A Hard Day’s Night turned me on to the Beatles as it did for countless others, and the opening sequence goes a long way in establishing why. There’s an instant rush in watching hordes of British youths rapt in Beatlemania chasing their idols, while the film’s title track adds to the joyous fervor of their pursuit. Every time I’ve watched this sequence I immediately get swept away by its momentum, so I made a point to try to break it down to get a better understanding of what makes it work. To do this, I’ve made this video essay that breaks down the sequence in two ways: by shot coverage and screen time. Both of these elements go a long way in establishing the key characters of the opening and how they relate to each other in terms of space, time and drama.
As you can see, the shots cover four characters or groups of characters: there are three of the Beatles (John Lennon, George Harrison and Ringo Starr) are together fleeing their fans. While some shots show both The Beatles and their fans, for the most part there’s a sense of separation and opposition in how shots cover them respectively. Elsewhere, the fourth Beatle Paul McCartney is hiding with an elderly man; they eventually unite with the other band members at the train station. Paul’s separation from the group with the elderly man adds a wrinkle of intrigue to the proceedings.
Another point of intrigue is the unidentified man trying to open a package of milk. Only later do we learn that he is Norm, the band’s manager. For now, he seems to serve as a comic gag that offsets the tension of the main action. His static position, standing in front of the milk vending machine, contrasts with the perpetual movement of the chase. His prolonged torment with the milk serves as an instance of petty misfortune that also contrasts with the epic celebrity adventures of the Fab Four.
It’s worth noting that his subplot ends before we see the second subplot involving Paul and the elderly man—later identified as his grandfather—hiding on their own. In some ways this subplot serves a similar function as Norm’s. Paul and his grandfather are similarly shot in relative stasis as a contrast to the chase. We also don’t know that the elderly man is Paul’s grandfather until later. As with the introduction of Norm, the sequence has no reservations about throwing unestablished characters at us. Though they remain unidentified by the sequence’s end, they are asserted as significant and we are primed for their formal introduction later on.
In terms of screen time, the three Beatles have far and away the most time, more than double that of the fans. I find this fascinating because my subjective impression of the sequence has long been one of seeing a clear and equal conflict between the pursuers and the pursued. But aside from a long establishing sequence at the beginning that focuses on the fans for about eleven seconds, the fans amount to a series of quick, fleeting insert shots that give you just enough of an impression of their irrepressible force. The shots of Norm and of Paul and his grandfather are nearly equal, which might attest to the comparable functions they serve in the sequence. Overall, the shots of all four Beatles in total are double the shots without them. This gives a measure of the degree to which the film establishes them as the main characters from the outset.
There is of course much more that could be said to understand the inner workings of this sequence: shot lengths, framings and movements. And of course there’s the editing; not just the cuts and the rhythms they create, but the sound editing underlying the song: notice the subtle appearances of crowd screaming to underscore the frenzy of their presence. The sequence really works as a complex orchestration of cinema its own kind of music, full of exciting, fascinating rhythms and movements.
Kevin B. Lee is a filmmaker, critic, video essayist and founding editor of Keyframe. His video essay Transformers: The Premake will screen at the 2015 International Film Festival Rotterdam and the Berlinale International Film Festival Critics’ Week. He tweets at @alsolikelife.