There’s a little something for all Fab Four fans in “The Beatles: Eight Days a Week – The Touring Years,” the new documentary by Ron Howard (“Rush”). Following the most famous rock group in history from their days as a Liverpudlian skiffle group to international sensation only a few years later, the film, as the title indicates, serves as an exploration of The Beatles specifically during, not before or after, their meteoric rise and groundbreaking transformation.
Through a mixture of video (much of which was restored in stunning 4K) and audio footage and interviews in the present, from both obvious subjects and a few surprising ones, Howard is able to string together a cohesive tale of youthful exuberance and rebellion. The film’s editing and structure — kinetic, chaotic and disorganized — matches the band itself. The Beatles’ brash sound and defining juxtaposition of mopheads in suits proved overwhelmingly scintillating for its massive base of dedicated fans. Interviews with Larry Kane, a radio journalist assigned to follow The Beatles on tour and provided coverage of Beatlemania at its peak, provide the rather non-cohesive narrative structure for the film.
After their early albums, The Beatles became more experimental. In 1965 and 1966 respectively, they released Rubber Soul and Revolver, unequivocally two of the greatest works of art ever created. They grew up, started taking drugs and settled down with wives in large homes. They became real people, agitated at interview questions, needing to take breaks in between their tiresome recording schedules. They recorded less and less. They stopped making films. And, most importantly for the film, tours became sources of frustration: audience members came to see (and scream at) the group, not listen to their music. The Beatles played Candlestick Park in San Francisco on August 29, 1966. Nearly a year later, they released Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, an album Howard upholds with a great personal reverence. They didn’t perform in public for two and a half years.
The members of The Beatles may find their success a cosmic joke (their humor is a recurring message in the film), but their importance nonetheless remains. In the mid-1960s, a president had been assassinated, nuclear testing signaled an impending nuclear doom and the civil rights movement had reached its peak. Americans needed escapism, but no one could have predicted it would come from four English twenty-somethings with messy hair. But the film only lightly touches on these themes. Howard could have attempted to explain Beatlemania, but he defers to (beautifully restored) archival footage.
While little new information is provided by the film — much, even that given by Ringo Starr and Paul McCartney, could be gleaned from a Wikipedia deep dive — its charm is undeniable. But undoubtedly that charm comes from the subject material itself, not from any filmmaking techniques exhibited by Howard.
I’ve never been a die-hard Beatles fan. I’ve enjoyed much of their music, especially the middle period, but I could happily go a few months without listening to their tunes. Howard’s film has probably reversed that. A coda, the group’s 1969 rooftop performance, is beyond triumphant. Whether Howard’s film is responsible, I, like many others, feel personally connected to John, Paul, George and Ringo. Their songs are anthems, not earworms. Their style is revolutionary, not silly. And while Howard’s documentary may have its fair share of flaws, I’ll be damned if I didn’t have fun watching it.