Celebrating its 50th anniversary this summer, the classic Beatles movie A Hard Day’s Night, newly remastered and back in theaters, looks and sounds better than ever. (There’s also a beautiful new Criterion Blu-Ray/DVD of it out.) It’s a pivotal movie, to be sure, and recognized as such at the time: Andrew Sarris famously called it “the Citizen Kane of jukebox musicals.” Some might argue that even that description doesn’t quite do the movie justice; given its effects on pop culture in general, A Hard Day’s Night is probably as influential as Kane itself — changing film practice, cultural attitudes, and even musical movements in remarkable ways. Indeed, it’s impossible to overstate just how influential this movie is. Here are ten ways a Hard Day’s Night changed the world.
1. It basically invented the music video.
In 1984, A Hard Day’s Night director Richard Lester was given an award by MTV declaring him “The Father of the Music Video.” Never missing the chance for a good joke, Lester promptly asked for a paternity test, but the award was perfect. A Hard Day’s Night featured the Beatles playing in concert, but it also featured their songs playing over the action of the film. And, particularly with the “Can’t Buy Me Love” sequence (see below), Lester turned these sections into their own little movies with their own narrative and stylistic touches.
2. It changed the way musical performances were shot.
Lester utilized a multi-camera shooting technique for much of the film, using as many as six cameras for the musical performances. This in itself wasn’t necessarily new — multiple cameras had already been used on TV and occasionally in movies. But Lester gave a number of his cameramen free rein to just go out with zoom lenses and capture random angles during the performances. And so they got stolen moments — cut-aways of the crowd, close-ups of the musicians’ hands and feet, etc. As a result, the whole idea of a musical performance onscreen was opened up and made more cinematic. From then on, this became the established way to shoot concerts, its influence filtering out to Monterey Pop and Woodstock and beyond.
3. Actually, it changed the way pretty much everything was shot.
Lester was very consciously borrowing from the French New Wave with his freewheeling style: the jump cuts, the direct addresses to the camera, and the random bits of absurdist humor. The New Wave’s influence was already palpable in other films, but by fusing it to an immensely popular movie — a rock musical starring the biggest band on the planet — Lester made it acceptable for the mainstream. As a result, much of the stylistic experimentation of 1960s and ‘70s American and British filmmaking can be traced back to Lester’s first Beatles movie.
4. It gave the world “pogo dancing.”
Sid Vicious claimed he’d invented pogo dancing in 1976, but bollocks to that. If you watch one of the early club scenes in A Hard Day’s Night, you’ll see Ringo doing the pogo with another, taller man. That exuberant man was young Beatles fan and actor Jeremy Lloyd, and he had specifically devised that repeated jumping-up-and-down move as a way to keep an eye on his girlfriend — one Charlotte Rampling (!) — while on the dance floor.
5. It proved that rock movies could also be great films.
A Hard Day’s Night was not just popular; it was critically acclaimed. It was even nominated for a Best Screenplay Oscar. (Though, hilariously, none of the songs were.) Previously, “rock ‘n’ roll movies” were exemplified by Elvis Presley vehicles like Jailhouse Rock — tepid narratives starring acting-challenged rock stars. Seen as fly-by-night money-grabs attempting to capitalize on a singer’s celebrity, they weren’t taken very seriously. Of course, A Hard Day’s Night actually was a fly-by-night money-grab. But it was also an artfully self-aware film, deconstructing the image-making behind rock stardom even as it indulged in it. And it not only turned Richard Lester into one of the pivotal filmmakers of the 1960s, it also made great cinema safe for rock music. (Though here, let’s spare a thought to Kenneth Anger’s experimental short Scorpio Rising, which was released the year before and also bears some responsibility for this trend.) After this, it was an easy hop, skip, and jump not just to films about music stardom, like Don’t Look Back, but also serious films that adopted the rock ‘n’ roll ethos, like Easy Rider.
6. It made the Beatles’ idiom an essential part of rock stardom.
Beatlemania was already going full blast by the time A Hard Day’s Night was shot — that’s what the movie’s about, after all — but the way the band is portrayed in the film became a key part of the myth. Screenwriter Alun Owen had based his script on actual interactions with the band — in particular, their constant ribbing both of others and of themselves, a facet of their Liverpudlian whimsy. But the boys couldn’t really act, so the filmmakers made sure not to give them anything long to say. (They also had to make sure that each band member got roughly equal attention in the film.) “The structure of the script had to be a series of one-liners,” as Lester later put it. And so, the charmingly clipped, willfully obtuse back-and-forth of the Beatles was born — a way of speaking and acting that would be adopted by rock stars for decades to come.
7. It made the world safe for go-for-broke comedy.
Richard Lester got his start working with the Goons — the British comedy team comprised of Peter Sellers, Spike Milligan, Harry Secombe, and Michael Bentine — as they made the cross-over to TV from their popular radio program The Goon Show. His experience with the Goons won him the job of directing A Hard Day’s Night — John was a fan of the comedy group — and he brought that same sense of loony surrealism to the film. But A Hard Day’s Night also displays something of the deadpan slapstick of Buster Keaton (particularly in some of Ringo’s scenes) and the wise-ass dialogue of the Marx Brothers. All these elements, crossed with the charisma of the Beatles, created a toss-everything-at-the-wall-and-see-what-sticks style of humor — throwaway gags mixed with surreal exchanges mixed with wisecracks — that wound up influencing comedy for decades, helping fuel everything from Monty Python to The Kentucky Fried Movie to the Airplane! movies.
8. It introduced George Harrison to the future “Layla.”
At one point in the film, Paul McCartney briefly tries to woo a young, beautiful girl. In real life, that girl was a 19-year-old model named Pattie Boyd, and the one who truly fell in love with her that day was George Harrison. He asked her out. She had a boyfriend and said no. When she was called back to set a few days later, however, she thought better of it and said yes. (Maybe the boyfriend should have learned how to pogo-dance.) Two years later, they were married. Two years after that, George wrote the song “Something” for her. And two years after that, George’s good friend Eric Clapton declared his love for her in “Layla,” thus cementing one of the greatest love triangles in rock history.
9. It changed folk music forever.
Here, I’ll leave it in the words of Howard Hampton’s lovely essay for the film’s Criterion Collection release: “[T]o appreciate the full extent of the film’s impact, you have only to look at the loving shots of George Harrison playing his Rickenbacker twelve-string electric guitar — no one had seen or heard anything like it (it was only the second one ever manufactured). When Roger McGuinn saw it, he had a veritable religious experience: thus were born the Byrds, folk rock was launched, and a thousand chiming, eight-mile-high tunes went chasing after Harrison’s sound. Bob Dylan, the Beach Boys, the Rolling Stones, each responded in their own way; everyone was on notice that a whole theater of possibilities was being opened here.”
10. Oh, and it gave the world a whole bunch of new Beatles songs.
It’s important to remember that while A Hard Day’s Night was created to capitalize on the Beatles’ success, it also required the band to write and perform some new songs. (In fact, the soundtrack album for the film was the first Beatles album that was all original songs and no covers.) Amazingly, the film didn’t have a title while it was being shot. It was only at the last minute that the title “A Hard Day’s Night” came up — reportedly based on one of Ringo’s beloved malapropisms. Once the producers had the title, they asked the Beatles to come up with a song to justify it. Thus was one of the greatest songs of all time, complete with that amazing opening chord, conceived, written, and performed — all in the space of a few days.