Going in, once again, to experience A Hard Day’s Night, that mod, fractured, ”day in the life” carnival that I must have seen at least 25 times as a kid (it’s being rereleased by Miramax in a new digitally enhanced print), I wasn’t surprised to find myself awash in a rock wave of Proustian nostalgia. For anyone who grew up with the Beatles, arguably the most celestial of all 20th century stars, Richard Lester’s blissfully rude and transporting musical stylizes Beatlemania into a kind of cinema vérité Marx Brothers movie, with John Lennon as the group’s moptopped Groucho, the smirking master of all he makes fun of, and the other Beatles following suit (collarless, that is).
There’s hardly a moment that hasn’t retained its antic freshness: John taking a ”sniff” of Coca Cola, pinpricking every fussbudget with a snide surreal barb; George waylaid by a youth market vulture (”Show him the shuhts, Adrian!”); a sulky Ringo skipping out of rehearsal and trying to pass himself off as the bloke he really is; the starchy and furtive postwar Britannia mask of Paul’s grandfather (”He’s veddy… clean!”). And the music! Is there a moment in movie history that can outpower the ominous revolutionary bwaaang! of that opening chord, the sheer happiness of the Beatles gathering in a train storage car to sing ”I Should Have Known Better,” or the exhilarating motion of their soccer field cavort to ”Can’t Buy Me Love”?
In ”A Hard Day’s Night,” the Beatles, in song after song, pay homage to the faith of love, and that faith connects them to something ancient, lending this topspin musical its near oracular beauty. The film’s jokey, kaleidoscopic surface and the jangly sublimity of the Beatles’ music are really flip sides of the same entranced spirit. For the Beatles, in ”A Hard Day’s Night,” aren’t just rebels or even ”idols.” They’re like gods at play, paragons of pure delight, as they mock and feign their way through a universe of mere mortals. To see the movie again is to realize that they were never entirely of this earth and that they never will be.