The story of The Beatles is one that has been told, to reference one of John Lennon’s famous quotes, as many times as Christmas, so sitting down to watch Ron Howard’s new documentary feature on them I wondered just how much it could add.
Well thankfully Eight Days A Week – The Touring Years adds a lot to the tale, particularly when it comes to the context of quite how and why they became the phenomenon that they did.
Tracing their career as a live band from the Cavern Club and the Reeperbahn to Shea Stadium and the roof of the Apple Corps offices, it focusses on a side of the band that is generally less explored in favour of their more artistically credible time holed up in Abbey Road Studios.
Howard has constructed the film in a relatively conventional way with talking head interviews (including new interviews with Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr), archive clips of John Lennon and George Harrison as well as Brian Epstein, George Martin and other behind the scenes people and contemporary concert footage.
The interviews help set this apart by giving The Beatles a context often missing from other documentaries. While the band members tell us what it was like being in the eye of the Beatlemania storm, which gets more interesting as the touring and press attention take their toll, it is the ‘celebrity’ fans who really help give it a context.
One of the most notable of these early on is Whoopi Goldberg who recounts seeing the Fab Four on The Ed Sullivan Show which leads into a fascinating thread demonstrating how the band fell, somewhat accidentally, into the civil rights movement and had a fairly major effect on segregation of at their, and other musical acts, concerts as well as in the minds of their fans, whatever their skin colour was.
While tours of the UK, Europe, Australia and New Zealand are discussed, it’s not surprising given it is Howard’s film that the main focus is on the band’s presence in the USA. With this comes a fascinating section on their first major tour there with news reporter Larry Kane who followed the band on that and later tours.
He adds the context of the ‘baby boomers’ and the real confirmation of the teenage generation that had begun with the rock ’n’ roll of the late 1950s.
It’s interesting to see how The Beatles developed the rock ’n’ roll template into what has become pop but while being so counter to the mainstream of the time they almost feel like the punk rock of their day (though without the politicised music). This impression was probably confirmed in my mind by seeing how much Ringo’s drumming is like that of The Ramones a decade and a bit later.
While all this and the usual praise about quite how good and prolific the band were (an album every six months in this period as well as the touring) it is the concert footage that is the film’s real crown jewel.
While much of the footage, from early gigs in Liverpool and Manchester to Shea Stadium shows is at least familiar Howard and his team have done an amazing job of restoring it to as close as high-definition as could be possible and, with the sound treated similarly, the effect is startling.
Seeing these pictures, now more 50 years old, in such clarity lifts this above all other films I’ve seen on the band and really shows how they pioneered the size of shows they were playing.
Added to this, the music nerd in me loves hearing them talk about how the total lack of monitors meant they couldn’t hear one another or themselves in the face of the screaming audiences who seemingly never let up for the duration of their performances, and how Vox created new (then high-powered) 100 watt versions of their AC-30s for the band to use which even at full volume were next to useless in front of tens of thousands of fans and no dedicated PA system.
As the film heads to its end we take a glimpse inside Abbey Road and the effect the likes of Rubber Soul, Revolver and Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band had on the band and their fanbase (Elvis Costello is a particularly good contributor at this stage), before the film rounds off with that iconic performance on the roof of Apple Corps in London by an almost unrecognisable band compared to the previous footage.
All this comes together to create something I’ve not seen properly captured on film before, that being the mania, power and presence these four young men from Liverpool created, lost control of and rode for four years in the mid-60s that changed the face of popular culture forever.