Music and movies have frequently gone hand-in-hand together. While cinema loves a good musical, often musicians have tried to make the move to the silver screen, and cinematic stories themselves have tried to capture the life of a musician through works of fiction or Oscar-calibre biopics. For Music in the Movies, Set the Tape will explore musical biopics, the mixed successes of attempts to make musicians movie stars, and tales that revel in the wonder of music and lyrics.
It’s hard to imagine that there was a time before The Beatles. The Fab Four from Liverpool is so ingrained in the history of music and pop culture that to think that there was a time when their music never existed seems unthinkable.
Releasing their debut single on the 5th of October 1962 with ‘Love Me Do’, the early imagery of the band in their dark suits and ties, singing on stage to the never-ending screams of adoring fans, eventually taking their act to The Ed Sullivan Show (perhaps the most iconic music performance in chat show history) and conquering America, is a defining one in the history of popular culture. It was perhaps inevitable during those impactful early years that the band would make the move to the movie screen.
Under less imaginative circumstances, A Hard Day’s Night could have just fallen into the realm of a cheaply produced quickie, rushed into production and cinemas to capitalise on the massive popularity of a band making waves. Instead, director Richard Lester and writer Alun Owen crafted something that had considerably more artistry to it, effectively producing a film that had its cake and ate it.
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One could argue it is a loosely connected series of music videos strung together by a flimsy narrative, and yet the non-musical moments have genuine comedy going on around them, not to mention Lester and director of photography Gilbert Taylor bringing a verité style to proceedings so that it almost feels like a combination of French New Wave and sitcom.
Filmed in gorgeous black and white, itself a unique production choice given that colour film was available, albeit at a higher price no doubt, the film feels simultaneously grounded in its explorations of the band during their heyday, while also playing as a zany comedy involving Paul McCartney’s (fictional) grandfather, played by Steptoe and Son’s Wilfrid Brambell, a very clean gentleman if there ever was one.
The film opens with the quintessential Beatles image; the foursome running down the street while being chased by hordes of screaming fans. The idea of running away from a pack of screaming extras could easily be flipped into something approaching a horror film, but here it’s played for hijinks. We watch as the iconic group deal with their increasing popularity, all the while falling into a series of episodic sequences that affirms something that is so easy to believe: that it is quite wonderful to be a Beatle.
The choice of Lester as director seems a fascinating one in retrospect. The filmmaker would become famous in later years for his collaborations with father and son producing duo Alexander and Ilya Salkind, directing back-to-back productions of The Three Musketeers and its sequel The Four Musketeers, while replacing Richard Donner during the contentious production of Superman II, and solely directing its 1983 sequel.
Hand-held cameras are deployed throughout, frequently ending up in all sorts of angles that feel accidental and yet natural at the same time. Its musical sequences feel like a precursor to the music video that would become a key part of the music industry in later years, while the comedic moments almost harken back to the likes of Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton; Ringo’s solo adventures in the city could almost be played silent and they would still have the same effect.
The film could have just been an advertisement for the band and their music, but it never makes the easy choice in that regard. There is a genuine craft to its filmmaking and at ninety minutes it never outstays its welcome. If you’re not a fan of the group before the film, then you may very well be afterwards.
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As movie stars, they carry quite a considerable charm and screen presence. Sure, they aren’t the greatest actors in the world, but the relationship between movie and music star is loose at best. Music videos of the future would feel more like mini-feature films, frequently launching the careers of future movie directors (David Fincher and, somewhat regrettably, Michael Bay are prime examples).
Such would be the impact of the film that musicians would not only try to make the move to the silver screen, (sometimes successfully, sometimes less so), but film studios would try to make a quick buck in trying to centre films around bands or musicians at their peak. Not all of those attempts would have the artistry or wonder of what everyone accomplished with A Hard Day’s Night; the film was critically acclaimed, won over previously hard-to-please critics of the band, and was even nominated for a Best Screenplay Academy Award. Unsurprisingly, George Martin’s score was also nominated.
Perhaps one of the more intriguing attempts at trying to capture the success of a band on the silver screen was 1975’s Slade in Flame. For multiple generations from the UK, Noddy Holder and Slade are synonymous with ‘Merry Xmas Everybody’, a song that is, for all intents and purposes, impossible to escape from at the end of each year whether you like it or not.
Instead of taking the route of making a film that revelled in their famous personas, the band instead made the dark opposite of A Hard Day’s Night, a film about a Slade-like band that rises and falls quickly, one that subverted the zany, lovable air of Lester’s film. Together they make for an interesting double bill, but where A Hard Day’s Night became an instant hit, Slade in Flame (an apocalyptic title if there ever was one for a pop movie) was met with resistance at the time but has since found a cult following thanks to reappraisal and the influence of Mark Kermode.
Capturing more of the flavour of Lester’s film, albeit in television series form, was The Monkees, essentially A Hard Day’s Night as a US television sitcom starring a band that was manufactured to be the US version of Liverpool’s most famous sons. While so much could be said about The Monkees and their music (just ask a traumatised Marge Simpson), it was a weekly series that captured the fun antics associated with being a pop-culturally defining music band that was perhaps not the reality of the situation, but which played into how audiences imagined being a pop star could be.
The band inevitably tried to make the move to the silver screen with Head, a commercial flop and critically panned attempt to make their image edgier but which ended up alienating their fanbase, and which featured a script that was, intriguingly, co-written by Jack Nicholson.
While The Monkees television series was part and parcel of the package that was manufactured to make their main headliners stars, A Hard Day’s Night and Slade in Flame were produced during key periods of time for each band. Slade admitted that their film perhaps reflected where they were in that moment, not to mention that its release was coinciding with their decreasing popularity.
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In contrast, A Hard Day’s Night is the early peak of Beatlemania captured on film form with love and affection. You can sense a touch of satire on the periphery, such as the sequence involving the boys being interviewed by the press that is both insightful and funny, almost because writer Alun Owen based the dialogue verbatim on actual conversations.
In the end, what it comes down to is that it parlays the fantasy of the moment with genuine charm. We know nothing is real in the film but given that the foursome was playing themselves and we know that screaming fans were as much a part of The Beatles lore as music and suits were, we go along with the image and feel of their life, even if in our hearts we know that it isn’t the reality.
Of course, it wouldn’t last forever, and the band went their own ways for reasons that perhaps weren’t reflected by the legend that would persist to this day, but if one wants to see what it might have felt like to be a Beatle and how we might want that fantasy to be, then perhaps A Hard Day’s Night is the prime example of it, forever etched on film.