A Hard Day’s Night (1964) trailer
Watch A Hard Day’s Night online on the BFI Player or in cinemas, including an extended run at BFI Southbank, from 4 July.
Thanks to my work as a journalist and programmer over several decades, I’ve had the good fortune to meet many filmmakers and actors; a few have even become friends. A consequence of this is that I’ve rarely been starstruck by movie folk. But put me in the company of a composer whose music I like and I’m immediately impressed. John Adams, Michael Nyman, Randy Newman, Graham Collier, Ornette Coleman… I feel privileged just to be allowed to say a few words. But I never felt quite as embarrassingly in awe as when I met Paul McCartney.
It was in 2001, and ‘Macca’ was a filmmaker’s guest at a screening at BFI Southbank, then known as the National Film Theatre. Through circumstances too complicated to recount here, I unexpectedly found myself alone and face to face with the former Beatle in quite a small space. Realising we’d probably be in that situation for a minute or so, I suddenly heard myself telling him – and kicking myself for saying it even as the words emerged uncontrollably from my mouth – “I saw you play live at the ABC Northampton in 1963, and I’ve got all your autographs.”
Instead of treating me with the disdain such an unsolicited confession deserved, McCartney amiably replied, “Were we good?”, to which I again responded almost involuntarily with, “I thought so, though I was only nine at the time and anyway, it was hard to tell for sure, what with all the screaming.” He laughed and said something about the unbelievable madness of Beatlemania – at which point, fortunately, we were joined by the people we’d each been waiting for and I was able to refrain from making any more silly comments.
In truth, it might have been worse. I could have told him that I’d been a member of the Beatles fan club, that I’d bought nearly all their singles (for six shillings and eight pence!) the day after they hit the shops, that the very first LP I bought myself (32 shillings and sixpence!) had been Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, or that I’d listened, on my transistor, to a radio preview of all four sides of what later became known as The White Album the evening before it was released. Or, indeed, that I’d gone to see both A Hard Day’s Night (1964) and Help! (1965) when they were originally released. Furthermore, I could have told him that the nine-year-old Geoff went twice in one week to see A Hard Day’s Night, I had liked it so much.
I saw and enjoyed both Beatles films several times over the next few years, and always preferred A Hard Day’s Night to Help! But then I saw neither for decades, and only caught up with the earlier film much later, in 1999. We were doing a Steven Soderbergh retrospective, and Soderbergh had suggested we let him curate a small season devoted to Richard Lester, whose work he greatly admired.
It seemed a good idea, and when Steven came over to interview Richard on the NFT1 stage, we also screened A Hard Day’s Night, which had recently been restored. As I sat down to watch it, I wondered how I’d like it after so many years; while I still liked the Beatles’ music, I didn’t listen to it as much as when I was a kid. (I didn’t need to; each song is engraved in my memory, and I can hear them without having to play them.) By then I was listening to very different music. And I was no longer nine.
It didn’t matter. The movie still felt terrific in 1999, and it’s still terrific now, 15 years on after another restoration. Of course, what I appreciate now, and what partly passed me by when I was a kid, is the film’s excellence as a film. Even at the time of its making, I’d known it was superior to most cinematic vehicles for pop stars – I’d seen the films made with Elvis, Pat Boone, Cliff Richard and others – but while I’d found it funny (after all, it boasted Wilfrid Brambell, better known as Albert Steptoe in the hugely popular TV series Steptoe and Son, as Paul’s grandfather), I probably hadn’t been old enough to get all the gags in Alun Owen’s script.
Nor had I been able to appreciate what a fine job Lester had done in giving what was essentially fiction an almost documentary feel – albeit without losing the humour. I look at the film now and it’s not just a marvellous showcase for the Fab Four – their music, their energy, their charm and their distinctively dry Scouse humour. It’s also Lester’s response to the innovations of the nouvelle vague, a fresh take on the musical genre, a celebration of youthful irreverence and iconoclasm and, as the years pass, an ever more fascinating portrait of a society in transition. Oh, and the music’s pretty good, too. This time, I can tell for sure.