Fab film at 50: 'A Hard Day's Night' rocked the movie world forever

By Sean Axmaker

The rock movie was never the same after "A Hard Day's Night" opened 50 years ago, on July 6, 1964. The Beatles black-and-white comedy, which is being re-released in theaters for the anniversary, immediately became the cheekiest, wittiest, most inventive film in the then-fledgling rock and roll movie genre.

Before "A Hard Day's Night," there were two basic approaches to the rock movie. Neither demanded much in the way of creativity. There was the Elvis model, where you cast a pop star in a dramatic or comic role and shoehorned a few songs between the scripted scenes, and the "Beach Party" model, where singers and bands simply dropped into a movie to perform a number and then quickly disappeared.

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"A Hard Day's Night" was something different. The Beatles played themselves, in a tongue-in-cheek fantasy of a day-in-the-life of the band. They were real and unreal at the same time, goofing their way through the world as a way of dealing with the insanity of superstardom, and they were likable and funny and just a little impertinent. If this isn't how they were in real life, it's how we wanted them to be.

"A Hard Day's Night" is being re-released in theaters to celebrate its 50th anniversary.Today

Much of the credit goes to director Richard Lester, an American in London with an off-center sense of humor and a history with Peter Sellers and Spike Milligan of "The Goon Show." John Lennon loved the Goons, a surreal comedy team that inspired the members of "Monty Python's Flying Circus," and appreciated Lester's freewheeling approach to comedy. 

Screenwriter Alun Owen translated the wit and cheek that the boys displayed in press conferences into a series of comedy bits, sight gags, nonsensical wordplays and energetic romps. And when it came to the music, director Richard Lester turned their goofing into the original music videos. 

It's a film no one expected to live beyond a few weeks in the theaters. Now it's 50 years old and back in theaters for one more romp through London.

The Reel Beatles: Trivia from the film

Title by Ringo
The title of the film was taken from a quip by Ringo Starr, uttered after a long, exhausting day in the recording studio. John Lennon loved the line and so producer Walter Shenson, suggested they use it in place of the working title, "Beatlemania." Lennon and McCartney wrote the song in a single night, jamming in a hotel room with Starr and George Harrison.

"A Hard Day's Night" changed rock movies forever.Today

That famous chord
The iconic opening chord was producer George Martin's idea, but it was Lennon who found the right chord and Harrison who played it on his 12 string Rickenbacker. It's reportedly an F with a G on top, but the complete combination of chords is still a matter of debate in Beatles circles.

Chase is on
Those screaming fans who chase the Beatles through the opening credits? Not actors. Those were real fans.

I Was a John Lennon lookalike
John Lennon was absent the day the boys romped across the empty field to the song "Can't Buy Me Love." A double was used for the shoot, and close-ups of Lennon were later shot and cut into the film.

'Sanford and Son' reference
The reference to McCartney's fictional grandfather (actor Wilfrid Brambell) being "a clean old man" was an in-joke for British audiences. Brambell was famous for playing a junkman in the sitcom "Steptoe and Son," a show that spawned the catchphrase "You dirty old man." The show was later remade in the U.S. as "Sanford and Son" with Redd Foxx in Brambell's role.

Matching up against 'Mary Poppins"
"A Hard Day's Night" was nominated for two Academy Awards, including one for music, but not for anything written or performed by The Beatles. It was for the film score. They got a little more respect from the Grammys, winning best performance by a vocal group but losing best original score to the peppy Sherman Brothers' songs for "Mary Poppins."

Daddy dearest
In 1984, MTV gave director Richard Lester a special award to honor him as "the father of the music video" for the influence of "A Hard Day's Night." Lester wrote back to demand a paternity test.

Find a theater near you that's showing "A Hard Day's Night."