A Hard Day's Night (Richard Lester, 1964)
Perhaps the most curious thing about A Hard Day's Night is how the film, supposedly a low-budget quickie production that sought to cash in a few bucks from the blossoming Beatle-mania, turned into quite an enjoyably surprising little masterpiece. While it's immensely possible that the makers, or the very young members of the popular Brit band, intended to create a piece of art, there's no denying that the end product, while undeniably slight, is a wonderful wonderful piece of entertainment.
It's a result of wit, of divinely inspired timing, and an adequate understanding of what's hip and funny. The title itself resulted from a mere afterthought of the band's young-ish drummer Ringo Starr; the studio bigwigs liked it and used it as the title; and the rest of the Beatles composed a song with Ringo's little phrase as an inspiration. The song is then used to start the film with a proper and addictive beat --- a boisterous wild chase by the band's fans (mostly composed of ravenous females) to the train. We're introduced to the four (John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Starr) who with Paul's imp-ish grandfather (Wilfrid Brambell) occupy one of the train's rooms. The band's tour managers (Norman Rossington & John Junkin), a duo problemizing over John's eccentricities and their height differences, join the group in their misadventures preceding a television broadcast of one of their live concerts.
Each of the four Beatles are given enough screentime to develop unique cinematic personalities. Overall, they're all portrayed as youthful, innocently rebellious, and irresistibly magnetic. Individually, they also shine --- Ringo, in his soul-searching and trouble-rousing walk through town, John with his irritating yet also lovely witty antics, Paul with his incessant warnings about his granddad's mischievous ways, and George's affable personality. The film's success mostly belong to the foursome's charm and their incredible rapport with each other, and the film's other more professional actors.
The screenplay, written by fellow Liverpool-er Alun Owen, is loaded with jokes that are both timeless and dated (the recurring line about the grandfather being a clean man --- referring, of course, to actor Brambell's role as a dirty old man in a television series). The story's very slight; almost non-existent actually. It's just a series of scenes of rascally escapades, stringed together by samples from the Beatles' early ditties. A semblance of a real conflict appears belatedly when neglected Ringo suddenly gets enlightened by the wicked old man of his unappreciated membership in the group; yet quite refreshingly, instead of dwelling in these tired conflicts, the film just wafts through them. They're more like excuses to showcase the group's songs and to market their phenomenal popularity; those commercial goals I really don't have any problems with.
The biggest miracle however, is the direction by Richard Lester, a TV-director plucked out of nowhere (his later creds will include the sequels to Superman). It's fashionably fresh; you know it's disposable entertainment, yet it feels and looks more important than it really is. Filmed documentary-style, it provides a gushing immediacy to the roadside chases, and an emotional realism to the performances (especially in the end, wherein shots of fainting screaming fans add delightful personality and effect to the concert). The scenes (that are not chases or performances) are executed with that same documentary-style that keeps the comedic dialogues natural and un-rehearsed.
Normally, films like A Hard Day's Night would hardly get noticed, especially by much more serious critics. However, upon its release in the United States, it gained critical and well, box-office respect. It's a trifle against the much more pertinent cinematic fare that was released during that time. And that's exactly it, with it's modest goals and investments, it did a lot more. With its protagonists with invented cinematic personalities (or not, since they portray these personalities with admirable ease to the point of non-acting), its director with that miraculous sudden outburst of talent and inspiration, its divinely patterned stroke of luck, the film just managed to do what it was made for, and much more.