Sunday, September 18, 2016

Movie Review: The Beatles: Eight Days a Week-The Touring Years, Directed by Ron Howard (2016)

Poster for Eight Days a Week, 2016.

The Beatles at their first American concert, Washington, DC, February 1964.
Ron Howard’s documentary The Beatles: Eight Days a Week-The Touring Years, is a fun look back at the Fab Four’s early days, focusing on the period from 1963 to 1966. Of course, this material has been recalled in other places, like the Beatles’ own Anthology TV special, but Eight Days a Week features quite a bit of previously unseen footage of the Beatles on stage. 

Eight Days a Week features new interviews with Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr, along with several other talking heads. The film doesn’t seek to argue for the importance of the Beatles’ impact on popular culture; it’s aim is to entertain us. But we do get a peek at the Beatles’ firm stance against segregation when there were rumors that a show in Jacksonville, Florida was to be segregated. (The band stood firm, and played to an integrated audience.) What comes across most strongly in the film is the fun the Beatles brought to the world. Here were four adorable young men playing fantastic music and just having a great time. Their collective wit is on display throughout the movie-from George Harrison casually dropping his cigarette ash in John Lennon’s hair to Lennon introducing himself to a clueless American interviewer as “Eric.” As George Harrison said, “The Beatles saved the world from boredom.” 

What comes across so strongly in the film is how different the Beatles were from anyone else. There simply wasn’t anyone or anything quite like them in 1963 and 1964. Their impact on popular music was similar to Elvis Presley-they became a dividing line of “before the Beatles” and “after the Beatles.” If you go back and listen to “She Loves You,” and “I Want to Hold Your Hand,” there is still an amazing vitality to those records today. When you couple those thrilling sounds with the Beatles’ very revolutionary visual style, (that long hair!) you understand why everyone went crazy for them. 

Performing live for the Beatles became very difficult, as they had to play to huge crowds of screaming fans, and the inadequate sound systems of the time meant that they couldn’t hear themselves on stage. Given those limitations, as Elvis Costello reminds us in the film, it’s really remarkable how often they were in tune. I’m always amazed at George Harrison’s playing, how in concert he was able to replicate note for note the solos from the records. By 1966, the magic of touring had worn off for the Beatles, and what had been fab fun in 1964 now seemed like an onerous slog. Their music was also becoming more complicated-on their 1966 tour they never attempted to play any of the songs from their latest record, Revolver, live. And Lennon’s comments about the band being “more popular than Jesus” caused outrage in the United States, making for an uncomfortable atmosphere as they embarked on their last tour in August, 1966.

The live footage in Eight Days a Week is great fun to watch-my only quibble with the film is that it looks like some of the footage from their first American press conference and their first American concert has been colorized, which is too bad. Also, there’s no mention of Jimmy Nicol, the drummer who was briefly a Beatle when he sat in for Ringo for 8 shows in June of 1964 when Ringo recovered from a tonsillectomy. Sharp-eyed Beatle fans will notice Nicol appears briefly in some of the footage from Australia in Eight Days a Week. 

For a limited time, The Beatles at Shea Stadium will follow Eight Days a Week in theaters. Hopefully this will be an extra on the DVD. When the Beatles’ 1 DVD was released last year, we saw some footage from Shea for the “Eight Days a Week” clip, and it looked fantastic, which whetted my appetite for seeing the whole show. The Beatles at Shea Stadium is very high-quality color footage of an extremely important moment in rock and roll, as it captures the first big stadium rock concert, which would become a staple of the genre during the next decade. Before 55,000 fans, the Beatles played 12 songs, and the film captures their incredible charisma and talent. It’s amazing to watch John Lennon and Paul McCartney, two of the greatest songwriters of the 20th century, or indeed any century, share a microphone and harmonize together on “Baby’s in Black” and “Ticket to Ride.” And listen to the band’s performance: they tackle complicated songs like “Ticket to Ride,” and “I Feel Fine,” and they sound magnificent. As I noted earlier, George Harrison’s solos are superb. 

Eight Days a Week is essential viewing for any Beatle fan, or anyone who enjoys great music.

