A friend said to me recently that she felt that A HARD DAY’S NIGHT was the “basis for reality television.” I found it a repugnant theory at first, because I’m of the idea that reality television is badly scripted drama designed to dumb down the minds of those who watch. Ok, I’m included in that category; there are two shows that I’m fairly addicted to. But, as I sat to write about this film, the idea returned to me: what if this was reality theater in the 1960’s?
The premise of the film is to give us a glimpse into a day in the life of The Beatles; whose rocket had just launched them into global stardom. John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Ringo Starr all play a bubble-gum, teen magazine-friendly version of themselves in a story line that, apart from all of the screaming fans and musical numbers encompassed within it, imagines itself to be a fairly decent representation of the Beatles’ lives. They travel to London by train, picking up Paul’s meddling grandfather, their manager and his assistant along the way, to perform on a television variety show. The show is threatened when Ringo goes missing, only to be rescued at the police station. Afterwards, everyone is whisked away from their screaming fans to play another gig.
This is my absolute favorite film of all time. I enjoy the idea that these four musicians are loveable and funny. That is the gimmick, the hype. And, that is also why the plot works. It’s the perfect formula: popular music group plus a peek into their lives for their fans equals success, with the conceit being that fans will receive a realistic insight into their idols’ lives. It’s been replicated several times over, especially with popular groups of today.
There are plenty of classic one-liners, but the standout line for me is uttered by Paul’s grandfather: “I’ve been in a train and a room and a car and a room and a room and a room.” It defines the basis and genesis of the plot: The Beatles were prisoners of their own fame; which was in fact reality. They could go nowhere without being recognized. They were constantly on the run with shows and interviews. At one point, they’re led into a room full of reporters and cannot get any food or drink because everyone wanted a piece of their time. Ironic that this film is designed to give insight into a typical day for the very people who made them prisoners trapped in the entity known as The Beatles.
But, if this was merely a very early version of reality television, The Beatles played versions of themselves, as written in the screenplay. They were happy-go-lucky guys, satisfied to spend their lives going from place to place and playing their music; even if it meant running away from crowds of screaming fans every time they dared to step outside.
The screenwriter, Alun Owen, did spend time with the Fab Four and experienced their lives at the height of Beatlemania. So, he had a very clear frame of reference upon which to base his characters of John, Paul, George and Ringo. But, really, how likely is it that the four most famous people on the planet bust out the back door of a television studio to go romping around in a field? Did John Lennon really wear a hat and play with boats in his bubble bath? Well, maybe he might have, but the point is that this window we’re given, while fun and highly entertaining, is rose-tinted.
It’s designed for the viewer to see only the image of the group that was popular: those loveable moptops who would laugh and joke and play great music. It’s an excellent work of mock-reality, replete with all of the drama we witness today, supplied mostly by the character of Paul’s grandfather, John McCartney:
To Ringo, as he’s reading a book: “Sure, that lot’s never happier unless they’re jeering you. Where’d they be without the steady support of your drum beat, that’s what I’d like to know…And what’s it all come to in the end? A book. When you could be out there betraying a rich American widow or sipping palm wine in Tahiti before you’re too old like me.”
In the span of one “typical day,” the Fabs find themselves escaping from legions of fans, arguing over seats and music on the train, answering fan mail, thwarting plots hatched by John McCartney, losing Ringo, having a run-in with the police and nearly missing a television show performance. Ok, I’ll buy it. Why not? How do we actually know that it didn’t happen?
This film was more than just a glimpse into the Beatles’ reality; it was groundbreaking for its time. The semi-documentary style is so commonplace now, but back in 1964, most movies were more structured, even rock-n-roll films like JAILHOUSE ROCK. Director Richard Lester edits the film in a way that exudes this infectious energy, which would later inspire television shows like The Monkees and helped to bring about the concept of music videos, among other things.
I prefer to view this film as a fun roller coaster ride with the Fab Four. In fact, my favorite scene is towards the end of the film, during the show, when the camera pans around the back of The Beatles as they’re singing. For a moment, we get to see the audience from their viewpoint and perspective. It’s an incredibly interesting few seconds, as we get to see screaming, crying, jumping up and down and singing along from their perspective. It’s almost an out-of-body experience, and it draws the viewer even further in. It’s a snapshot, a moment in time that will never be equaled or surpassed.