On Film, the Beatles Had a Mixed Track Record

The Fab Four could never recreate the magic of their first movie, 'A Hard Day's Night.'

(From left) Ringo Starr, George Harrison, Paul McCartney and John Lennon attend a charity ball Feb. 11, 1964, at the British Embassy in Washington, D.C.
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Ask a group of Beatles fans to pick the band's best album and you are unlikely to reach any consensus. In less than a decade of recording the Beatles produced an ouvre that evolved from album to album -- and helped to change rock music with it. The same cannot be said for the Beatles' film career, where John Lennon, Paul McCartney, Ringo Starr and George Harrison had a far more mixed track record. Out of the five movies they made, their first outing, 1964's "A Hard Day's Night," was quite good actually -- excellent even, hailed by Time magazine as one of the 100 best films of all times. But the Fab Four could never recreate the magic of that first movie, and the films that followed would have neither the persistent greatness nor the wide-ranging influence of their music.

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The Beatles were not the first rock band to try their act on the big screen. Acts on both sides of the Atlantic, from America's Elvis to Britain's Cliff Richard, had been trying to carry their musical appeal into the movie theater to further their brand. The concept, which came to be known as "jukebox musicals", was a boon to studios: They could license the music and made a fortune selling soundtracks of the films.

"The idea of multiplying your potential income by adding musical aspects to a film is not a new idea," says David Picker, an executive at the film studio United Artists in the 1960s and '70s. Even before the Beatles came along, jukebox musicals were proving to be a lucrative effort, even if they were not always very good.

"They're basically excuses for a few songs to be sung by some recording artists built around these nonexistent plots. Very little or sometimes none of the personality of the artist comes through," says Richie Unterberger, author of "The Unreleased Beatles" and other books about music history.

As their music careers took off in the early 1960s, the Beatles were being approached with movie pitches. But between the cheesy premises and suggestions that they not use their own music, they failed to impress the band.

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"More than just rejecting some obvious films that wouldn't have been very good for them, they wanted something that would project something of their real life personalities, not just to sell themselves to make more records and make more money," Unterberger says.

A United Artists agent based in Britain saw potential in Beatles, who were big in Europe but were more or less unknown in the United States. With the intention of making a film on the cheap purely to obtain the rights to an album (the Beatles' contract with EMI didn't cover film soundtracks), United Artists approached Beatles manager Brian Epstein in the fall of 1963.

"When we first signed the Beatles, they were the Beatles, but they hadn't become 'The Beatles,'" Picker says. "It was after their command performance at [the Washington Coliseum] that they became 'The Beatles' and we had them. So it was a combination of smart policy and good luck."

Epstein signed the Beatles for a three-film deal with United Artists, with Walter Shenson, who produced Peter Sellers' "The Mouse that Roared," signed on to produce. United Artists also connected Epstein to director Richard Lester, an American working in Britain. Epstein and the Beatles were impressed by Lester's short film, "Running, Jumping and Standing Still," which showcased an absurdist brand of humor that fit well with the band's irreverent persona.

McCartney thought of bringing Alun Owen in to write the screenplay. Owun was based in the Beatles' hometown of Liverpool and had written screenplays in the Liverpool dialect, which also appealed to the band. Owun followed them along for weeks, getting to know their way of speaking, their distinct personalities and the contours of their life as an up-and-coming sensation.

"A Hard Day's Night" was conceptualized as a faux documentary that would follow the Beatles as they prepared for a concert performance, being chased by screaming fans and enjoying all the perks of fame. It was filmed tightly, in a matter of days, around London, on a budget of just $600,000, and was rushed to theaters three months later, in September 1964, ahead of their fall tour in America.