When reflecting on the Beatles’ success during the documentary Eight Days a Week: The Touring Years, Paul McCartney emphasizes that it involved faith: Brian Epstein and George Martin’s faith in the group’s talent, and even more importantly, “we had to have faith in each other.”
That close friendship clearly helped the band survive the frenetic days of Beatlemania, which is stressed in Ron Howard’s new film. Through archival footage, new interviews with McCartney and Ringo Starr, and anecdotes from various celebrity fans and scholars, Howard explores the Beatles’ touring years from 1962-1966.
While some restored footage truly impresses and certain anecdotes will move fans, Eight Days a Week still seems to suffer from an identity crisis. Who is Howard appealing to — hardcore, casual, or younger fans? What can be learned from the Beatlemania phenomenon? The documentary provides frustratingly few answers.
Longtime fans will find little new here. Much of the concert footage has already been seen (although the remastering and remixing greatly improves the viewing experience), as have various press conferences. The most controversial aspect of Eight Days a Week is Ron Howard’s decision to colorize the Beatles’ first U.S. press conference, their subsequent Washington Coliseum performance, and the 1966 Chicago press conference where John Lennon apologized for the “bigger than Jesus” quote. Why was it necessary? Modern audiences can handle black-and-white footage, particularly since it reflects the time period. Perhaps Howard was underscoring the Beatles’ timeless quality, but the pallid faces and flat colors prove distracting.
In addition, Eight Days a Week: The Touring Years curiously omits important aspects of the touring years. Pete Best is barely mentioned, and Jimmy Nicol’s name is never uttered — despite appearing in some Australian footage. The “sex, drugs, and rock ’n’ roll” aspects of life on the road never merit a mention, with the lone exception of Paul McCartney admitting that the Beatles were “somewhat stoned” during the filming of Help! Howard obviously did not want to present a sensationalized account of the touring years, but the omission does smack of whitewashing.
McCartney, Starr, and George Harrison (through Anthology interviews) discuss their growing disenchantment with touring due to the screaming and frenzied crowds, but little footage illustrates that. Hysterical girls and some scary scenes of fans being injured at concerts abound, but what about when the Beatles (with Nicol substituting for an ailing Starr) arrived in Sydney and were forced to stand on an open-top truck during a downpour with whipping winds? Several other pieces of footage exist that would better demonstrate the group’s frustration and growing fear. Photographs are often shown out of order, and some footage (notably the first Ed Sullivan appearance and the 1964 NME poll winners concert) exist in better quality through bootlegs.
This is not to say that Eight Days a Week: The Touring Years has absolutely no merit. Whoopi Goldberg provides some surprisingly moving reflections on what the Beatles meant to her as an African-American. She explains how the band included everyone, and taught her that it was okay to be different. When her mother surprised her with tickets to the group’s 1965 Shea Stadium concert, “my head exploded,” she says. Another African-American scholar provides valuable insight on the Gator Bowl show, where the Beatles declared they would not perform unless the Florida stadium lifted its segregationist policies.
Larry Kane, an embedded journalist with the Beatles during their tours, tells behind-the-scenes tales from the plane rides, dangerous journeys from the airport to the hotel to the venues, and their increasing frustration with the press. In 1965 and 1966, the No. 1 question asked was: “When will the bubble burst?” During a tense press conference, one journalist asked in broken English why the Beatles were so “snobby.” Paul McCartney’s tired expression speaks volumes.
As far back as 1965, the Beatles were road weary, but did not cease touring until 1966. That year they released Revolver, a complicated work of art that proved too challenging to perform live. (During that final tour, the group did not play a single song from the album.) The “bigger than Jesus” misquote led to death threats primarily in the Southern states, while controversial stops in Japan and the Philippines (including an infamous misunderstanding where Imelda Marcos thought the group had snubbed her personal invitation to a reception) clearly grated on their nerves. When John Lennon had to clarify his “Jesus” comments, McCartney says, he was “a broken man.”
Overall, Ringo Starr admits that by this point they were just “going through the motions,” and their playing suffered. As has been told many times, the screaming drowned out the music to the point where the Beatles could not hear themselves. For example, Starr explains, he often could only tell where they were in a song by reading Lennon and McCartney’s lips or “watching their asses” to keep time! Considering these and other technological limitations (low power amps and no in-ear monitors), it’s astounding that the group could still execute largely flawless harmonies.
After their final concert at San Francisco’s Candlestick Park, the Beatles retreated to the studio to continue their next phase. Wisely, Ron Howard concludes the film with their group’s final live performance on the Apple rooftop on January 30, 1969. Despite tensions within the band and their impending decision to split, they proved that they still enjoyed playing together. When McCartney and Harrison exchange huge grins during “I’ve Got A Feeling,” their joy is infectious.
No particular conclusion is reached as Eight Days a Week ends. How did Beatlemania impact music and culture? How did the touring years influence the Beatles’ music? What did fans’ reactions reveal about the changing morays of the 1960s? None of these questions are explored, although perhaps Howard only wanted to celebrate the fan experience. In other words, while much of the concert footage is entertaining and the McCartney and Starr anecdotes interesting, they largely repeat what is already known about the group.
There seems to be a missed opportunity to learn something new. Longtime fans will enjoy the trip down memory lane and the joyful music, and causal listeners who know little about the Beatles may find new information here. Otherwise, Eight Days a Week stands as an often entertaining but deeply flawed look at an important part of Beatles history.
Those who catch Eight Days a Week‘s limited theatrical run will also be treated to the full Beatles performance at Shea Stadium. This alone is worth the price of admission, as the newly restored print is gorgeous. In its new clarity, one can see the beads of sweat on Paul McCartney’s Nehru jacket and better appreciate the enormity of the event.
‘Eight Days a Week: The Touring Years’ is currently available for streaming on Hulu and will be released on DVD and Blu-ray in November.
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