It's hard to believe there's anything new to be learned about the Fab Four. There have been hundreds of books, television documentaries and numerous feature film depictions already recounting the history of the Beatles and their numerous collaborators and muses. But Ron Howard's new documentary, The Beatles: Eight Days a Week—The Touring Years nonetheless manages to tell a fresh story by combining candid first-person interviews with previously unseen archival material obtained by a team of researchers who sent out open calls through social media for original Beatles memorabilia.
You can picture the start of this film: It's February 1964, and all of the familiar visual cues of Beatlemania are there—landing in John F. Kennedy airport for their first U.S. tour, welcomed by hordes of hysterical, apoplectically distressed teenage girls; their momentous performance on the Ed Sullivan Show; and John Lennon, Paul McCartney, Ringo Starr and George Harrison's adorable, mop-topped baby faces singing into microphones. (More like screaming: Both Harrison and Starr quipped in separate accounts that wherever they played, they struggled to hear themselves over the roar of the audience.)
These iconic images, as Howard reminds us, didn't exactly jibe with the broader social reality circa 1964. President Kennedy had been assassinated less than six months earlier, race riots and the civil-rights movement embroiled the nation, nuclear testing obliterated Pacific atolls, and the Vietnam War hadn't really started yet. In some ways, the band represented all that was still innocent in the world. "Quite literally, this society is dominated by teenagers," says author Malcolm Gladwell in the film. "In 1964, if you're 14 years old, you're not going to look to your parents as role models. You're looking up to the Beatles."
Actress Whoopi Goldberg, for one, watched the Beatles on Ed Sullivan and recalls being enraptured by their stage presence, a moment that opened her world to white rock & roll musicians. Historian Dr. Kitty Oliver likewise remembers going to the Beatles' concert at the Gator Bowl in Jacksonville, Florida, the first integrated concert in the state; the band were anti-segregation, which was remarkably progressive at the time—and perhaps a sign of their future activism.
Plucked from obscurity by future manager Brian Epstein, the four lads from Liverpool were clearly brimming with optimism and cheekiness in those days. But as the film explains, touring around the world began to take a toll on each member. Miami journalist Larry Kane, who traveled with the Beatles throughout their U.S. tour, documented his experiences extensively for his Florida news station; of the group, it seems the pressures of fame especially wore down John and George, who wanted to be regarded more as serious musicians than pop stars.
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Tabloids, lame photo shoots, grueling concert schedules, drug use and the angry backlash after Lennon's "bigger than Jesus" boast (or so it was interpreted) jaded the band's relationship with the public. Riots and unruly crowds led to the Beatles performing in sports stadiums, the only venues that could contain the number of fans who came to see them live. Unfortunately, technology couldn't keep up; the PA system at New York's Shea Stadium was pitiful, and combined with the fans' screaming, Starr recalls, he had to watch the other members' positions on their instruments to know where they were in the songs. In 1966, the group abruptly retired from global touring to focus on studio albums and produced a string of highly acclaimed works.
In Howard's film, the origin story behind that unprecedented explosion of creativity unfolds in a tight narrative that gives new perspective on one of the most documented groups in the world. Photographs come alive, archived interviews with Harrison and Lennon are informative, and sound production by Giles Martin (son of legendary Beatles producer George Martin) gives the songs a new auditory luster. In his documentary-film debut, Howard is exceptionally adept at shaping something magical out of his research, and the Beatles' brotherly love for one another is felt throughout the film. "The one thing that pulled us through those years was faith," McCartney says. "All these people . . . had to have had faith in us, and we had to have faith in each other. Otherwise, it would have never worked."
The Beatles: Eight Days a Week—The Touring Years was directed by Ron Howard. Screening at the Art Theatre, 2025 E. Fourth St., Long Beach, (562) 438-5435. Thurs., Sept. 15, 2, 5 & 8 p.m. $8-$11.