It was all happening so fast in a world that still moved slowly. In July 1962, Telstar, a communications satellite, brought the first live instantaneous exchange between Britain and America—look at them, there they are! “Love Me Do” went on sale in Britain in late 1962. “Please Please Me” was released in January 1963. In 1963, in Britain, the Beatles did their first tour, and the crowd went mad. “Beatlemania” was born. An American on vacation in Britain was there to witness it. His name was Ed Sullivan. He went to the boys’ manager, Brian Epstein, and he said he had to have them on his show. Shazam!
On April 23, 1964, when I got home from work at Penguin Books in London, my wife, Anne, had a story to tell. She had been walking our daughter Kate in a pushchair over the railway bridge on the way to go shopping in Hounslow. Anne had seen what looked like a film being shot in the Thornbury playing fields, in Isleworth, full of soccer at the weekends, but empty that day, except for a crane and quite a lot of people. “Wonder what that was?” we said. We didn’t have long to wait. By July 6, the film had opened, and a few days later we saw it—A Hard Day’s Night—and Anne could say, “That’s what that was.” Some people said it was the best bit of the film: the boys running wild in the fields to that triumphant song, “Can’t Buy Me Love.” This weekend, when the film is re-released nationwide, another generation will have the opportunity to pick a favorite sequence.
Everyone knew the Beatles had to do a movie—look at Elvis, he had become a factory for bad movies. But no one had any idea how to make a Beatles movie. Amazingly, the project was a sidebar. The album was reckoned to be far more lucrative. The film itself would be shot in seven weeks for about $500,000—in black and white! (To date, its rentals are over $6 million.)
The American company, United Artists, had dreamt up the movie in October 1963, just based on the reports coming out of Britain. The boys took the deal, but they were edgy about what the movie might be. “We didn’t want to make a fuckin’ shitty pop movie,” said John. United Artists assigned Walter Shenson as the producer, Richard Lester would direct, and Alun Owen was hired to do a script. The first two were Americans, with not much experience. Owen was the key guy: He was Welsh, but he’d been raised in Liverpool, and he’d written a television play, "No Trams to Lime Street," which some of the Beatles had enjoyed. Moreover, Lester had worked with Owen on another TV show and they’d got on. Owen knew Liverpool language so he hung out with the Beatles, listening to the way they talked. The important thing, he felt, was to get their cheeky, snarky talk—the way any gang sounded, with much more familiarity than respect, needling, teasing, wisecracking, inflected with the amazed realization that they were the Beatles and everyone wanted them.
One reason why they had become a sensation in Britain was their irreverence and their mild insolence—taking the mickey, the Brits called it, mocking the people from the media who wanted to interview them. (Of course, it was the songs that drove the enterprise and the panache of the boys.) But Britain was a very different country in 1963 from what it is now, and pop singers were still well-behaved and polite—like Cliff Richard (real name Harry Webb) and Adam Faith (Terry Nelhams). Only Ringo of the Beatles “improved” his name.
The Liverpool-Hamburg group offered class hostility; generational rebellion; North Country contempt for soft Londoners. They knew the music was about sex, and realized that they were becoming so famous that they were liberated and confined by their fame at the same time. Kids loved them because they identified an urge to fuck the system. “Fuck” was not said yet, but it was there between the lines. And Alun Owen knew the film depended on catching that attitude, giving a sly wink so we wouldn’t really be offended. John especially found his artistic character (he’d have winced at that phrase—until he met Yoko) in press conferences.
As for Lester (born in Philadelphia), he had been raised in television and commercials, but he had made a surreal slapstick eleven-minute movie, The Running, Jumping & Standing Still Film (with Peter Sellers and Spike Milligan). In hindsight you can see that as a working title for the “Can’t Buy Me Love” sequence. Lester liked short shots and plenty of cuts, knockout visuals, and a musicalized shooting style. The Beatles were fans of The Running Jumping film. That was important because they could do just about anything they suggested. Owen and Lester were both of the moment, hip, cool, and subversive. London and Britain were not quite “swinging” yet, but you could feel the energy building.
