This past weekend saw the release of Danny Boyle’s Yesterday, a high-concept “dramcom” with a hint of romance in which an unprecedented global anomaly erases The Beatles (among other cultural bullet points) from history. The Fab Four are allowed to live on, however, in the baffled memory of struggling musician Jack (Himesh Patel), the only one with any understanding of what’s happened.
Yesterday has been received with heavily mixed reviews from critics and general audiences alike, with some charmed by the whimsy and enthusiasm of it all, and others finding themselves frustrated at the film’s implausibility and lack of conceptual exploration. I consider myself squarely in the latter category. Although I wasn’t impressed by Yesterday, it got me thinking about how now would be a good time to revisit The Beatles’ first (and arguably most notable) excursion into cinema: A Hard Day’s Night, which was released in 1964 by United Artists.
I watched the film at the very end of 2018 as part of an annual tradition, dictating that I cross something significant off of my cinematic bucket list on New Year’s Eve, and I was frankly…underwhelmed. I found that its repetitiveness and inconsequentiality made for a largely inconsequential experience, although I was amused throughout by the charisma of the band members and its uniquely British sense of humor.
I was excited to revisit the film with a preexisting conception of it this time around, and I’m glad I did because, while I still wouldn’t consider it to be great or even especially good, I definitely have a greater appreciation for what the movie is. In case you don’t know, A Hard Day’s Night is a kitchen-sink comedy and jukebox musical showcasing 36 hours in the life of The Beatles, right in the midst of Beatlemania. It was directed by Richard Lester, who would go on to also direct Help! and both Superman II and Superman III.
Rather than focus on the aspects of fame and recognition one might expect from a day in the life of The Beatles, the spotlight is repeatedly shifted to the more comically mundane tasks of their day-to-day life, such as entertaining themselves on a train ride, dealing with heaps of fan mail, and figuring out where Ringo went before their show begins. Their fame is portrayed as something of a nuisance, what with the hordes of fans and stringent requests of their manager (Norman Rossington).
It’s a movie that doesn’t necessarily follow any particular character arc; the only real through-lines exist in the humor, which relies heavily on repetition and incidental juxtaposition. As such, it might not feel as though it amounts to much by the final concert, and indeed it might not, at least in a conventional sense. After the concert, the band gracefully exits via helicopter, hardly any different from when we first met them.
Judging by its exaggerated and satirical spin on reality, the film is more of a presentational thesis on The Beatles, dictating that they’re simply an artistically gifted quartet of friends, and everything that has happened as a result is only a trifling byproduct of their talent. The film subjectively presents the world to us through the eyes of the band members themselves, stylishly replicating their reaction to newfound fame.
Viewed this way, it could easily be seen as being indulgent or self-aggrandizing, but it’s hard to be too put off by that given how quaint the film is. It’s an extremely specific slice of life, and it’s a life that isn’t particularly good or bad. These activities are their entire existence, and the movie is good about politely asking for empathy without ever demanding it.
It announces its structure and intentions within minutes, and it’s a lively assembly of zany situations punctuated by rockin’ musical numbers, and that’s about it. If that sounds like your speed, you’ll feel right at home, and if it doesn’t, you’ll never be particularly miserable. It might get a little tiresome, but there’s a definite energy and personality to it that’s unlike almost any other film. And it’s an essential watch for anyone interested in the band (which is hopefully almost everyone).
At the very least, A Hard Day’s Night is a valuable time capsule from before The Beatles were fully-realized legends, and it’s a fun way of getting to know the band members as individuals, regardless of how accurate the portrayals are. When compared to Yesterday, Richard Lester’s film doesn’t necessarily attempt to unlock or uncover anything profound, but it is nice to see the band performing their own music (not a slight on Himesh Patel’s renditions by any means). Though Lester’s ambitions aren’t as ostensibly high (or nearly as botched) as Boyle’s, it does succeed at communicating to us what “a hard day’s night” is truly like.
A Hard Day’s Night is now streaming with a variety of supplemental features on The Criterion Channel and is available for rental on Itunes, Amazon Prime, and Google Play. Yesterday is currently playing in theaters.
I haven’t seen this film in a long time, but I love the way you describe it as the Beatles themselves just showing what their normal lives are like.
There’s an infectious joyousness to it – even in the more urgent situations – that I wish I’d mentioned more in the article, but it’s certainly an admirable aspiration Lester is shooting for. Thanks for reading!
What was your letter grade for Yesterday?
Like with The Dead Don’t Die, I think I’ll unfortunately have to go for a C- again. I’ve been giving a lot of those lately, so maybe my standards are getting higher as we speak? Thanks for reading!