“We didn’t want to make a fuckin’ shitty pop movie. We didn’t even want to make a movie that was going to be bad.”
-John Lennon, 1970
“Aesthetic experience exists. A Hard Day’s Night has nothing to do with it. At best, it is fun. But “fun” is not an aesthetic experience: Fun remains on the surface. I have nothing against the surface. But it belongs where it is and shouldn’t be taken for anything else.”
-Jonas Mekas, 1st October 1964
In the wake of the Beatles break-up in 1970, John Lennon began to systematically debunk the public’s more romantic notions of the band he founded as a teenager. Despite Lennon’s somewhat abrasive interview with Rolling Stone that year, and four a series of songs that attacked the Beatles myth, Lennon never really succeeded in retooling the public’s image of the Beatles. As much as Lennon, McCartney and Harrison all worked to distance themselves from their Beatle identities to promote their first solo albums, those personas would forever prove inescapable. In truth, the Beatle personas that proved so inescapable were the product of the press, a product that found a physical, widely distributed manifestation in Richard Lester’s film A Hard Day’s Night (1964).
Lester’s film, in terms of Beatle history, arrived in time to solidify their celebrity on an international scale. The film was released on the heels of their first U.S. tour, and in the proceeding months after John Lennon published his first book of comedic prose In His Own Write. Lennon’s literary achievement and the widely covered press conferences of the American tour would form the crux of the Beatle’s fictional counter-parts in A Hard Day’s Night. To lend a more intimate air to the film, Beatles manager Brian Epstein commissioned Allun Owen to pen the script after spending two nights on tour with the band. Owen’s script, despite capturing the tempo and mannerisms of the Beatles’ dialogue, still adheres strictly to the caricatures of the fab four that they themselves propagated, albeit inadvertently, by way of their momentous press coverage.
Lester himself was selected to direct the film because of his association with Peter Sellers and Spike Milligan. Lester made a film with Milligan and Sellers titled The Running, Jumping, & Standing Still Film (1960) which reprised a number of comedic elements Milligan and Sellers employed while on The Goon Show; a radio program Lennon and McCartney adamantly followed while in school. Richard Lester’s style at this point was purely economical. His use of handheld portable cameras, and the cinema-verite style they allowed, was simply a product of necessity. Lester’s follow-up film to A Hard Day’s Night, The Knack And How To Get It (1965), exhibits a far more formal approach to cinematic technique, marking the beginning of his move away from the kinetic energy that made A Hard Day’s Night such a novelty to critics and audiences alike.
A Hard Day’s Night’s visual virtuosity may have been widely praised, but in certain quarters the film was dismissed as a contemporarily dressed Elvis movie. The loudest spokesperson of this camp was Jonas Mekas. Mekas, an ex-patriot Lithuanian filmmaker based in New York, filled his column in The Village Voice with accusations directed more so at the film critics who heralded A Hard Day’s Night as opposed to the film itself. Mekas’ point was simple. He saw in A Hard Day’s Night nothing new. And it’s true, Richard Lester’s film, in so much as its visual style is concerned, offers the cinema nothing that hasn’t already been done by the “underground”, the likes of which include Morris Engel, Shirley Clarke, John Cassavetes, and Mekas himself. Indeed, A Hard Day’s Night’s greatest achievement in the vein of cinematic style is that it demonstrates that avant-garde tactics can be employed for commercial use, providing a blueprint for the music video format that would begin to evolve over the next two decades.
A Hard Day’s Night has an even more troubling relationship to the Maysles Brothers film of their first stateside tour that has gone under several title changes before it’s contemporary DVD release as The First U.S. Visit. In fact, Mekas based one of his articles on the relationship between these two films: “The Maysles brothers made a film about the Beatles. You have to see the Maysles film to realize what really good photography is, or what cinema is, or what the Beatles are”. The First U.S. Visit demonstrates how effective the medium of the documentary is at handling musical subjects. The Maysles’ film of the Beatles pre-dates D.A. Pennebaker’s Don’t Look Back (1966) and is equally inspired and effective. When Mekas alludes to the truth of the Beatles, he is undoubtedly referring to the manufactured characters of Owen’s script like Paul’s grandfather, who are the catalysts of all the film’s plot points and the unwilling foils of the fab four. The problem with Mekas’ argument is that while the Maysles’ film may be more illuminating and visually inspired, it is not as traditionally entertaining and therefore not as accessible as Lester’s film, or to paraphrase Jonas Mekas, it isn’t as much “fun”. That being said, the Maysles’ film was also never as widely distributed as A Hard Day’s Night, which had been bankrolled and released by United Artists. Mekas’ attacks on critics for their praise of Lester’s film seem, with hindsight, off base.