So Lester called for several cameras and told their operators to keep shooting, to gather up accidents, improvisations, and things that were way outside conventionally made movies. That air of cinema verité owed something to the French New Wave, and especially to Jean-Luc Godard. In addition, A Hard Day’s Night established the iconography of the mop-heads being chased through the streets by crazed girls. The boys’ lack of privacy, something significant in their eventual break-up, was there in that first film.
There was an immediate follow-up, Help! It had Lester still, but no Owen. Instead there were two ill-matched writers: the playwright Charles Wood and the crime novelist Marc Behm. Help! also had more input from John and Paul, who were wondering whether they might act and talk like artists, instead of scouse rascals. This film was in color, had many exotic locations, and it was three times as expensive as A Hard Day’s Night. It was more stylized than the first film—or was it more arty? It did as much business as the original, but now London was swinging and sophisticated, and drugs were part of that momentum. By the time of Magical Mystery Tour, the four boys had become directors (along with a veteran cameraman, Bernard Knowles). Mystery Tour was made for television and done in color, but in 1967 few homes in Britain had color yet. So the picture hardly found an audience, and in hindsight it seems over-loaded with the sweet, vapid pretentiousness of Paul (who was the chief intelligence on the picture).
Yellow Submarine was still to come, but that was the vision of a Canadian animator, George Dunning. The Beatles were losing interest in movies, and faith in themselves. So it’s worth asking, could any of the boys have done movies on their own? The only one who seemed to have anything like a dramatic personality—abrasive but vulnerable—was John. He might have tried characters that resembled himself, in the way Mick Jagger became the recluse rock star, Turner, in Performance, which is a real and startling movie. Soon enough, Jagger proved he was no actor, and in all likelihood John had too much money, too many drugs, too much adulation, and too much Yoko to summon the energy for a whole movie. But it’s just possible that he could have played Harold Pinter or even Joe Orton material. He was the only one of the four with a sufficiently interesting and unresolved personality.
By the end of the ’60s, the business plan (let alone the artistic resolve) in rock had broken down, and the concert film was taking control. Woodstock was vital in that process (budget $600,000; gross $13 million); while Gimme Shelter, in the best and worst ways, was a rock movie as a public event, culminating in murder at the Altamont concert. To this day, onstage and on camera, Jagger is one of the most fascinating, androgynous performers in the movie musical. You can’t think of Paul in the same light, and the 208-minute documentary on George Harrison, Living in the Material World, made by Martin Scorsese, is too much of a dull thing.
In short, the real moment of “What was that?” is A Hard Day’s Night and the odd, accidental way in which it captured the Beatles’ cinema verité brusqueness and presaged a downfall for many humbug clichés in British life. Nothing matches the sound of the Beatles in those first few years, with the jarring, harsh-sweet interplay of John and Paul, and the serene cascade of their songs. But if movie is about its moment, the now experience and profound problems with satisfaction, then Jagger on stage on screen is everything that Elvis and the mop-tops failed to be.
“The Ed Sullivan Show” episode that featured the Beatles aired on February 9, 1964—73 million viewers were reported. A Hard Day’s Night opened in New York on August 11, 1964. By then, every possible Liverpool gang was being signed up and touring the States. Next year, Bob Rafelson and Bert Schneider were putting together the Monkees. No one could keep up, least of all John, Paul, George, and Ringo. A Hard Day’s Night was not a fuckin’ shitty pop movie, but it was almost a new kind of musical to rival what Jacques Demy was dong in France with The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (it opened at Cannes in May 1964). But that was pretty and the Beatles were gritty. The influences flew in all directions, and the Dick Lester style would take root in American television in 1967 with the pilot of “Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In.” A couple of years into the success of that show and the Beatles broke up. That’s what that was.