As the Beatles’ popularity grew, they began receiving offers to do films. This was not unusual: pop stars had been appearing in movies since the beginning of the sound era. From Al Jolson, Rudy Vallée and Bing Crosby in the 1920s and 1930s to Frank Sinatra in the 1940s and Pat Boone and Doris Day in the 1950s, film producers were eager to cast musical celebrities in pictures in the hope that their fans would buy as many movie tickets as they did records. Would the Fab Four be able to repeat their recording success on the silver screen? They, and the world, were about to find out.
One of the first film offers the Beatles received was to do a cameo in a movie called The Yellow Teddy Bears, a lurid drama about teen sex and pregnancy set in an all-girls school in the English suburbs. The boys were asked to play a band that backs up one of the film’s male characters, who dreams of being a pop star. Because director Robert Hartford-Davis wanted to write all of the music they were meant to play in the film himself, they declined (another Beat group called The Embers took their place). British filmmaker Michael Winner, who had recently helmed a musical called Play It Cool starring Billy Fury, also wanted to make a movie with the lads. However, by the time he approached Brian Epstein, the Beatles’ manager was already deep in negotiations with a major Hollywood film company.
In the wake of the group’s incredible success, every music company in the business wanted to make a record with them. However, the exclusive contract that the band had with Parlophone and its parent company EMI precluded that. Or so it seemed. Sometime in the late summer or early autumn of 1963, Noel Rodgers, a music publishing executive in the London office of United Artists Records, discovered what appeared to be a loophole in the Beatles’ seemingly ironclad agreement with Parlophone. While the contract stated explicitly that the group was bound to the EMI label for original singles and LPs, it made no mention at all of motion picture soundtrack albums. Assuming that, if the contract didn’t mention something, then it didn’t cover it, Rodgers reasoned that if the Beatles were to produce a soundtrack album, they were free to make a deal with a company other than Parlophone to release it.
Of course, to make a movie soundtrack album, the Beatles would first have to make a movie. Luckily, United Artists Records was in a unique position to exploit this loophole, because it was a subsidiary of United Artists, the legendary film company started in 1919 by Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks, D.W. Griffith, and Charlie Chaplin. If United Artists put out a Beatles movie, then UAR could release the soundtrack. Hoping to make this happen, Rodgers approached George “Bud” Ornstein, the executive that ran United Artists’ European division, to see if he was interested in making a film with the group. Since Beatlemania was at that point primarily a British phenomenon, it wasn’t clear if a movie starring the Fab Four would have much of an audience outside of the U.K. However, Ornstein figured that if the picture could be made for a low enough price, then it could still be profitable, and even if it wasn’t, the proceeds from the soundtrack album would almost certainly be significant enough to make the project worth doing. So, yes, he was interested.
The proposal was presented to David V. Picker, United Artists’ New York-based head of production. Although Picker had never heard of the Beatles, he approved Rodgers and Ornstein’s idea. Ornstein met with Brian Epstein and presented United Artists’ offer. Epstein took the proposal to Lennon, McCartney, Harrison, and Starr. The boys were receptive, so Epstein got back to Ornstein and accepted.
The film was also going to need a producer. Since Picker and Ornstein wanted Richard Lester to direct the film, they decided to approach someone that Lester had already proven he could work effectively with: The Mouse on the Moon’s producer, Walter Shenson. Shenson met with Brian Epstein to introduce himself, after which a get-together was arranged between Shenson, Epstein, and the Beatles, to take place in Shenson’s office. On the appointed day and time, Epstein arrived without the band. An apologetic Epstein explained that the boys had forgotten about the appointment and had instead made plans to go to Abbey Road Studios to watch Gerry and the Pacemakers record some songs that John and Paul had written for them. Shenson still wanted to meet with them, so he and Epstein hailed a taxi and headed for Abbey Road. Along the way, they decided to stop at the Mayfair flat where the band members stayed when they were in London (the lads would soon move permanently to the capitol city from Liverpool) to see if they could catch the boys before they left. The cab pulled up just as the Beatles were coming out of the flat. Not wanting to let the group get away Shenson offered to give them a ride to the studio.
The Beatles jumped into the cab and during the trip to Abbey Road, the producer “…found myself in the middle of a Marx Brothers movie.” To begin with, there were six people jammed into a taxi designed for four and so a lot of comical rearranging was necessary to get everyone settled. During the trip, the Fab Four kept up a constant stream of their characteristically humorous patter and every time the cab stopped at a light, one of them would jump out and buy newspapers with Beatles headline on them. In the midst of all this chaos, Shenson was charmed by the boys’ personalities—he found them to be sweet and likable and to have the” same natural humor and wholesomeness as the great movie comedians.” Shenson felt that the Beatles were “something very special, on the level of a Keaton or a Fields.”
