard Day’s Night again – oh, WDIGTT?

    • “they peed their seats. Apparently, they had to hose down venues after each show.

      Ewwww! How disgusting. :-(

      Hehe. I can well understand Evangelicals and the Detroit city administration being miffed by remarks of that sort.

      I agree completely about the sort of young men the Beatles came across as – even in the film, there’s an innocence, a clean wholesomeness to them that’s a far cry from (say) Geogre Harrison’s or John Lennon’s image in their later years. ;-)

      “Now I want to watch A Hard Day’s Night again – oh, WDIGTT?

      Oh, that’s okay. :-) If you’ve watched it once already, you can safely not see it for a while now. Right? Or at least that’s how I console myself!

      • Yes! That was exactly what I meant by saying that clean-cut, clean-shaven look was a far cry from what they became later. The 70s Lennon and Harrison, for instance, are hirsute in the extreme. :-D

  3. Thanks for the shout out! I am glad to see you managed to get good screenshots. Did the subtitles help? I am asking because a lot of the Beatles’ accent is rather confusing to make out – at least it was for me.

    Finding that clip of “I Should Have Known Better” was a lucky break for you since the Beatles estate is very strict on reproduction of their music on third-party sites like Youtube. I had searched for it sometime back and hadn’t found one. They do have their official channel on there though: https://www.youtube.com/user/TheBeatlesVEVO

    The blonde leaning over Grandpa’s shoulder in the 6th screenshot is famous glamour model Margaret Nolan. She appeared in bit parts in a number of British films of the 60s, including Goldfinger where she also was the model in the title sequence. For readers who might want to google her after reading this, I would say go ahead, but… be careful your are in a secluded area, unobserved ;)

    The opening sequence where the fans are chasing Beatles through the streets was homaged/parodied in the opening sequence of Austin Powers: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XSYciu_J3K8

    The anti-establishment vibe of the Beatles is also a theme in the film, even though not pervasively so. After the Fab Four are done frolicking in the field to “Can’t Buy Me Love”, a stern gentleman chides them for being on private property. As they leave, George quips sarcastically, “Sorry we ‘urt your field, mister.”

    Your write-up is, as expected, excellently researched and written. Kudos!

  4. I actually ended up not using the subtitles – I’d forgotten they were there, but didn’t really need them, either.

    Thank you for all those inside stories – I hadn’t realised that was Margaret Nolan.

    Good point about the anti-establishment tone. I seem to remember something at the press conference, when one of them (Lennon? I don’t remember) is asked a snide-ish question about their hairstyles, and counters it equally snidely. :-)

    Thank you – and for liking the review!

  5. I loved “A Hard Day’s Night” when I saw it about a decade ago! Haven’t watched it since but it maybe fun to do so. The interwoven songs were wonderful. I remember ‘And I Love Her’ especially well.

  6. Hi,

    The movie seems to be quite delightful. I will surely try to watch it.

    By the way thanks for visiting my site. Actually I saw your comment quite late, as I am slowly getting the hang of things. I will post another one in a day or so.

    Can I add my site’s name in the website column here?

    • You’re welcome! And yes, I see from your comment below that you did notice I’d added you to my blog roll. Incidentally, only a blog admin can add a blog to their own blog roll. The only thing a reader is allowed to do on a blog is comment. ;-)

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