Film Review: ‘The Beatles: Eight Days a Week – The Touring Years’

The Beatles Eight Days a Week
Courtesy of Imagine Entertainment

Ron Howard's Beatlemania doc is affectionate and absorbing, but less "Yeah! Yeah! Yeah!" than "yeah, yeah, yeah."

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.

Film Review: 'The Beatles: Eight Days a Week - The Touring Years'

Reviewed at Dolby screening room, London, Aug. 16, 2016. Running time: 106 MIN.

Production

(Documentary — U.S.-U.K.) A Hulu Documentary Films (in U.S.)/Studiocanal (in U.K.) release of a The Beatles' Apple Corps Limited/Studiocanal/PolyGram Entertainment presentation of a White Horse Pictures, Imagine Entertainment production, in association with Diamond Docs. Producers: Brian Grazer, Ron Howard, Nigel Sinclair, Scott Pascucci. Executive producers: Jeff Jones, Guy East, Jonathan Clyde, Nicholas Ferrall, Michael Rosenberg, Paul Crowder, Mark Monroe. Co-producers: Matthew White, Stuart Samuels, Bruce Higham.

Crew

Director: Ron Howard. Writer: Mark Monroe. Camera (color): Michael Wood. Editor, Paul Crowder.

With

Paul McCartney, Ringo Starr, Larry Kane, Whoopi Goldberg, Elvis Costello, Richard Curtis, Eddie Izzard, Sigourney Weaver, Neil Aspinall, Richard Lester, Kitty Oliver, Derek Taylor, Howard Goodall, Jon Savage, Ed Freeman.

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  1. Todd the Hutch says:

    Whilst I was excited to attend Opie’s Beatlemania, which revisited the concerts the four Genii produced, I was somewhat dismayed aurally as it appeared that much of the audio track had been cribbed and cobbled from studio recordings and made to sound live.
    OK ?

  2. Paul says:

    It is sad to say but if Kennedy had not been assassinated in November of 1963 The Beatles emergence in late December of that year, with “I Want To Hold Your Hand” first getting airplay in the mid-west then spreading nationwide, would not have gone the way it did. Millions of grieving baby boomers who had lost “their president” turned to those four from Liverpool as a way of assuaging their grief and also screaming out their pain. American Beatlemania was a national catharsis. As George Harrison ruefully put it, “American went crazy; and then blamed us for it.”

    It does not say here but I hope the actual live performances are used and not dubbed with the studio cuts. The Beatles sounded amazing in spite of horrible audio systems and daunting performance conditions.

  3. scottwil says:

    “…comparable bands today…”?

  4. Sadly, it appears we have another ho-hum Apple Corp. production. YAWN!

  5. The Word says:

    Reading this review made my head spin. Try using a short sentence once in a while. Seriously.

  6. i really don’t care what peole like goldberg, costello, etc. movie stars in general have to say about the beatles. most films are ruined when people like that comment. i would rather just watch the footage, than listen to OVER commentary. if you want to watch a good documentary, watch the anthology progam.

  7. Peter says:

    Anybody else sick of Larry Kane glomming on??

  8. Kevin Weaver says:

    Same!

  9. Kevin Weaver says:

    Darn. I was looking forward to seeing it, but once I read that Whoopi cushion was in it…. I can’t watch that.

  10. Michael says:

    And I will refuse to live in the US because Whoopi Goldberg lives there.

  11. Gary Beach says:

    Dj Gary C said it best….”When you look at a band with a teeny tiny drum set compared to today’s standards, 3 guitars, a harmonica and Amps with tubes in them could master the sounds they did as young boys is beyond ones imagination.” What The Beatles did is truly amazing and will never be duplicated.

  12. I saw them in Houston 1965. An incredible concert in every way as remembered thru the eyes of a 13 year old. The concert was recorded and can be heard on youtube. They were off key, rushed thru the 11 songs and no encores. In spite of that – the show was something I will never forget.

  13. Kevin says:

    Oh no!! No new “scandal,” no new “revelations” in this movie? However will you write a headline for your review without a little yellow journalism somewhere in the film? Oh woe all is lost, how can they make a documentary about something without coming up with something new? Could it possibly be that there is no reason?

  14. Bonejamin says:

    So why was she so cozy with Ted Danson?

  15. Dj Gary C says:

    It is so amazing to see that a group that formed in the late 50s early 60s would reach the absolute top of their profession. Even to this day. Their music is timeless as history bears this out.

    They are in fact one of the best bands their ever was and will ever be, never to replicated again. But what’s SO amazing is when you think of all the tumblers that had to click into place for this to come to fruition. WOW, amazing

    When you look at a band with a teeny tiny drum set compared to today’s standards, 3 guitars, a harmonica and Amps with tubes in them could master the sounds they did as young boys is beyond ones imagination. Even today you need an orchestra just to try to replicate what they did. This should prove they simply are the best their ever was and will be. In my opinion anyway. I still love their music as much as I ever did and to me it’s still as fresh as ever!

    • davy daniels says:

      I’m not by any means a religion nut’hate it’but for Paul’John and George to have been born in one small english city at the same time and meet up and form this band is beyond anything that has ever happened in history of popular music.The one true miricle.

  16. Raymond Gross says:

    “Comparable bands today”? This must have been a slip of the tongue. There are no comparable bands today. Sadly, no band playing today comes even close.

    • eddie willers says:

      That IS funny (and not in a ha-ha way). There is no comparable bands either before or after. The correct question is: “Other than the Beatles, who’s the best band of all time?”

  17. Joe Mack says:

    Listened to early and late Beatles, all we had on the 8 track. Will anyone listen to it in 50 or 500 years?
    Would love to know. Me, Love Me Do, early Beatles, love, holding hands at 12 or 16. Will that thrill ever go away for the human species. I suspect it was present at the Oldavai Gorge.
    Thank you, George, Ringo, Paul and John, for your creations. It meant a great deal to me, for what that is worth. And Help! gave me courage to ask my future wife out, many children are grateful!

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