As soon as they arrived at the studio, the band members jumped out of the cab and disappeared inside. An apologetic Epstein told Shenson that if he wanted to meet with the Beatles, he was going to have to round them up himself. “So I found an empty office,” Shenson recalled, “And said ‘All right, I’m a very important Hollywood producer, you guys. If you want to make a movie, follow me.’ They all said ‘Yes sir! Yes sir! Yes sir!’” Once Shenson had the group ensconced, John began the meeting by asking the producer what sort of movie he wanted to make with them. “I don’t know,” Shenson replied, but following that crazy cab ride, he knew “it should be a comedy.” The lads were receptive to this idea and asked who was going to direct. The name Richard Lester was unfamiliar to the Beatles, but when Shenson explained that Lester had worked with the Goons (of whom the Beatles were enormous fans) and had directed The Running Jumping & Standing Still Film (which they had loved), that was good enough for them. “Okay,” John told Shenson after conferring with his band mates. “You can be the producer.”
Lester and Shenson thought that the subject of the movie should be the Beatles themselves. Why ask John, Paul, George, and Ringo to play fictitious characters when their own personalities were so much more vibrant and interesting than any that could be concocted? (Besides, given the group members’ collective lack of acting experience, it seemed unlikely that they could successfully play anyone other than themselves anyway.) Likewise, it seemed a waste to involve the band in a fictitious narrative when their real-life escapades were as exciting as any made-up adventure could ever be. A straight documentary would have been too dry, so Lester and Shenson decided instead to make what the director called a “fictionalized documentary” that compressed all of the group member’s extraordinary Beatlemania-fueled experiences into a single “typical” day in their lives, exaggerated them for dramatic and comedic effect, and provided plenty of opportunities for the boys to play their music and sing their songs.
The Beatles returned to the U.K. from America on February 22, 1964 and on February 25 (George Harrison’s twenty-first birthday) joined with producer George Martin to begin recording the songs they had written for the movie: “I Should Have Known Better,” “If I Fell,” “And I Love Her,” “I’m Happy Just to Dance with You,” and “Tell Me Why.”
All five songs, which were penned mostly during the bands’ trips to Paris and the United States, were jointly credited to John Lennon and Paul McCartney, as were all of the duo’s Beatle-era compositions. In truth, while the two did collaborate on some tunes, they wrote the majority of their songs separately (although often with some assistance from the other). “I’m Happy Just to Dance with You” was written by Lennon and McCartney together; “I Should Have Known Better” and “Tell Me Why” were written by Lennon alone; “If I Fell” was written primarily by John, with some help from Paul; “And I Love Her” was penned by McCartney, with some lyrical contributions from Lennon. Following band tradition, the lead vocal for each song was sung by its principal author. The exception was “I’m Happy Just to Dance with You,” which was given to George Harrison to perform.
Two songs not written for the movie—“I Call Your Name,” which Lennon and McCartney composed prior to the formation of the Beatles and had previously been recorded by Billy J. Kramer with the Dakotas and a cover of Little Richard’s “Long Tall Sally,” which, as sung in blistering fashion by Paul, had long been a staple of their stage act were also taped for use in the film. All of the songs were recorded at Abbey Road Studios on four-track EMI British Tape Recorders (which allowed for the overdubbing of multiple musical layers onto a single track to create a richer sound).
On February 25 the group did three takes of “And I Love Her” and three takes of “I Should Have Known Better.” Unhappy with the results, the band members returned to the studio on Wednesday, February 26, and did sixteen additional takes of “And I Love Her” and eighteen additional takes of “I Should Have Known Better.” At this point, they were satisfied with “I Should Have Known Better,” but came back on Thursday, February 27, and did two more takes of “And I Love Her” before finally declaring it finished. Later that same day, they recorded “Tell Me Why” in eight takes and “If I Fell” in fifteen.
On Saturday, February 29, the Beatles met with Richard Lester and [screenwriter] Alun Owen to do a read-through of the completed screenplay. The boys were happy with the script, which they (and those that knew them) felt did a good job of capturing their personalities, speech, and sensibilities. Owen and Lester were happy with the deft way the lads handled their dialogue: “They just nailed it!” Owen exclaimed.
The band returned to Abbey Road on Sunday, March 1 to record “I’m Happy Just to Dance with You” in four takes. They then recorded “I Call Your Name” in seven takes and “Long Tall Sally” in one.
Once all the songs were finished and mixed, Richard Lester reviewed them to decide where he would put them in the film: although the script did indicate where musical numbers were to occur in the story, it did not specify which pieces were to be used in those spots. The director selected “I Should Have Known Better” for the scene in which the boys serenade a group of girls they meet on the train. “If I Fell,” “And I Love Her” and “I’m Happy Just to Dance with You” were chosen for scenes of the band rehearsing. “Tell Me Why would be featured (along with reprises of some of the other songs) in the big concert scene that climaxes the movie. It is thought that “Long Tall Sally” was originally intended to be the concert’s closing number, since the Beatles had finished all of their U.S. shows with it. Ultimately, however, the decision was made to use the band’s signature tune, “She Loves You,” to close the concert and “Long Tall Sally” was dropped. “I Call Your Name” was also dropped and both rejects ended up on the band’s next EP, Long Tall Sally.
When the March 1 recording session wrapped at 10 p.m., John, Paul, George, and Ringo all went home to get some sleep. They were going to need it, because [A Hard Day’s Night] was scheduled to start shooting at eight o’clock the next morning.