A Hard Day's Night ★★★★★

Let's try a thought experiment. Say The Beatles - the band, their music, their social impact - happened a decade earlier. You'd still get a Beatles movie, but you wouldn't get A Hard Day's Night.

Why is that? It's because of Richard Lester, the man who was unfashionably determined to make a lasting work of art out of a pop cash-in, and his marinading in the cinema's equivalent of rock and roll - the French New Wave.

All of the Nouvelle Vague's stylistic tics are present in A Hard Day's Night - the rapid editing, the use of hand-held camera, the preoccupation with the mechanics of film and TV image-making, the switch to still photos, the approval of mistakes as creatively interesting (see George knock over his amplifier, and Paul blunder through the fourth wall a couple of times!), the documentary-style montages and abrupt segues in and out of musical numbers - it's Jules et Jim brought into twentieth-century London, and it is the perfect match for the pace of the music and public hysteria captured here.

As with Surrealism, the British latched onto this stuff for its comic potential, leaving the ideological content behind in Europe. A Hard Day's Night has an appealingly innocent view of rock and roll rebellion, culminating in the scene where Paul's granddad (Wilfred Brambell, in an absolutely peerless performance) encourages Ringo to go out and live a little. His rebellion includes buying a new coat, taking some photos, throwing a brick in a river and chatting to a kid playing truant. Even when he gets in trouble with the police, setting up the movie's third act, it's for an innocuous act of gallantry that goes awry.

That said, Lester is aware that, at this point in history, a large part of the appeal of this music is the knowledge that your parents probably hate it. The Beatles were still a few years off from Sgt. Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band, the point at which articles by professors of musicology would appear declaring them the heirs to Brahms, and their appeal here can best be described as punkish.

Lester and his scriptwriter Alun Owen essentially paint Beatles fandom as the largest, least covert secret society in the world, one which is accessible to every schoolgirl in every corner of the country, but which remains stubbornly baffling to everyone over the age of twenty. And the group like it that way - the scene near the start where they taunt a middle-class, middle-aged train passenger still has a hint of real danger to it, largely because of George Harrison's oddly menacing screen presence. Dark-eyed and curling his upper lip, he later takes on the very machinery which propelled the Beatles to stardom by sneering at the producer of a fashion TV show in a skit that still feels absolutely relevant today.

It's a "U" certificate now, but in its time it must have been heady stuff. The British Board of Film Censors (as they were then) saved the country from anarchy by removing the dread phrase "get knotted", but elsewhere John Lennon sings a mockingly off-key rendition of 'Rule Britannia' and impersonates the Queen, World War II and the Northern Irish conflict are burlesqued, the upper classes are portrayed as hypocritical gamblers and there are jokes about police brutality. (There's also a small background gag where Lennon sticks a Coca-Cola bottle up his nose and pretends to snort it - what can it mean?)

EMI must have felt like their world was spiralling into chaos too, watching the opening scenes of Beatlemania pass from what was supposed to be an exaggerated spoof of the group's popularity to something so close to reality Brian Epstein was forced to buy the rights to the Maysles brothers' documentary What's Happening?, about the Beatles in New York, and sit on it for fear that its scenes of rampant crowds would count as a 'spoiler' for the fictional movie. And in the middle of it all is the music, which is interestingly ballad-heavy, including perhaps their loveliest song 'And I Love Her'. In the middle of Lester's evocation of the group's purple period, the songs are an oasis of calm and beauty among chaos and absurdity. The film which started off as an excuse to exploit the Beatles' music had grown into something which used their songs essentially as light relief.

It's not surprising that the band never made it as actors - hard to suspend your disbelief when one of the goddamn Beatles is pretending to be a cowboy or an aristocrat in front of you. But Ringo Starr's performance deserves particular praise. Perhaps because he was already working under a pseudonym, he feels free to develop "Ringo Starr" into a delightful comic creation, the put-upon drummer savant, an eloquent perfectionist who's also an underdog. It's no surprise that he gets the most scenes alongside the old pro Brambell.

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