When Richard Lester asked John Lennon, then relatively new to fame, how he had liked Stockholm, Lennon replied: “It was a plane, a room, a car, and a cheese sandwich.” In A Hard Day’s Night, the Beatles don’t even get the cheese sandwiches. At a meet-and-greet with press, waitresses with drinks and food trays pass though the crowd, but the band are the only ones always out of range of the refreshments. If the title A Hard Day’s Night had been coined by the Stones, you can imagine what delirious hedonism it would have implied—a bacchanalian gig at the London Palladium followed by something like the depressive semi-orgy that concludes Joseph Losey’s The Servant. But with the Fab Four, A Hard Day’s Night means something more down to earth—some fun grabbed here and there, but basically a job of work.

Fifty years ago, the title song’s explosive opening chord and the chase sequence that it kicked off (talk about in media res) opened the floodgates to a liberating and entirely new surge of youthful energy in cinema—so the legend goes. It’s true that few films kick off with such a sense of immediacy: the film just starts with a bang (or rather, a Rickenbacker clang) and carries us right along on its rush (as an integral part of the stylistic boldness, the credits proper are left to the very end, set to a montage of Robert Freeman photo portraits). Yet if there was ever a film in which spontaneity was manifestly manufactured, it’s this one—and the manufacture of spontaneity is what this idiosyncratically cynical masterpiece is all about.

Essentially a backstage musical, AHDN is in the long tradition of shows about shows—a tradition that, however much it’s about spinning a mystique around show business, has always revealed entertainment as essentially un-natural, industrial. AHDN has equal affinities with the two great demystifying BBs of the performance trade: Busby Berkeley and Bertolt Brecht. At one moment, John actually shouts “Let’s put on the show right here!” while launching into a band number in front of TV cameras—which may be one of the first ever examples of overt camp irony in pop music culture. AHDN shows the band constantly Putting On a Show Right Here, and demonstrating the time-honored craft of Making It All Look Easy—a craft that the film celebrates even while it highlights the fakery in such routines. Take the early scene in which the band’s performance of “I Should Have Known Better” emerges smoothly, as if organically, out of a card game in the guard’s car of a train. One moment, the boys are shuffling cards happily, with the song on the soundtrack; the next, guitars and drums have suddenly materialized and they’re actually playing the song in this cage-like space while schoolgirl fans (one of them none other than Pattie Boyd) look on.

It’s one of several moments in which a song seems to just happen—Ringo always grinning along in delight, as if at a private joke. Another such moment takes place in a TV theatre where the band are recording a show: they burst in front of the cameras and run through “I’m Happy Just to Dance with You” as if in defiance of the technicians, to demonstrate that they’re playing to their own agenda, not the show’s. The number seems to happen as a band joke at the world’s expense—but what’s concealed in such a “natural” outburst of joyous artistry (and the point is that we all know that it’s concealed) is the professionalism, the clever arrangements, the pre-show rehearsals, even the seasons of hard slog in Hamburg that had allowed this “natural” phenomenon called the Beatles to happen in the first place.

Counterpointed against all the exuberance, against the band’s natural incorrigible tendency to burst forth into non sequiturs (they’re like characters in the Beano comic, and all the adult world their pompous teacher) is the fact, depicted in quasi-documentary fashion, of stardom as demanding graft—almost a form of servitude. A defining moment in crystallizing the band’s gently rebellious image (their soft-edged version of Brando’s “Whaddya got?” in The Wild One) comes when they are told off by a pompous gent in a railway carriage: to his “I fought the war for your sort,” they reply, “I bet you’re sorry you won.” These four lads, we realize, have had a close squeeze in early 1964; conscription in Britain ended in 1960, but the last National Service conscripts didn’t leave the army till the end of 1963. The Beatles represent a new freedom for British youth, but the ghost of the military order (which Lester and Lennon would twit in 1967’s How I Won the War) hovers over their shoulders.

Youth, despite the Cuban heels and cool suits, can still be pressed into service. In this story—co-written by playwright and TV drama regular Alun Owen—the band have their own, rather ineffectual commanding officer, manager Norm (pugnacious actor Norman Rossington, who resembles a large cube of beef compressed into a houndstooth suit) assisted by nervy majordomo Shake (lanky British comedy stalwart John Junkin). They’re forever calling the band to order, however ineffectually; the band are expected to stay in their hotel rooms at night replying to fan letters, just as recalcitrant army recruits would be expected to peel potatoes for hours on end.

Probably quite accurately, the film shows the band’s rebellious energies as being sparked by the exploitative, superior attitudes of the mainly upper-middle-class London media types they come into contact with. They exasperate their TV producer (Victor Spinetti), an agonized aesthete in a pre–Malcolm McLaren mohair jumper and matching hair. There’s a weird disjointed, absurdist backstage conversation between John and a woman (Anna Quayle) who seems to know him, but may be thinking of someone else; it’s a melancholy bit of failed flirtation, but the Quayle character is presented as one of the film’s several potentially predatory, usually older women (others include a ludicrously poised woman at the press conference, and a silent woman shooting the boys glances on a train) who presumably wouldn’t think twice about devouring them.

The extremest form of the condescension they face is when George wanders into the office of some media types who specialize in marketing youth culture: when George uses the word “grotty,” the boss tells his minion, “Make a note of that word and give it to Susan” (Susan being the company’s in-house representative of Youth: “She’s a trend-setter, that’s her profession”). It’s a deliciously sour scene, shot by Gilbert Taylor with an eye for exaggerated Continental-chic angularity—and a neat twist (presumably, given Lester’s adroitness, a deliberate in-joke) is that the boss is played by Kenneth Haigh, who only eight years earlier had created the quintessential Angry Young Man, working-class rebel Jimmy Porter, in John Osborne’s play Look Back in Anger: a one-man Beatles avant la lettre for British literary culture.

Watched 50 years on, in the crisp and bright new restoration by Criterion Collection that is getting a nationwide theatrical release, AHDN feels fresh in that particular way that films do when you’re far enough away to shake off all those layers of over-familiarity that have mummified them for years. What becomes new again is the way that a film that once embodied the New Thing can begin again to look old—can properly be seen afresh as a snapshot of a bygone era. What we see again in AHDN today is an England that, certainly to British viewers, looked drably antediluvian for years, but now looks as distant and mysterious as ancient Egypt—and yet, close enough to be uncannily recognizable. As a British viewer of (let’s admit it) a certain age, there are elements visible in AHDN that I’m old enough to remember—just. I’m thinking of the Scala Theatre that once existed in the West End; of the joyless grubbiness of London railway terminuses; and of the film’s most exotically bizarre object, the pyramid-shaped milk carton that Norman Rossington buys from a vending machine.

This re-release offers a refreshed glimpse of a long-lost English Atlantis—and a farewell to it. The film shows the Beatles trapped in an antique showbiz universe—performing at the kind of ridiculous variety show that would indiscriminately put together a magician’s dove act, a cheesy dance routine (Lionel Blair, a British hoofer of astounding longevity but proverbial tackiness), and a bit of Viennese light operetta, plus the hot pop act of the moment. But it ends with the band flying away from it, and hoisting their own glamorous flag of jet-setting Sixties modernity—making their exit in a helicopter, from which cascade hundreds of their publicity photos. But they’re still trapped in the day job—at the end of this story, they’re headed not for Shea Stadium and transatlantic glory, but for Wolverhampton, about the least glamorous place a band could expect to set up its amps. You can bet the cheese sandwiches there won’t be anything to write home about.