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.

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