It’s not hype: Ron Howard’s kaleidoscopic new documentary The Beatles: Eight Days a Week — The Touring Years really does offer a new perspective on the Fab Four.
From the time they broke big in 1962, to their retrenchment to a studio-only existence four years later, the band that left us so many unforgettable songs and recordings was a world-touring dynamo. The film captures the band, its fans, its chroniclers, and other eyewitnesses in depth. It shows The Beatles evolving with the times, responding personally and artistically to the events of that volatile era.
Over a modest hour and 40 minutes the film reveals much about the band not as icons but as human beings who over just a few years of hysteria became prisoners of their own fame. After a while they could survive only by bringing down the curtain for good, and retiring, as George Harrison puts it in an archival interview, “to make music and not be in a circus.”
I thought I’d seen and heard and read just about everything there is to know about The Beatles. But the film is loaded with a stunning amount of footage – interviews, video, and stills, as well as concert clips – some of them rarely or never before seen. In Howard’s supremely skilled hands, this vast narrative collage comprises an artful group biography and an account of an unprecedented phenomenon that has never recurred, and seems unlikely, in today’s splintered culture, ever to do so.
Beatlemania was more than fandom. The film suggests that, seen in the context of its time, it was a generation’s “muscle-flexing.” We’ve all seen clips: the Ed Sullivan Show appearance, screaming teenage fans drowning out the band at the famous Shea Stadium concert, thousands lining up to try to see their heroes at concerts all over the world. But for those of us too young or too old to have witnessed it up close, or at all, the vivid reality of what went on is shocking to see.
And to hear: In my second-row seat, I had to cover my ears during the concert footage to drown out the screaming.
Two hundred and forty people were hospitalized in the crush for a concert in Vancouver. Ringo couldn’t hear anything his bandmates were playing at Shea Stadium and had to guess where they were from watching their motions from behind. And so on. But all the while, later conflicts notwithstanding, in their touring years the foursome had each other to rely on.
Equally powerful are the positive memories of fans who reckon their lives were changed by the music and by the very phenomenon of The Beatles. Whoopi Goldberg recollects hearing the band and “the whole world lit up.” Sigourney Weaver recalls girlish thrills. We hear from collaborators and chroniclers, including roadies, tour managers, and radio reporter Larry Kane, who toured with the band the way a press corps rides Air Force One with the President.
And we hear from The Beatles themselves, including new interviews with Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr and archival ones with George Harrison and with the band as a group.
Cleverly juxtaposed audio clips and still images bring us into the studio as the musicians and producer George Martin worked the songs just written by Lennon and McCartney, and later by Harrison as well, into gem after pop gem. Native talent and the relentless schedule of churning out two albums a year while touring helped create a body of work worthy, on one significant level at least, of comparison with classical music’s great melodists like Mozart and Schubert.
Some of their best and much of their most groundbreaking work appeared after they’d stopped touring. The recordings, early and late, are what we have today to remember The Beatles by even as they continue to inspire us. But their career as a touring band is just as enlightening in its way. It’s not because they were such an amazing live band, though they were – we may never know how they played and sang so well and so in tune when they could hardly hear each other over the screaming. It’s also because, as this film describes it, their concert tours and the accompanying chaotic energy focused not only the band’s own talent but the zeitgeist of its transformative era. Howard gives us John, Paul, George, and Ringo as avatars, as creative geniuses, but most importantly as people with the same energies and weaknesses we’re all heir to. As such, the film is a revelation.
The Beatles: Eight Days a Week — The Touring Years opens in theaters September 16.