By Katy Shick
Forty-six years after the breakup of The Beatles, dozens if not hundreds of books and documentaries have covered every aspect of the Fab Four, from their creative process to the women who reportedly broke them up. One might be tempted to believe that there isn’t much left to know. The fact that over 15,000 books have been written about Abraham Lincoln and at least a dozen are written every year, however, proves that not only is there always something more to tell but that those with an interest always want to learn more even if much of what they read or see they already know. The new biography or documentary to the true fan is never boring no matter how well trodden the path.
Such is the case with the new documentary, The Beatles: Eight Days a Week—The Touring Years, lovingly directed by Ron Howard. Focused mainly on 1964 through 1966, the years The Beatles toured America and the world before giving it up to focus on recording in the studio, the film, therefore, isn’t a documentary about The Beatles. Rather, it is a snapshot of a very special period of The Beatles’ career—the time when Beatlemania erupted and ran its course before the world moved toward the unrest of the second half of the 1960s. Much of The Beatles’ story is left out of this film. The viewer looking for a definitive biography will be left wanting more. What he or she will get is a glimpse into what made The Beatles so magical.
The Beatles were not the most talented musicians in rock history. Many bands created more complicated songs, and neither John nor Paul nor George nor Ringo would make the top ten list for his respective instrument. The Beatles, however, are the undisputed greatest band of the rock era, proving that art is not the sum of its parts but something sublime that is created on its own. Interest in The Beatles has not waned in the half century since they exploded into pop culture. Beatles albums continue to chart, and Beatles merchandise is still a profitable business. Those beautiful “Beatle cords” have found their way into almost every genre of contemporary music. Find a song irresistible? More than likely it contains a “Beatle cord” progression.
Recognizing the undeniable, yet intangible quality of The Beatles’ appeal, Howard steps back and lets The Beatles speak for themselves and Beatlemania unfold as the unstoppable force that it was. There is no narrator, and Howard uses only the basic written narration to establish important transitions. The footage and the interviews tell this story. Howard steps in occasionally to remind his viewers of the important milestones of The Beatles’ rise to fame. At the same time, however, he uses them only to springboard into the main narrative—the explosion of Beatlemania. For example, obligated to cover how The Beatles were formed and how they developed their style, Howard covers the Hamburg years and the dates at the Cavern Club quickly. Ringo suddenly becomes the drummer, and there is no mention of the ugliness of the ousting of Pete Best. Either he assumes his viewer knows this story well, or he doesn’t care whether or not Pete Best deserves a portion of the narrative. Either way, it isn’t important in this film.
While he gives the formation of The Beatles less than fifteen minutes of the film, he lingers on particular performances. The Beatles performing, whether on a concert stage or in front of the cameras is the heart of this film. Whereas another documentary might only show the entirety of The Beatles’ performance on The Ed Sullivan Show, this film shows complete songs from the rarely seen Washington, D.C. show, the concert at the Budokan Theater in Tokyo, as well as other less known shows on The Beatles’ first tour. In pausing to show almost five minutes of a particular performance, Howard seems to tell his audience that The Beatles’ performances weren’t just a way to tie the narrative together, but the narrative itself.
Through these clips he reveals just how special a Beatles concert could be. John is always witty, Paul is the showman, and they consistently deliver a solid performance. Despite their collective complaints that touring eventually became a frustrating and disappointing attempt to project a decent sound through primitive sound systems that couldn’t possibly over power the screaming fans, their performances were really quite good. They were always in key, and their harmonies were very close to their records. Their instruments also came through clearly despite the low tech equipment they used, thus revealing that what a fan heard on a Beatles record was The Beatles themselves. At one point, Neil Aspinall, their tour manager, jokingly comments that during one show in which The Beatles performed in a torrential rainstorm, he stood off stage with the literal “plug” in his hand, ready to pull it if one of the guys fell down seemingly electrocuted. Obviously there was not much production to the sound created on stage.
Just as he allows the viewer to experience the magic of watching The Beatles perform, he also allows him or her to experience the frenzy and energy of Beatlemania. This film reminds us of just what an incredible experience Beatlemania was. Scenes of screaming girls in Beatles documentaries are certainly nothing new. Here, however, the sheer numbers of fans surging against police lines are powerful reminders that in 1964 nothing or no one was bigger than The Beatles. When they arrived in Melbourne, Australia, 250,000 fans lined the streets from the airport to their hotel. This size crowd repeated itself in cities around the globe. Americans tend to think that Beatlemania was theirs, but it swept Europe and Asia as well. It didn’t only infect teenage girls; it took hold of entire populations. In one scene thousands of Liverpool soccer fans crammed together begin singing “She Loves You” in unison. The entire group is composed solely of grown men without a single teenage girl in sight. The sheer spectacle of the news footage from city after city is absolutely mind blowing. It is sometimes hard to remember that The Beatles were only a pop group. Never before and probably never again will there ever be anything like Beatlemania.
