Directing rock documentaries may outwardly seem something of a departure for Ron Howard, but that’s not to say he’s gone entirely off-brand: It’s fitting that one of Hollywood’s preeminent merchants of wholesome mainstream entertainment has made a portrait of the biggest band in music history that ends comfortably before things turned sour. Covering, as the title implies, the very zenith of Beatlemania from 1963 to 1966, the indecisively named “The Beatles: Eight Days a Week – The Touring Years” does, to its credit, gradually capture the growing sense of fame-induced panic and ennui that prompted the Liverpudlians’ premature retreat from live performance, just as their music began to rock that little bit harder. But it comes as little surprise that Howard — a nimble and proficient storyteller in nonfiction and fiction alike, who previously helmed the Jay-Z concert pic “Made in America” — hasn’t a natural documentarian’s drive for information: This diverting, brightly assembled boomer nostalgia trip won’t open the eyes of any existing Fab Four fans, however much it pleases their ears.
“The band you know. The story you don’t,” claims the poster for “Eight Days a Week,” adopting a marketing tack familiar from countless “Behind the Music”-style exposés of pop royalty. The first statement seems justified in its presumptuousness: Though much is said on screen about the indomitable rise of youth culture, Howard’s film is aimed squarely at those who caught the fever the first time round. It’s telling that the one active musical peer among the director’s chosen panel of talking heads is 61-year-old Elvis Costello; if you’re wondering what Paul McCartney’s recent collaborator Kanye West, for example, might have to say about The Beatles’ enduring influence on younger artists, this is not the place to look.
But the story? It’s hard to imagine that most casual Beatle-niks — let alone the fanatics who have been generously fed by documentary-makers and rockologists over the past 40 years — will be surprised by much in Howard and writer Mark Monroe’s bouncy year-by-year study, which begins on the eve of the band’s U.S. breakthrough in 1964 with “I Want to Hold Your Hand” and stops just short of the psychedelic wanderings of “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” in 1967. The landmark Ed Sullivan Show appearances, the ear-piercing euphoria of their primarily female concert crowds, the controversy prompted by John Lennon’s flippant “more popular than Jesus” remark — it’s all duly covered here, with good humor and a vivid supply of milieu-setting archive material, but in breaking down the making of pop-culture legends, Howard mostly identifies contributing factors that have long since passed into the realm of legend themselves.
Taken on those limited terms, “Eight Days a Week” plays nicely enough: the mostly uptempo Side A of a well-stocked greatest hits album, as it were. Howard has enlisted McCartney and drummer Ringo Starr (lovably goofy as ever) to give lively on-screen accounts of their early (mis)adventures in celebrity: “By the end it became quite complicated, but at the beginning, things were really simple,” McCartney says cheerfully, summing up the film’s tonal inclinations in a nutshell.
That Lennon and George Harrison can chip in only via archival clips, the softened visual and sonic textures of which contrast sharply with their surviving bandmates’ freshly shot testimonies, lends proceedings a poignant undertow of loss that nonetheless remains unspoken to the last, as the film steers pointedly clear of almost any conflict or tragedy associated with the band. The names of ex-members Pete Best and Stu Sutcliffe — dismissed and deceased, respectively, in 1962, months before the film’s beginning — go conspicuously unmentioned, as does the death by overdose of their urbane manager Brian Epstein in 1967, months after its chosen endpoint. (As for the foursome’s tumultuous private lives, there’s nary a whisper.)
It’s the touring, after all, that is the focus here. In addition to the customary wealth of excerpted concert footage — as pristinely presented here as technology will permit — and newsreel flashes of travels from Manila to San Francisco, the film offers a few thoughtful insights on the formerly club-playing band’s swift evolution into a trailblazing stadium act. It’s a development, says a rueful McCartney, that diminished their own creative investment in performing: “The Beatles were the show, the music wasn’t.” Certainly, the film depicts their most crucial musical growth as happening in their off-stage hiatuses: Precious audio outtakes from the studio recording sessions for 1965’s watershed “Rubber Soul” album point to the incipient hothouse experimentalism in their work that comparable bands today take years rather than mere months between records to demonstrate.
Perhaps the least familiar and most bracing material in “Eight Days a Week,” however, doesn’t concern The Beatles’ artistry at all, but their politics — as in an interlude concerning their contractual refusal to play before racially segregated audiences in Jacksonville, Florida. It’s a stand movingly articulated by African-American historian Kitty Oliver as initiating her first direct social contact with the white population. Meanwhile, Whoopi Goldberg (the most voluble of the film’s game but somewhat randomly selected celebrity interviewees, including Sigourney Weaver and Eddie Izzard) also argues for Beatlemania as something of a cultural bridge in the Civil Rights-riven America of the mid-1960s: “They were colorless, and they were f—ing amazing,” she enthuses. Howard sometimes strains to shoehorn somber social context into otherwise swinging proceedings — a passing observation of JFK’s assassination feels particularly cursory — but these women’s recollections constitute a rare flash of honestly unexpected perspective in an otherwise by-the-book fan valentine.