The Beatles ‘A Hard Day’s Night’: An Appreciation

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Seeing the film years after its release created a Beatlemaniac

Most everyone has a favorite book, film or band. But I sometimes wonder how many people have actually had their lives changed by one of those things as much as anything could change one’s life.

I’m talking about the very level of who you are, how you think, how you act, how, perhaps, you do what you do. Is it a lot of people? My guess is no. But then again, when it happens to you, if it does, you know exactly when and where. And later, as you get older, you come to know why, more and more.

It might strike some as strange that some two decades after Beatlemania began to fade when the band broke up, I became something of a maniac for The Beatles. As someone who has been through his share of life stuff by the age of 40, I maybe ought to think it’s ironic that a rock band that changed popular music, and to some degree popular culture, before I was even born has played the role it has in my most intimate matters of soul, heart and psyche.

I knew their music, vaguely, as a kid, because it’d come on the radio, of course. I remember thinking “Penny Lane” was a pleasingly odd story of a song, and what were these finger pies the singer was going on about? And then there was “Eleanor Rigby,” which frightened me, with its priest whom I decided was haunted and whose face, I concluded, looked just like the profile that seemed to come together in the knots of wood on my sister’s bedroom door that faced mine across the hallway. But that was about it.

In the spring of 1990 I was in eighth grade and I thought I was some kind of badass because, like every other guy my age, I was listening to Def Leppard, with no clue that it was basically metal bubblegum rock. We had to take a music lab class, and for the second half of the year I had an instructor who you could tell hated to be there. My guess now is that his professional music gig hadn’t worked out, and he was reduced to passing out acoustic guitars to a passel of eighth graders, putting a video of Jimi Hendrix at Woodstock on the TV that had been wheeled in, and then screaming, “Solo! Solo now!”

A HARD DAY'S NIGHT, The Beatles, 1964

Scene from A Hard Day’s Night

He was a total plonker. Didn’t even try to teach anything. He just sat there looking like what I would later come to know as hungover, shaking his head a lot. And it was because of this man’s funk, lack of pedagogical skills, drinking habit, who knows, that my life changed more in one morning than it had in all of my 14 years up until that point.

It was pissing down rain that day when we all trooped in after homeroom. Our resident guitar guru was even more taciturn than usual. The TV was there on its trolley, and without a word, the lights were shut off and he hit play on the VCR. First, there was a chord. I didn’t know it was a chord. I didn’t know what a chord was. It hung in the air unlike any sound I had ever experienced, though. My first thought: no way. And there were the Beatles racing for a train with throngs of girls after them.

Kids in the class were passing notes, a couple of them were sleeping, one Lothario was romancing someone he’d doubtless get to second base with and then boast about to the popular kids at lunch. And me, I was having my mind utterly and totally blown.

Already I was deep in some kind of experience. There were the songs, the wit, the visual sleights of hand that served notice that this was no regular film, these were not regular blokes, this was not regular art. It felt deep, these songs, like you could study them, listen to them over and over again and always find new nuances. And you could also just close your eyes and get lost in them, too, tap your foot, get your courage up to do something you’d not thought you had it in you to do before, venture out, in your way, further than you had before with whatever it was you did.

beatles_playingThat thing I did was writing. I knew, from the age of two on, what I was. I was someone who told stories. I’m not saying I was always good at it. No, I sucked. But I knew what I had in me, and I knew the level I’d eventually go to if I did things right. A lot of harnessing, growth, all manner of development would be required. And courage, freedom, balls.

And this was the first time I saw all of that on full display in the work and spirit and core identity of someone else. A collective someone else, in a way. All of that crystalized in a moment that I’d not say outstrips any other for emotional impact in my life – I’ve had some doozies – but definitely shares the top spot. And I have created things from places inside of me that I did not know existed, which I have looked upon later, and beheld them thinking, who the hell wrote that, we can’t compete with that, before pausing to note, hey, wait, that’s us, dude, we did that, it’s good, do another. I live life deeply, you might say, but I wonder how true that would be were it not for that moment, my crucial moment, from A Hard Day’s Night.

The band is cooped up in a theater, going through the rigmarole of being micro-managed, rehearsing, hounded, all of that. Everything is shot from low angles, like the world is closing in. The hallways are so narrow it’s as if they’ve been loaned from the set of a German Expressionist film.

But then they come to a door and throw it open. Ringo shouts, “We’re out!” The Beatles run down the fire escape stairs with the camera shooting up from down below through the grating, as “Can’t Buy Me Love” explodes on the soundtrack.

Van Gogh used to walk around saying, “That is it,” when he saw something ineffable, self-contained in its purity, majesty and legitimacy, and this was the ultimate “This is it” moment for me. Total freedom.

The Beatles then lark about in a field, as all of these under-cranked camera techniques are being used. I didn’t know about any of that then, but I knew this was a directive that said, in effect, you can go as far as you can go, there is no can’t, there’s just how far can you go? And how far can you go, boyo?

When the period was over – it must have been a double because we saw the entire film – I just sat there for a bit, kind of like you would after the bell rang and you’d been staring at some girl you thought you were in love with, and you needed a moment to, well, you know, decompress. The music lab teacher looked even more ill at ease than usual, like he was about to be taken into the confidence of one of his mostly useless pupils. He opted to be proactive, probably to get me out of there as swiftly as possible.

“Well, Fleming?”

a-hard-days-night-cant-buy-me-love“That was fucking everything. Have you always known about this?”

I thought about that man recently when I took the train up to Gloucester, the oldest fishing port in the country, with my Red Sox folding beach chair that I never use for the beach in tow, to watch an outdoor screening of A Hard Day’s Night in a parking lot on the waterfront. I was becoming who I was way back then when I was 14. And now, as I’m about to turn 40, I find myself drawing on all of those aspects of what I did become as I try to get to where I wish to go. And I feel the same way about that film, and that scene, as I did then, only those feelings feel, if anything, deeper, more lived in, more necessary, more befitting crucial consideration.

“You can come back and watch it again at lunch, if you want,” the teacher said, not answering my question, in a way, but answering it another way, still.

He wasn’t there when I came back, forsaking the cafeteria treats of pizza day. But I didn’t care in that moment as I sat there, alone in the music lab room, fast forwarding to the field scene. “We’re out!” Ringo said, over and over again as I worked the remote, and I thought, we sure are, we so sure are.

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Colin Fleming

Colin Fleming

Colin Fleming's work appears in The Atlantic, Rolling Stone and Vanity Fair. He is completing a book called Same Band You've Never Known: An Alternative Musical History of the Beatles.
Colin Fleming
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