And here is where The Beatles: Eight Days a Week—The Touring Years perhaps makes its biggest mark. Noteworthy enough for the new archival footage it presents (in one scene Ringo himself has to turn his drum platform around to face the audience after it has been set up facing the back of the stage), the film belongs in the canon of Beatles documentaries for its take on the Beatles mythology. It is a worthwhile endeavor for even the most informed of Beatles fans in its interpretation of the classic Beatles story. While it is fairly common to view their story to be the story of the 1960s itself (a fall from innocence into decadence), watching the lovable mop tops turn into long hair hippies who eventually could not even stand to be in the same room long enough to record an album, here Howard reimagines the end of the “touring years” as a natural development and maturation of the four young men who began their journey barely out of their teens. They became swept up in the frenzy of Beatlemania in all of its explosive and grand passion but soon began to lag under its weight and expectation. Each of the Beatles joined a band to be involved in music. At a certain point, Beatlemania forgot about the music. John, Paul, George, and Ringo, however, did not. As the film moves toward the end of 1966, it becomes clear that The Beatles themselves no longer fit the image that they had created for themselves, and when they attempted to express themselves as something different, they were met with increasing criticism and push back.
Howard marks the release of each album with a time line of how long it remained #1 on the charts. Their first album, Please Please Me was #1 for thirty weeks in 1963, but their eighth album, Revolver, was #1 for only eight weeks. Coupled with scenes of the “Beatle burnings” of 1966, the fatigue of The Beatles in their interviews, and the ugliness of police-fan encounters, these figures seem to herald the end of The Beatles and imply a tragic ending for the Fab Four. In a marked departure from the style of the film preceding this point, however, Howard posts several successive screens explaining what The Beatles did after their last tour. The last screen states that their next album, the monumental Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band has been voted (almost unanimously by rock critics) as the #1 album of all time. It quickly cuts to a fast paced montage of the previous images of the height of Beatlemania, displaying the screaming fans, the mayhem, the protests, and The Beatles themselves underscored by the second extended orchestra crescendo of “A Day in the Life.” As the final piano chord sounds, the frame freezes on a close up of The Beatles on the cover of Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club as if to say that Beatlemania was only the adolescence of the fully mature group that would give the world such a work of art. The last scene of the film is The Beatles’ rooftop concert in 1969. All long hair and beards, they are hardly the same band from 1964. Yet, they rock, just like they did five years before, proving that The Beatles were always something more than what Beatlemania told us they were. The film ends without reminding us that The Beatles broke up and fought for years, that John Lennon was shot outside of his apartment in 1980, and that George Harrison died of cancer in 2001. Instead, the audience is left with The Beatles themselves, doing what they were born to do.
In the theater where I saw the film, not one person got up to leave in the middle of the credits (even at the end of the bonus restored featurette of the 1965 Shea Stadium concert). Normally the audience begins streaming out as the screen fades on the last scene, leaving only the hard-core film buffs staying to find out who the stars were or what songs were used. Everyone stayed to hear the end of the last The Beatles song. Almost reluctantly they began moving when it became clear that it was over.
This was a theater full of Beatles fans, and Beatles fans are a class unto themselves. Non-Beatles fans do not (and perhaps cannot) understand the love and devotion the true Beatles fan experiences. It is beyond logic and intellect. Beatles songs touch the very heart of a true fan and listening to The Beatles can be a religious experience. The majority of Beatles fans fell in love with the group during adolescence, a time when one begins to look for purpose. Few true Beatles fans come to them later in life. Similarly, Howard’s film seems to posit that Beatlemania hit America in its adolescence following World War II before the ugliness of Vietnam brought it sharply to an end. Those passions of youth remain burning inside a person forever and are rarely extinguished.
I have seen Paul McCartney in concert six times and have cried every time as shamelessly as the screaming fans in the old footage. At one show where I was lucky enough to be on the first row (after standing in line for eight hours) I nearly passed out when he pointed and gave me “thumbs up” at the end of the show. It was also my love for The Beatles that gave me the Herculean strength to stand for three hours while holding a fifty-pound child and singing “Hey Jude” at the top of my lungs. Howard’s film, produced by a true Beatles fan, is ultimately for Beatles fans like me, those who already profess the faith, but it also for others looking for purpose in their lives. It is a loving tribute that unites the disciples gathered at 10 o’clock on a Sunday morning in a darkened theater (as I was). At the end, I wanted to go out to get a coffee with someone from the showing just to talk to someone who would understand what I just experienced.
Different reviewers have posed the question of which audience Ron Howard intended to reach with this film—the lifelong fan of the Baby Boom Generation or the Millenial looking to see what the big deal was. I am a Gen-Xer myself and have been a dedicated Beatles fan since I was ten years old in 1980 when I listened to the tributes to John Lennon after he was shot. During the film I sat mesmerized, fully immersed in the surround sound and larger than life picture of my lifelong love affair. A tingle ran up my spine and tears sprang to my eyes each time a Beatles song began. Baby Boomers have the right to claim this film as all their own, but if a stray Millenial wanders in, I would imagine that he or she could not help but become caught up in the mania. You had us at the opening cord to “A Hard Day’s Night” Mr. Howard.
Katy Shick teaches English at North Forsyth High School in Winston-Salem. An avid life long movie fan, she has been reviewing films for family, friends, and the captive audiences of her classroom for decades.
The Beatles: Eight Days a Week is showing at A/perture Cinema in Downtown Winston-Salem
- Click to email this to a friend (Opens in new window)
- Click to print (Opens in new window)
- Click to share on Facebook (Opens in new window)
- Click to share on Reddit (Opens in new window)
- Click to share on Twitter (Opens in new window)
- Click to share on Google+ (Opens in new window)
- Click to share on Tumblr (Opens in new window)
- Click to share on Pinterest (Opens in new window)