Director: Ron Howard
Writers: Mark Monroe, P.G. Morgan (story consultant)
Stars: John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison, Ringo Starr
A highly entertaining, upbeat, nostalgic trip back to the height of Beatlemania in the early half of the 1960s. Eight Days a Week – The Touring Years is a documentary from Ron Howard profiling the stratospheric rise of The Beatles, and as the title suggests, primarily focusing on their short, but ultimately pioneering touring career.
Beginning in 1963 with ‘I Want to Hold Your Hand’ taking the charts by storm and the band landing to a huge, expectant crowd in New York City. It goes over old ground initially for a super fan like myself, who’s seen the Anthology, focusing on their Ed Sullivan appearances and brief nine day tour of the US. McCartney’s comment, “By the end it was quite complicated, but at the beginning it was quite simple” is an early indicator that the deeper intricacies of their relationships and antics will not be delved into in any great detail. As an official Apple release though, I wouldn’t have expected anything else. There is some interesting commentary provided, however, with a different perspective of the Beatlemania portrayed. Whoopi Goldberg, Elvis Costello, Larry King and several other guests tell their personal stories and the effect the Fab Four had on their lives. Whoopi somewhat shockingly mentioning that “they were colourless and fucking amazing”.
There’s the briefest of looks at the bands troubled manager, Brian Epstein, described as ‘Liverpool class’ and one of the main factors in their early fame. In audio excerpts from old footage, he discusses the bands initial scruffy appearance, factoring it down to their youth, before Paul reminisces about them being taken to a tailor for new suits, mentioning that “the suits were the simplest idea, they made us one person. A four headed monster.” It’s perhaps not surprising then that the combination of catchy beat music, matching suits, iconic haircuts and rapier sharp, Liverpudlian wit made them a real force of nature, propelling them to the forefront of pop culture. The Fab Fours propensity for sarcastic, one liners and comedic timing, shown in all it’s glory, most times in response to inquisitive foreigners probing questions, helped them connect with the rebellious, anti-establishment views of 1960s youth culture, particularly in the US.
Howard then firmly brings the attention back to the bands touring and live shows. Starting off in relatively small venues that are absolute packed to the rafters with screaming, hysterical girls, it’s here that the boys futile attempts to be heard over the ear piercing, pubescent, din quickly becomes an omnipresent struggle. The hysteria isn’t being contained to inside the venues either with a report shown of hundreds being left devastated in queues stretching back half a mile and a news bulletin about 240 fans being crushed outside in the desperation to see the four wondrous lads from Britain flashing across the screen. The police at the time were unable to handle the bustling crowds, which had reached an unprecedented level, not likely to be seen again in the modern era. Beatlemania transcended the racial barrier too and with the civil rights movement waging and segregation still very much a regular occurrence, The Beatles weren’t afraid to voice their disgust on the matter, demanding that no segregation be in place during their Gaterbowl concert or the show would be cancelled. African-American historian, Kitty Oliver, shared a very poignant memory of being part of a mixed crowd and all of them sharing their love of one thing together for the first time in her life.
Yet despite their growing popularity on the back of their first successful film, A Hard Days Night, and the continuing mania surrounding them, the question on everyones lips in 1964 was still “when will the bubble burst?” Dick Lester, the director of the aforementioned film, summed this uncertainty up with his recollection of the rush to get the film out in case the popularity faded. Of course, with the benefit of hindsight, we know that The Beatles were nowhere near being done in 1964 and it wasn’t long until their second film, Help, was released. The band were slightly less enthusiastic during their second experience of making a film, however, despite having their demands of flying to the exotic Bahamas to film granted and being high on pot for much of the production.
As the documentary progresses into 1965 and begins following both the bands maturing musicality and mentality, we see them return once again to the US, this time selling out stadiums. The Beatles essentially led the way for future bands with the first massive stadium tour, which brought the obvious financial rewards and also more problems. The struggle to be heard was becoming a greater issue as the venue size increased, with the screaming masses engulfing them to the point were Ringo was forced to keep time by watching the frontmen. The culmination of this historical tour was the Shea Stadium concert in New York, playing to a sold out, 60,000 capacity. Even with specially designed 100 watt Vox amps, the sound issue remained and the horrible, thin, distant sound played from the stadium PA system was barely worth the admission fee. This amongst many other growing issues was what signalled the beginning of the end for The Beatles as an active touring band. Although, they continued touring, completing a worldwide trip to far flung places like Manila and Australia, their creative talent were stagnating with the inability to hear themselves play and the excessive demands on their time was becoming tiresome.
And so when the ‘Beatles are bigger than Christ’ remark from Lennon was published completely out of context stateside, the endgame was sped up significantly. Sure they still played to 80% full stadiums on the subsequent tour, but with the growing threats of violence in a not long, post-assassinated JFK, USA and with the amateurish nature of the touring arrangements, discontent between the band was reaching boiling point. This was further exacerbated by their abandoning of simpler melodic song structures, turning to more experimental sounds that weren’t easy to replicate live. The final properly live concert came at the end of the very same tour at Candlestick Park and there’s some fascinating new footage served up of this concert. There’s a very cool little montage that flies through their recording years following a short look at the recording and release of Sgt. Peppers, and the documentary ends with the rooftop concert on top of their Savile Row office building.
As a massive Beatles fan, I loved this documentary. Did it share anything new that blew my mind? Not for the most part, no. It did however give a different perspective on a few things and there was enough new footage and photos, not to mention some excellently restored film in there to keep me happy. The sound was pretty phenomenal too. I liked the pacing of the whole thing, with it never dipping at any point and although I’ve heard most of the archival interviews from Lennon and Harrison, the new tidbits from Paul and Ringo were decent enough. I highly recommend this to anybody that loves or is interested in The Beatles.