Look at old school yearbooks from, say, 1963. Study the boys' haircuts: military, their fathers' haircuts from World War Two. Look at the girls' dresses, look at the faces. A lockstep, cookie-cutter society, militarized, indoctrinated in Cold War conformity. There were subcultures, like the Greasers in the U.S., or the Mods and Rockers in the U.K., but they were marginal and self-limiting. Mainstream kids marched in parade order.
Adult culture revolved around a double message, repeated subtly or not-so-subtly in a million ways. On the one hand, "I'll die to defend our country's freedom." On the other, "I'll kill anyone who attempts to exercise it."
Now look at yearbooks from 1965. The kids begin to differentiate. Many of the boys have stopped cutting their hair, many of the girls have stopped wearing that same white Leslie Gore sweater from 1955. By 1966 the faces and the hair and the clothes have become increasingly individualized; by 1967, they're all over the map. It's as if millions of kids suddenly said, "We'll take that freedom now, thank you."
It's oversimplifying to say it was the appearance of four musicians on TV which sparked this global transformation. Except, it was. The Beatles were a symbolic assault on the conformity of the Eisenhower era. Their Ed Sullivan Show appearances in 1964 made the world different. Among white kids, that is.
"A Hard Day's Night" captures that frustration and its release in a marvelously charming, artistic, surreal way. The first two-thirds of the film take place in confined spaces: a train compartment, a baggage compartment, the backseat of a car, makeup rooms, hallways. The interiors have low ceilings, often shot from low camera angles which intensify the claustrophobia. The Beatles are hounded, hunted, told what to do, where to be, who to be. Everyone pushes them. They're not even allowed to sample the hors d'oeuvres at their own press conference. They cope with grace and cheeky humor, but their frustration grows. Suddenly they throw open a fire escape and burst into sunshine and glorious freedom: no walls, no handlers, just a romp in a field. That moment is more than the first rock video, it's an affirmation that the bounds can be broken.
For millions of kids their appearance on the Sullivan show was the moment when that fire escape door burst open.
Just by existing, they told us, "freedom is real and tangible and can be had in the here and now." Bless their little pointed boots.