The Beatles: Eight Days A Week – The Touring Years

Directed by Ron Howard
Starring The Beatles
In UK Cinemas September 15th, 2016

by Michael Anderson

It’s fair to say that any new Beatles documentary better have one hell of an angle to justify itself, and from its title onwards Ron Howard’s Eight Days A Week: The Touring Years tries its utmost to convince you that it does. No Stu, no Yoko, no acid, no suitcases filled with Heinz baked beans: just the touring years, right. So, what exactly has turned up since the gargantuan 11+ hours of 1995’s Anthology which pretty much wrote, closed and sold heinously expensive editions of the book on Beatles docs? Footage, apparently, and plenty of it – yards and yards and yards of film, AV painstakingly remastered, shrieking audiences finally muted, every rivulet of mop-topped sweat lovingly captured.

To give the film’s USP its due, the unearthed songs are worth the wait, and not only for the performances. Ringo’s hastily rotated drumming plinth prior to a raucous ‘I Saw Her Standing There’ in the round at the Washington Coliseum illustrates just how on-the-hoof much of the operation was, the four remaining unflustered as roadies desperately manoeuvre them into position; while new scenes from the famous night at Shea Stadium capture how overwhelming those final tours were, the band unable to hear themselves, fans possessed, Beatlemania’s dangerous undercurrent spilling over barricades and making a beeline for the stage.

An interesting choice would maybe have stuck entirely to concert footage and allow The Beatles’ sheer cultural oomph to do the rest, but then I suppose we wouldn’t see a hysterical Brooklyn teen cry to a bemused reporter about George’s ‘sexy eyelashes’, while newly-discovered scenes of the lads themselves off-stage are effortlessly impressive. Whether it’s Paul deadpanning a journalist or George repeatedly tapping ash into John’s hair during an interview, their star power slaps you in the face and offers a stark reminder of just how bastardised our contemporary idea of celebrity has become.

More recent interviews of the four – John and George trapped in amber across the archives, Ringo a Jim Henson puppet, and Paul slightly stretched, hand on the tiller – are perfunctory but help to join the dots. Less successful are the misty-eyed talking heads; Richard Curtis, Sigourney Weaver and Whoopi Goldberg reminiscing about various gigs (one of them is surely lying… I was born in 1983 and can’t wait to tell grandkids that I was at the Cavern) and Malcolm Gladwell offering two superfluous sentences about The Beatles’ impact on youth culture. It was big, apparently – like really big…

…and therein lies the problem: whenever The Touring Years steps away from the immediacy of the four of them on stage, doing their thing, it acknowledges the existence of Everything Else and breaks its fourth wall. Sometimes, Everything Else gets a decent rep; the ground-breaking stance against segregation before Jacksonville and the fall-out from John’s ill-advised ‘Jesus’ comment, capped by excruciating footage of his (non-)apology, are both excellent combinations of commentary and footage.

They are the exceptions, however. Other token attempts at wider context – JFK / Vietnam / you know, the sixties – bring nothing fresh and more to the point avoid the question of just why the biggest band in the world ever stopped touring. Their glassy eyes as press conferences and interviews merge into one give a fair idea of how bored they were by the end, and we know that more satisfaction was to be found in the studio, but beyond this there is no real effort to either explore or move beyond the film’s own rigid framework. The impact of Yoko Ono and particularly of manager Brian Epstein’s death in 1967 (Epstein would have had a good go at corralling them back on stage as Apple spiraled into debt…) may have added layers and leavened the rather abrupt ending which sees Sgt. Peppers presented as the long-standing validation of The Beatles’ decision, a triumph of stoned studio chicanery over visceral musicianship.

The Touring Years final rooftop performance hints at what might have been, the four playing their famous windswept requiem as surprised passers-by congregate in Abbey Road below, mouths agape, atmosphere electric. It is a suitably bittersweet coda to a film which does exactly what it sets out to, but refuses to push the boundaries as its subjects surely would.





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