Blink and you’ll miss it, but Ron Howard’s intensely enjoyable documentary about the Beatles’ touring years has a great surreal moment right from the start. The mops are getting off the plane in New York, en route to a date with destiny on the Ed Sullivan show, and the news camera briefly catches a couple of banners being held up in the huge airport crowd. “unfair beatles 2 bald men” says one, and another says: “england out of ireland”. the images fade, and their atypical feelings are if anything drowned out by the global cry of flattery without irony. Yet both echo other undercurrents in Beatlemania: fear of these strangely attractive aliens, hatred of youth culture and youth itself, and perhaps mixed feelings in New York and America about this new invasion. Extraordinary British. maybe paul mccartney even saw that second poster and modified it as a song title for wings.
is there really anything else to say about the beatles? well, howard gives us a film conceived along similar lines to his non-fiction films like apollo 13 or frost/nixon, real people tested in the fire of advertising, with the same classic narrative arc of personal growth. Yet he convinces you there might be something new to say, in a film that includes interviews with both surviving members McCartney and Ringo Starr, archival footage with Harrison and Lennon, and intriguing conversations with current fans like Elvis Costello, Whoopi Goldberg and Malcolm Gladwell (whose 2008 book Outliers brings the Beatles’ Hamburg years back to their theory that greatness requires 10,000 hours of practice).
howard’s film has a different emphasis than, say, ian macdonald’s classic critical revolution in the head, which was explicitly about beatles recordings. it’s about the beatles as a live phenomenon, and the fact that their music was all the more remarkable because it had to be heard above the scream, that ambient sound of sex, excitement, and modernity, mixed with a slight screech of envy from the press. the scream was an important part of it. there are a lot of familiar beatles scenes without being sure, in places like shea stadium, if they could be heard at all. and the film proves that the sound system, such as it was, was just the stadium speakers. what fans heard was a slim, metallic parody. but that was not the point.
eight days a week is about what amounted to an almost non-stop semi-improvised multimedia performance for four years for which there was no pre-existing template, not just the music but the giant public spectacle and public scrutiny, the theater of arriving at airports, hotels, posing for endless photos and, most challenging of all, talking to journalists. With wit and good humor long before anything the press corps showed, the Beatles gave quick but affable responses to questions. Eddie Izzard comments curiously on his style. too clearly, with pointed questions about how long the group expected all this to continue, the press was waiting for what they deserved. it finally came, with john lennon’s comments about the beatles being bigger than christianity. not in the bible belt of the united states they were not. (A more accurate blasphemy would be to say that they were greater than shakespeare). The fight soured the already darkened mood of the exhausted Beatles and it was time to stop touring.
In a time before social media, the Beatles could do and say just about anything they wanted without it bouncing back. A wave of euphoria and happiness rolls off the screen, and Howard’s film rides that wave. If there’s a flaw in the film, it’s that it somehow doesn’t look at the Beatles’ wives. Three of them married or married in this period, and Linda Eastman met Paul towards the end of this period. surely her domestic lives were part of what complicated her sisterhood and made her eternal childhood untenable down the road.
There’s a lot of simple, moment-to-moment pleasure here. Howard offers familiar archival material but also new material: in particular, his final performance in Candlestick Park, San Francisco. The angelic faces of the Beatles are strangely fascinating: indeed, they looked like intergalactic creatures that found a home on our planet.