Film Review: The Beatles: Eight Days a Week – The Touring Years

on September 13, 2016, 5:21pm

It’s to the benefit of The Beatles: Eight Days a Week – The Touring Years, Ron Howard’s documentary about the band’s paradigm-shifting touring years in the 1960s, that the film makes its way through the formative stuff in fairly quick fashion. The Beatles have had more written, said, shot, recorded, and otherwise documented about them that working through the paces of their humble beginnings once again would inevitably struggle to offer anything that somebody hasn’t already dug up somewhere else, at greater length. People just wanted to know, and still want to know, everything they possibly can about the four Liverpudlians. They were truly just a phenomenon, and remain so, and the real joy of Howard’s documentary lies in the sheer amount of footage he assembles to illustrate that point.

There’s a lot of joy to go around in Eight Days a Week, to such a degree that the film might have verged on feeling like a puff piece, were it not about perhaps the only rock band that’s ever wholly justified the endless time spent fixated upon it. As it stands, the film is a functioning chronicle of the three-year timeframe from 1963 to 1966 in which the Beatles played 250 shows, touring endlessly as they became the biggest band, and then the biggest cultural flashpoint, of their time. Howard assembles a robust set of talking heads for the project, and front and center are Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr, who to their credit deliver lively, engaged interviews about watching themselves become the biggest band in the world with every succeeding stop along the tour route. (George Harrison and John Lennon weigh in as well through archival footage, where they can; Lennon in particular is barely present outside of the performance footage and a handful of interview soundbites.)

Howard also gathers relevant figures from the era, whether through interviews or, if that’s impossible, through some remarkably candid footage of the band in their rare, treasured downtime, much of which they appear to have spent sequestered in hotel rooms, trying to retain some sense of stillness and sanity in a world they were seemingly helping to drive mad. And it’s because that touring schedule happened to align with such a fraught period in world history, particularly in the U.S., that Eight Days a Week ends up having to rope in a lot of digressions during its runtime. Howard tries to keep the film moving briskly, but when he stops to linger on the controversy surrounding the band’s scraps with the Catholic Church, or the productions of both A Hard Day’s Night and Help!, portions of the film feel almost tangential

Yet, this approach is successful more often than it’s not. The most striking parallel that Howard draws during the film is the band’s role in the subversion of the American 1960s, as they evolved from foreigners to passive observers to enlightened world travelers and, in some cases, activists. Given their standing as an integral part of the era’s cultural dialogues, in their way, Eight Days a Week is sometimes able to bring the Beatles’ status as a transcendent force, a beacon of optimism in a fraught and often violent time for so many nations, to the forefront. There’s something truly sublime about watching the band perform at Shea Stadium in 1965, before a mass of crying, overwhelmed fans, that conveys everything at which Howard is aiming. At one point Whoopi Goldberg, who attended that show, touches on them as being “colorless,” and it’s meant in the most ostensibly unifying sense of that phrasing. Lennon could draw that infamous parallel between his band and the Catholic Church, because at one time, to some people, they mattered just as much. In the film’s (accurate) view, they not only transcended so many woes of the time, but actively impacted them.

Even though much of the material on hand is a matter of well-documented public record, quite a bit of the found footage isn’t, and Eight Days a Week reconstructs the tour as well as it can, using photographs and restored video footage, the latter of which is sometimes remarkable. There’s footage from a 1964 show in Liverpool at a soccer stadium, where before the band has even come out to play, the immense crowd kicks into a raucous singalong of “She Loves You.” There’s even older (and grainy) footage of an impossibly young version of the band performing at the Cavern Club, a post-WWII dive in Liverpool. There’s the band performing in Australia, at Budokan, at that Shea Stadium show with the band’s set being piped in through the bellowing mid-‘60s PA system for those in the upper-deck seats. Howard is able to assemble a strikingly immersive experience using this footage, and for all of the film’s discussion of how important this all was, it never feels more so than when all the noise and hindsight dies down and he’s able to capture the Beatles as they’re horsing around in the studio, or bantering onstage between songs. When they’re at their most natural, and human, and free of all the mythos that would come to exist aroudn them.

Eight Days a Week will be of most value to die-hard and casual fans of the band alike, but it’s also a reasonably effective primer on them for anyone who might not yet be initiated, and it even concludes with the band’s famed, final rooftop performance in 1969, before any of the sadder things happened. It’s a snapshot, but an articulate one, and one that pays fine homage to its iconic subject along the way. And some of that footage cannot be adequately oversold. To that point, stick around after the documentary’s credits, and you’ll get to enjoy 30 minutes of that Shea Stadium set, remastered in 4K. The most fascinating images aren’t those of the crowd rushers, or the mad dash to evacuate the band from the stadium as quickly as possible after it’s over. It’s not even the handful of people watching, engaged but bored, unaware of the history they’re seeing. It’s the band’s set, and it’s exceptional; the Beatles are one of the all-time great, relentless live acts, and that’s as memorable a takeaway from Eight Days a Week as any. They were just a great rock band, making great songs, at the time in which they were most needed. And that confluence, in the way it existed then, never can or probably will again. But it happened once, and some of it was even on film.

(Note: Eight Days a Week will also be available to stream on Hulu as of September 17.)