The Frida Cinema

Orange County's Year-Round Film Festival

Beatles in Cinema Part 1: The Opening Act

Over the past year, I’ve found myself returning to my “comfort” content. At first, this was due to massive change and troubled times in my personal life during early 2019, and now even more due to the bleak state of the country which managed to plummet lower than before.

Anything and everything “Beatles” served that function, they were my introduction to older music and helped expand my love and appreciation of new genres. The Beatles were a constant presence throughout the most formative years of my life with one of my oldest, dearest friends. I have a treasured memory for nearly every one of the Beatles’ 200+ songs and each Beatles-related film based on who I shared it with and the experience of watching or learning something for the first time together, whether great or horrendous.

I could go on forever about just how much the group accompanied me in some shape or form throughout middle and high school as I grew into a young adult, but I won’t. I will, however, talk about an underappreciated piece of Beatle pie that I’ve been enjoying thoroughly with renewed vigor.

Just as The Beatles impacted every aspect of pop culture, the attitudes of a generation, and even little old me, the four lads from Liverpool had a hand in revolutionizing film through one medium or another. The group appeared in three films and one documentary in total: A Hard Day’s Night (1964), Help! (1965), Magical Mystery Tour (1967), Yellow Submarine (1968), and the documentary Let It Be (1970) with each one significant in its own right. It’s perfectly appropriate really, that the Fab Four would have four fab films, all of which were premiered in July, whether through initial U.K. theatrical run or delayed American release (except Let It Be).

As Beatlemaniacs know, July is already a key month in music history. While A Hard Day’s Night would premiere the night of July 6th in 1964, that exact day just seven years before is what made everything possible. July 6th, 1957 is the day a fifteen-year-old Paul McCartney attended a local church picnic and watched a small skiffle band play on stage– a group fronted by a kid named John Lennon.

Lennon would ask McCartney to join The Quarrymen, forming the greatest songwriting duo of all time– soon after, McCartney would introduce the band to his schoolmate by the name of George Harrison, who passed the audition.

Yet another important day is July 7th, which is Ringo Starr’s birthday. The eldest Beatle turned 80 years old in 2020 and celebrated peace and love around the world through a star-studded charity livestream to raise funds for groups such as Black Lives Matter, Musicares, and the organization of his good friend David Lynch.

With anniversaries flying by, and the Peter Jackson 50th anniversary rendition of Let It Be delayed a year due to the pandemic, now’s as good a time as any to delve into the Beatles on film from the beginning and one by one.

A Hard Day’s Night dir. Richard Lester, 1964

Why a Beatles Film?

The concept of a Beatles-led film was purely a cash-cow endeavor that hoped to capitalize on the unparalleled sensation so insane, it had its own name– Beatlemania. In less than a year, the group had their breakout singles (“Love Me Do” and “Please Please Me”), the best-selling EP of 1963 (“I Saw Her Standing There”), and two full albums with mostly original compositions that would spend a combined total of 51 weeks at number one.

Despite the unique characteristics of the group that already marked them as something special, the seemingly overnight success meant that many folks were unsure if the hype would last. While the four lads sought to enjoy the ride for however long it lasted, studio execs were keen on the opportunity to get The Beatles on the big screen before it was too late, and soon United Artists secured a three-film deal thanks to the group’s manager, Brian Epstein.

As is common with innovative films, its production and final product could have been a complete disaster. If not for director Richard Lester, the U.S. could have gotten a version of the film with The Beatles’ voices dubbed over with “mid-Atlantic accents”. With the expectation that the group’s popularity wouldn’t last past the summer, a budget of just $500,000 in today’s cash, and a period of sixteen weeks to between the filming’s start and the July deadline, it’s truly thanks to dedication and authenticity that the world received the movie we did.

Tell Me: Why “A Hard Day’s Night”?

The film’s iconic opening sequence is characterized by an unmistakable guitar strum that kicks off the title track and plunges the audience head-first into the zeitgeist of ‘64. The chord marks the beginning of the group’s first entirely original album and serves as a symbolic entrance into a whirlwind that would change the world forever over the next six years.

And yet, the song wouldn’t exist without the need to fulfill a film contract on a tight schedule.

After several generic working titles, it wasn’t until a brain-storming session about a month into filming that the title A Hard Day’s Night came into the picture. The phrase was coined by Ringo Starr, who’d previously uttered the malapropism after an exhausting day of filming. Liking the sound of it and up for the task, John Lennon wrote the majority of the opening song that same night on the back of his son’s birthday card in about 20 minutes. It was presented to the group the very next day and recorded for the film’s soundtrack three days later– just eight days before filming wrapped.

A (Fictional) Day in the Life

The mockumentary, which began filming just weeks after The Beatles’ arrival in America for their historic appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show, follows a fictionalized version of the group’s daily routine as global superstars. Though the specific encounters and characters are fictionalized, with Norman Rossington and John Junkin playing fictional managers, and celebrated Irish actor Wilfrid Brambell playing McCartney’s trouble-making grandfather, the rush of traveling from gig to gig and hotel to hotel was very much true to life.

Ironically, it’s arguable that Beatlemania would hit its height after the film and soundtrack’s release; compared to the real deal and what would follow, the screaming mobs that chase the group across town are rather tame.

The Film Itself

This was all part of the fun though, and what makes AHDN so delightful; it captures a time in The Beatles career where the thrill was still fresh for the young twenty-somethings, and before the crowds got completely out of hand. It’s an appropriately modest film for a group with humble beginnings. At their core, The Beatles were simply four friends who loved to make music, and were relishing the feeling of making it big in the country from which all their greatest musical heroes and influences came.

