WFTB Score: 9/20
The plot: Travelling down from Liverpool to That London for a TV appearance, The Beatles are followed everywhere they go by screaming girls and, more problematically, Paul’s disruptive Irish grandfather. It’s bad enough that the boys have to fish him out of a casino; but when he starts putting ideas in Ringo’s head, causing the drummer to wander off on his own, he threatens to bring the whole show to a juddering halt.
Being chased down the streets of Liverpool is all part of a day’s work for John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Ringo Starr, collectively known as popular pop combo The Beatles. But a Beatle’s work is never done, and they’re hauled down to London by manager Norm (Norman Rossington) and lofty roadie Shake (John Junkin) to play live on a national television show. Some of their fellow train passengers, such as a gaggle of giggling schoolgirls, are more pleased to see them than others, and none of The Beatles are particularly pleased to see that Paul’s accompanied by his Irish ‘other’ grandfather (Wilfrid Brambell).
As the lads go about their pre-show rituals – meeting the press, chatting up the ladies, singing the odd song – they enjoy brief moments of escape, not least when they rescue Paul’s Granddad from a swanky casino; however, the old man’s mischief gets out of hand when he prays on Ringo’s insecurities and the drummer disappears off on a mournful trip along the banks of the Thames. The remaining Beatles set off in earnest to look for him, because without a quarter of the band the show can’t go on, much to the despair of Victor Spinetti’s highly-strung (if cosily-sweatered) director.
The Beatles were a bona fide phenomenon that I wasn’t around to see first-hand, so I can only imagine the excitement felt by the legions of young fans who flocked to cinemas in 1964 to see their heroes on the silver screen. A Hard Day’s Night certainly doesn’t disappoint on that score, giving the viewer a full dose of the lively Liverpudlians as they run, jump and occasionally stand still to sing a couple of their latest songs, including Can’t Buy Me Love, And I Love Her, the title track and, as the pièce de résistance, the group’s biggest hit She Loves You.
Director Lester and screenwriter Alun Owen have a good grasp of the group’s camaraderie and idiosyncratic use of language, mixing up surreal jokes and non-sequiturs with sarcastic observations on the price of fame; and, realising that an hour and a half of the Fab Four’s high-jinx might tire even the most frenzied of fans, Owen and Lester wisely introduce Brambell to the party, playing a conniving old codger not a million miles away from old man Steptoe, no matter how much he’s presented as a ‘clean old man’ here.
Brambell, Junkin, Rossington, Spinetti and decent cameo turns from the likes of Deryck Guyler, Richard Vernon and Anna Quayle all help to make the film a more substantial proposition than it could have been, given that none of the Beatles are particularly gifted at delivering their lines – though Lennon is amusingly unruly, Starr convincingly mopey, and I like George’s deadpan riposte to a journalist’s enquiry about what he calls his mop-top hairstyle: ‘Arthur’.
A Hard Day’s Night feels authentic as a well-filmed comic representation of the whirlwind surrounding the Fab Four in their innocent-ish heyday. What’s less certain is whether, half a century on and free from hysteria, it works as a comedy movie. The plot is paper-thin and many of the skits used to pad out the running time – cutting a rug at a club, George’s brief stint as a trendsetter, the faintly boring Keystonesque police chases – fall flat these days. Too much time is given over to Lester’s silent movie-inflected gags, and while some of them are funny – Wilfrid popping up on stage works twice – a good number aren’t. You know exactly what’s going to happen when Ringo holds a coat over a puddle for a lady, and the sight of John, Paul, George and Ringo mucking about in a field isn’t improved by Can’t Buy Me Love playing inappropriately on the soundtrack.
In general, the performances of the songs themselves are haphazard, the band sometimes not playing underneath the music, sometimes lip-syncing without discipline. Also, not that it’s worth making too much of, amongst the larks is a vaguely unpleasant whiff of…not homophobia, exactly, but of snide sniping that Brambell and The Beatles’ real manager Brian Epstein must have endured rather than enjoyed. Still, as I say it’s not a big issue; given the prevailing, pre-swinging mores of the time, it’s not surprising that some of the script feels dated.
As I mentioned in my review of Help!, my interest in The Beatles really starts once the screaming dies down around 1965. Nonetheless, there are some great songs in the earlier catalogue and a good few in A Hard Day’s Night, which also captures the energy and humour of the lads from Liverpool and shows there’s more to them than haircuts, suits and head-wobbling ‘Ooos’. On the other hand, watching Lester’s film in the 21st Century can’t hope to bring back all the excitement and mayhem the boys caused at the time; so while it’s an eminently watchable curiosity, and obviously a must for Beatle aficionados, this boy will let it be a while before catching A Hard Day’s Night again.