Friday, September 16, 2016

Book Review: The Kingdom of Speech, by Tom Wolfe (2016)

Cover of The Kingdom of Speech, by Tom Wolfe, 2016. Taken, of course, on my Tom Wolfe bookshelf. (Photo by Mark C. Taylor.)

Tom Wolfe is still rocking those white suits!
Yes! Tom Wolfe is back!!! The sharply-dressed wordsmith returns with The Kingdom of Speech, his first non-fiction work since his 2000 collection of essays, Hooking Up. But you have to go back to 1981 and From Bauhaus to Our House to find Wolfe’s last extended, book-length piece of non-fiction. That seems fitting, because The Kingdom of Speech fits in well with From Bauhaus to Our House, Wolfe’s scathing critique of modern architecture, and The Painted Word, his 1975 lambasting of the modern art scene.

Wolfe is an enemy of conformity, and while some interpret his critiques of art and architecture and conclude that he’s really a conservative figure, I would argue that what he’s really saying is to question orthodoxy and authority. Wolfe might actually be more radical than people think. Wolfe has often come under fire from liberals because he attacks liberal orthodoxies, and as a liberal, I think I can say that liberals generally don’t like it when their reality gets questioned. As William F. Buckley once said, “Liberals claim to want to give a hearing to other views, but then are shocked and offended to discover that there are other views.” We tend to see things in black and white, as a dichotomy. If you’re against modern architecture, then, ipso facto, you must be a conservative! If you’re against modern art, then you’re not part of the vanguard! You’re not on the cutting edge! Wolfe is always interested in how certain ideas or theories become entrenched-the way styles of art and architecture became entrenched, and how once they become the orthodoxy, how anyone who questions them is quickly branded a heretic.

In The Kingdom of Speech, Wolfe sets his sights on Charles Darwin and Noam Chomsky. Specifically, Wolfe is interested in how speech evolved in human beings. According to Wolfe, no one has been able to truly explain this-which as Wolfe says, is what really made man able to dominate all of the other species on the planet. Wolfe goes back to Charles Darwin as he traces Darwin’s writing of On the Origin of Species, which was partially published to beat Alfred Russel Wallace into print, as Wallace had independently developed the same theory. Wolfe then examines Darwin’s theories about how language developed…which leads into Wolfe taking on Chomsky, who has long been the reigning linguistic theorist. Wolfe sums up some of the research of Daniel Everett, who found a lost tribe in the Amazon whose language seems to contradict some of Chomsky’s key theories.

I am not enough of an expert on language or linguistic theory to definitively say that Wolfe is right or wrong, but The Kingdom of Speech is an entertaining read. Wolfe’s style is his usual, love it or hate it, stream of consciousness ramble. I’ve seen some reviewers who have mocked Wolfe’s flights of fancy, asking “How does he go from this to that?” but in asking that question it seems clear that they don’t understand how stream of consciousness works. Unlike some other Wolfe books, the first exclamation point doesn’t appear until the bottom of the second page! But have no fear; Wolfe’s trademark wit and sarcasm are still fully intact. Oh, and this time, unlike The Painted Word and From Bauhaus to Our House, there are footnotes!

As with Wolfe’s other books, The Kingdom of Speech has been controversial, and debates have raged over how accurately Wolfe has summarized the thoughts and ideas of Chomsky and Everett. I am sure that delights Wolfe, who has never shied away from criticism or controversy during his long career. The criticism over the book follows exactly the pattern that Wolfe describes when he writes about people protecting their orthodoxies-the outsider is invariably attacked for not being “one of us.” The experts shriek and howl: But he’s not a linguist! He hasn’t studied linguistics and evolution for thirty years! How many books about language has he read? He doesn’t know the territory! Well, sometimes an outsider can provide a fresh perspective. I don’t think Wolfe is saying that his book will be the final word on this subject. What Wolfe is really doing is popularizing the ideas and theories he presents in The Kingdom of Speech. Because he’s a famous writer, they will invariably get more attention. It’s fitting that Wolfe would choose to write a book about language, since he is such a terrific writer. Wolfe has always held a high place in the kingdom of speech.