THE BEATLES: EIGHT DAYS A WEEK (2016)
Directed by Ron Howard
Abramorama/Hulu (97minutes—127* mins. with concert footage; Not Rated)
Think you know everything about The Beatles? Even if you actually do, see Ron Howard's stunning documentary spotlighting the band's touring years from 1962 to 1966. This film deserves to be ranked among the greatest music documentaries of all time, and it might be the best film Ron Howard has yet made.
Howard has made some decent films, but he can be like Ken Burns when he's more gee whiz than that's how it is. Not this time. The documentary's unstated theme is an affirmation of William Wadsworth Longfellow's dictum, "whom the gods would destroy they first make mad." Few filmmakers have before captured mass hysteria as well as Howard. His is a veritable Day of the Locust populated by swooning teens, paparazzi, clueless adults, and calculating music industry titans. It comes to us on–breathe slowly, graying friends–the 50th anniversary of the Beatles' last official concert.
Howard mines a familiar tale, but as the Brits say, it's what he's done with it. Howard assumes his audience will know a lot about the band's rise from the slums of Liverpool to Berlin to the top of the pop charts. For that reason, he chooses to mess with chronology. The film actually opens in 1963, and then flashes back or springs forward depending upon the threads he wishes to tease out. In this Howard accomplishes a delicate balancing act–he imposes structure on chaos. Once we get the idea that The Beatles were as much an out-of-control phenomenon as a highly polished musical act, Howard lulls us back to a more conventional narrative. There are, though, a few surprising insights, beginning with the fact that our four Liverpudlians were very ambitious–none more so than John Lennon. A few others emerge. Ringo Starr is sometimes maligned, but all three of his mates viewed him as the reason the band gelled. Perhaps the biggest revelation is that, without ever making an overt comment, Howard lays to rest the hoary myth that some sort of rift between Paul and John did in The Beatles. For three magic years (1962-65) the band could do no wrong: albums and hit singles flowed like wine, concert crowds swelled, and the money poured in. It's imprecise to say that hubris took over, given how successful and beloved The Beatles became, but the hidden costs of fame certainly exacted a toll. We watch four very close friends go from carefree to world-weary before our eyes. Or should I say their eyes? Their fresh faces, Edwardian sheen, and sparkling gazes gave way to worried brows, grungy appearances, and eye bags. Forget all those Yoko Ono the Destroyer stories; The Beatles unleashed a pop culture tidal wave that had to crest and crash.
George Harrison was the first to burn out, stating in 1965 that touring simply wasn't any fun any more. There is a marked contrast between the first Ed Sullivan Show appearance in February of 1964 and the 1965 Shea Stadium concert (which youthful Whoppi Goldberg attended). At Shea, the boys are like deer in the headlights. Ringo relates that they had no monitors and that the crowd was screaming so loudly that they couldn't hear each other and Starr kept the beat by watching the movements of John's rear end. No one else heard very well either. Shea was the first stadium rock concert and amps and mics were simply pumped into the stadium PA system! The sound editing for this film is terrific, however–you'll hear concert footage in your theater seat far better than anyone in the day could. But the overall craziness of the touring years was such that you wonder why The Beatles went on the road for as long as they did. Short answer: By 1965 they were no longer just as band; The Beatles were a commodity with as many shares in the hands of others as their own. And then they stopped. Aside from the famed 1969 appearance on Apple Corps' rooftop, The Beatles appeared only in studios–where they made some of the finest music Western society has ever produced.
Any movie that tells a story we already know and keeps us enthralled is a great film. If Paul Crowder doesn't win an Oscar for editing, the Academy should be collectively arrested for theft. He and Howard deftly patch archival footage, stills, interviews, and subtle animation in stunning ways. Watch carefully for moving smoke in several stills, and pay very close attention when the cacophonous opening of "A Day in the Life" starts, as it's the build up to a truly inspired piece of editing.
This film will make Baby Boomers feel young again and might make Millennials suspect they missed something really special. They did! Pay no attention to snobby revisionists who whine that The Beatles didn't matter or that they were overrated. Howard's film drives home the depth of their mastery and impact. It also provides amazing insights into pop culture, who controls it, and what happens when nobody does. Oh yeah—think about the movie/song title after you see the film. Just make sure you do.
* The documentary is 97 minutes, but watch the credits. When I do an interview, I seldom get more complex than asking, "Is it okay if I tape this?" Count how many people were needed to do Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr interviews that are just talking heads, and ponder whether stars control their own destinies. After the credits roll, watch the 30-minute edited version of the 1965 Shea Stadium concert.