The group’s youthful spirits are masterfully captured by screenwriter Alun Owen, who spent time with the boys to get a feel for the way each member actually spoke– he was chosen specifically due to his knack for Liverpudlian dialogue, which is integral to the band’s appeal quite unique to their war-torn working-class hometown. Owen recognized comedy gold when he saw it, essentially, taking the magic that was present in four lads just living their lives and going about as they always had, and amplified that to a general audience.

This method propelled John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison, and Ringo Starr forward as individual facets of the Beatle monolith, and celebrated what each person brought to the table. Their on-screen personas would have a lasting impact on the archetype each bug fulfilled and would stick with them even once each member had mostly grown out of them.

It’s upon The Beatles’ boarding of a train to London that we’re introduced to quick, snappy dialogue as they settle down into a car, shared with a stuck-up older gentleman who doesn’t at all like the look of them. The mop-tops’ rock ‘n roll clash with the rude, entitled man who grumbles about “having fought the war” for their sort, though the lads take the antagonism of the older generation with ease. They even take pleasure in rubbing him the wrong way through innocent jabs and don’t take themselves so seriously for the sake of having a laugh. To the surprise of the audience, The Beatles can even break the laws of space and time to teleport outside the train, just to annoy the old git once more before going on their merry ways.

A formula makes itself abundantly clear from the get-go. One that, again, would shape the members’ images to this day. Paul McCartney immediately stands out as playing it up, clearly enjoying the process of acting; meanwhile, Ringo Starr’s self-deprecating humor and line delivery exudes an endearing charm, showing exactly why the drummer would largely be the focus and/or introductory figure for all three of The Beatles’ cinematic storylines.

It’s these scenes of the boys roaming the train in twos, wrangling Paul’s grandfather, and the banter with the tired road managers that makes me realize that A Hard Day’s Night is absolutely teaming with midnight-movie potential; it’s insanely quotable, even to novices after just one watch. I can already hear a crowd of Beatles fans yelling in unison along with the Fab Four: “Who’s that little old man?”

The sing-along’s would-be killer, as not only are the songs catchy as can be, but the sequences accompanying the numbers are just as wonderful.

This flick changed how music was filmed, and what musical movies would look like forever; the first song, “I Should Have Known Better”, uses the caged luggage van as the setting in which the group performs the song diegetically, though the footage of them playing their instruments and jamming among suitcases and schoolgirls is interlaced with the gang playing cards.

A Hard Day’s Night showed that the songs didn’t always have to be actively performed on the screen to be used in the film, as they danced to their own music in a club and even had one implemented into the film score, with “Ringo’s Theme” being an instrumental rendition of the single “This Boy”.

Most innovative of these, and perhaps the accidental birth of the modern music video, is the “Can’t Buy Me Love” sequence later on in the film, in which footage of The Beatles frolicking in a field and interacting directly with the camera is slowed down and played backward as well as forwards, even implementing aerial shots. It’s just a bunch of guys being dudes and is spectacularly simple.

Whether the group are in pairs (John with Paul and George with Ringo) or on their own in their shining moment, there’s never a dull second despite the overall understated tone. One of the best scenes in the film is the group making the rounds with the press in which they give hilarious and witty non-answers that were largely taken from real-life interviews. The bit offers just a peek into how a group of friends expertly handled answering the same questions a million times about girls, what they wore, and their haircuts that seemed to perplex the world.

As a Beatles fan, there are many moments that stick out as particularly sweet to me, and that make me just as smiley now as they did when I first became obsessed in middle school. I greatly enjoy when the group sneaks off to the mod hotel club as Paul and John smoke and chat ladies up while George and Ringo hit the dance floor; Ringo’s dancing a mixture of shaking his arms wildly and jumping up and down with a fellow male partygoer to “I Wanna Be Your Man”, while everyone else’s seems to be looking down at your own feet as they do a sort of shuffle. It’s also adorable that one of the most beautiful songs, “If I Fell”, is sung by John to Ringo to cheer him up. The ambiance of “And I Love Her” is perfect, with the focus on the song and instruments allowing the bongos and Paul’s sole voice to carry through in a grand manner that it deserves.

With George being my favorite of the four however, it’s the film’s saving grace that he gets some screen time alone through a meeting with a snooty stylist, which includes the first-ever use of the word “grotty” in movie history. And although Lennon-McCartney wrote all the songs on the album, and it’s humorously clear that Harrison didn’t write the lyrics to “I’m Happy Just to Dance With You”, it’s a welcomed moment for him at the mic, which would increase in occurrence over the years as he’d grow into his songwriting shoes.

There is actually a plot that contains all these nuggets of musical interludes, though. After the travel to London, their arrival at the hotel, and run-throughs of some numbers at the television station they’ll be playing the following day, Grandfather McCartney’s scheming comes to a head. Ringo is the one left to chaperone the old man just hours before the final run-through and is manipulated into going off on his own to sulk.

While self-reflecting and seemingly out of luck everywhere he goes, Ringo’s picked up by police and taken to the station, where he reunited with Paul’s Grandfather who’d been peddling forged Beatles autographs. Grandfather escapes and warns the other three about the drummer’s whereabouts, leading to a good old fashioned Benny Hill-style chase as the group retrieves Ringo and tries to outrun the cops to make it to the studio in time.

There’s loads of fun to be had with all the tidbits and trivia that can be found, what with Harrison meeting his first on set as a nameless schoolgirl (the muse for many songs including “Something” and Eric Clapton’s “Layla”), a young Phil Collins appearing as an extra, and the ability to tell which boy’s name sobbing fangirls are screaming by reading their lips.

But even aside from all that, the film is a lovely time for anyone who enjoys music and can appreciate smart, British humor formative to groups like Monty Python. It’s definitely worth a watch at least once, if not just to get a better idea of Beatlemania and a slice of history that may be more fantastical to those far from it.