Here’s an historical marker worth noting: on this day (March 2), 48 years ago, the Beatles began filming A Hard Day’s Night, their movie debut. The comedy, an early mockumentary, purports to follow a typical day in the lives of the Liverpool lads as they rush to make it to a concert appearance.
Filming began barely a week after the Fab Four, still in the first flush of Beatlemania, had returned from their epically successful first visit to the U.S. and live appearance on TV’s The Ed Sullivan Show. (For a brief BBC radio interview with all four Beatles phoning in from the airport upon their return to a London, click here.)
Night was intended simply as a cheap, quickie trifle to cash in on the mop-topped quartet’s sudden, massive popularity. Instead, it became a landmark film that earned two Oscar nominations (for its screenplay and score), influenced the music video form, gets a rare 100 percent rating from critics on the Rotten Tomatoes website, and appears on Time magazine’s list of the 100 Greatest Movies.
Not bad for a movie that cost only $500,000 to make, was shot in seven weeks and had its London premiere on July 6, 1964, barely two months after filming was completed.
“It’s a surprise the picture isn’t a mess, a miracle it’s so funny, expert and joyous,” writes Time movie critic Richard Corliss. “A Hard Day’s Night captures a moment, maybe the last, when rock stars didn’t take themselves seriously and could unaffectedly enjoy the pleasure of being rich (yeah!), famous (yeah!), adored (yeah!).”
The film’s infectious joie de vivre can be attributed to a fortuitous collaboration between American-born director Richard Lester, screenwriter Alun Owen and the Beatles themselves.
Lester would go on to direct Help!, the group’s second film, as well as such movies as Petulia and two Christopher Reeve Superman films. Primarily a television director prior to Night, he was picked by the Beatles to direct their debut film because of an antic comedy short, The Running, Jumping & Standing Still Film, he had shot earlier with British comic wild men Peter Sellers and Spike Milligan.
Screenwriter Alun Owen was selected by the Beatles because they felt he could handle Liverpool dialect. He hung out for several days with John, Paul, George and Ringo, absorbing their personalities and speech patterns, and then fashioned the screenplay so that the rockers were playing variations on themselves. While the Beatles did ad lib some of their lines, the movie’s most famous bit, spoken by Ringo, came from Owen. When reporters ask the drummer if he’s a mod or a rocker, he replies, “I’m a mocker.”
Other minor bits of trivia to ponder during your next viewing of the movie:
• Pattie Boyd, who would go on to wed Harrison and later Eric Clapton, appears in the film as one of two teenage fans who chat up McCartney in a train. Harrison met her on the set and was smitten.
• In the opening credit sequence, as the Beatles make a dash to escape fans and catch a train, Harrison falls down but quickly gets up and keeps running. The fall was unintentional but Lester liked the spontaneity of it and kept it in.
• Wilfrid Brambell, the actor playing McCartney’s grandfather in the movie, was easily recognizable in England at the time as a star of Steptoe and Son (a show remade in the U.S. a decade later as Sanford and Son). The repeated jokes in the movie about the old man being “very clean” played off the fact that he was a junk man on the show, which was known for the catchphrase, “a dirty old man.”
• When the scene where the Beatles jump about in a field – while “Can’t Buy Me Love” plays on the soundtrack – was shot, Lennon was absent and a double had to fill in for him; he was off promoting his book, John Lennon: In His Own Write. Later, Lester shot close-ups of Lennon and cut them into the final version of the scene.
What’s your favorite scene or song in A Hard Day’s Night?