Ron Howard’s new documentary delves into the Fab Four’s early days, but does it deliver?
The Beatles: Eight Days a Week – The Touring Years
Director: Ron Howard
Starring: Paul McCartney, Ringo Starr
Run Time: 2h 17m
Everyone knows The Beatles. Whether you like their songs or not, it can’t be denied that this was a revolutionary time in rock music, and that the story of these young lads who became cultural icons is fascinating. There have been very few successful films about the group, however, as there’s no way that the entire story of The Beatles could be told in under two hours. Now, director Ron Howard makes a good attempt by focusing on one microcosm of this history – the band’s touring years – following them from grainy footage of the Cavern Club in Liverpool in 1962, to the phenomenon of their immense US tour in 1965-66.
The primary appeal of this project is the re-engineered audio, which ordinarily wouldn’t be too exciting for the average listener, but is a big deal in the case of The Beatles. Previously most of the recordings from live performances have been inaudible due to the screaming hysteria of Beatlemania which obscured the actual music. At Shea Stadium in New York 1965, the band’s performance was broadcast through the PA system, with such poor quality that the band could barely hear themselves, and in the film Ringo Starr describes how he watched John Lennon’s foot tapping to try and figure out where they were in the songs.
The audio experience is very impressive in this new digitised version. Supervised by Giles Martin, son of legendary producer and “fifth Beatle” George Martin, it manages to bring something fresh to these fifty year old performances.
Audio aside, is there anything new to be found in this portrayal of the fab four? There’s recent interviews with Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr, full of anecdotes and insight, to accompany the extensive archival footage which has been collected. Amidst the music and rich, vibrant visuals, there’s also a selection of talking heads with various celebrities, from Eddie Izzard to Elvis Costello – some of which prove to be more engaging and relevant than others.
The tours are put into historical context, and perhaps the most interesting segment of the film deals with the social impact the group had when they refused to play for a segregated crowd in Jacksonville, Florida. It wasn’t a major political statement for them, they just didn’t see the sense in it, but it served to initiate change on a highly sensitive issue in America. In her interview, Whoopi Goldberg speaks of how she connected with the band because they were “colourless”, and appealed to everyone regardless of nationality or race.
By 1966 the strain of touring is clear from the film footage, and we see a tired, frustrated group of men who are merely going through the motions. McCartney laments that “The Beatles were the show. The music wasn’t”. History tells us that by this stage the band had more financial freedom, and so were in a position that they could stop touring and focus on recording new music in the studio. This led to greater creative experiments and arguably some of their finest albums – Revolver, Sgt. Pepper‘s Lonely Hearts Club Band, and Abbey Road.
Many of their new revolutionary tracks couldn’t be replicated live, but this was no longer an issue, as the band didn’t publicly play together again until their final performance on the roof of the Apple offices in London in 1969. The fantastic footage recorded on this day closes the film, and its spontaneous serenity is cast in stark juxtaposition with the manic whirlwind of shows that dominates the rest of the documentary.
None of this is particularly groundbreaking, however, and most Beatles fans will know the facts already. The film is an inoffensive overview of one specific aspect of the band’s history, and doesn’t delve into anything too heavy or too personal. Nevertheless it’s great fun, as in these early years the group was young, charismatic and entertaining, and so much of the banter they had with the press is genuinely funny and charming. The documentary manages to capture the magic and atmosphere which surrounded The Beatles at this time, and the enormous impact they had in a pre-social media age.
Eight Days a Week is accompanied by a full 30 minute performance from The Beatles’ historic 1965 concert at Shea Stadium, although many people in my screening seemed to leave early, perhaps without realising this was still to come after the credits. The chance to experience this restored footage on the big screen is fantastic and so makes it a must-see for any music fan.
As Paul McCartney tells a reporter in 1964: “Culture? This isn’t culture, it’s just a good laugh”