21 Sep 2016

Beatles for sale

From RNZ Music, 10:04 am on 21 September 2016

New documentary Eight Days A Week: The Touring Years gives a glimpse into life on the road with The Beatles between 1964 and 1966, but does it tell us anything we don’t already know?

Beatles 1964

Beatles 1964 Photo: Dominion Post

The story of the Beatles has been told more often than that of any other band in history. In its modest way, Good O’ Freda, the 2013 documentary about their fan club secretary, showed that there is still more to find out, by examining the story from a unique and personal point of view.

By contrast, Eight Days A Week: The Touring Years offers few if any revelations, in spite of its grander ambitions and privileged access.

Directed by Ron Howard, Eight Days A Week focuses on the pivotal years between 1964 and 1966, when the Beatles were touring the world. Those years saw the explosion of Beatlemania: mass displays of extreme emotion by thousands of mostly female fans. During that time the group achieved the fame and momentum that would allow them to go on to make experimental music such as the Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band album and have it heard by millions.

Explore: The Beatles 1964 New Zealand Tour

Some of the best material in the film comes from an earlier and more intimate movie, The First US Visit. Shot cinema verite-style in 1964 by Albert and David Maysles, these scenes show the Beatles in dressing rooms and hotels, watching themselves on television, still bemused by the scale of their own success.

Other footage reminds us how vulnerable they were. Their road crew usually numbered just two. At one arena concert we see the group on a revolving stage, with Ringo struggling helplessly between songs to rotate his own drum riser.

Ringo Starr - The Beatles

Ringo Starr - The Beatles Photo: Dominion Post

There are archival interviews with John Lennon and George Harrison, and new ones with surviving Beatles Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr. While McCartney and Starr’s storytelling has clearly been worn smooth by years of repetition, they still convey a touching sense of the camaraderie that helped them survive the dangerous business of being Beatles.

But Howard could have brought a fresh perspective to these often-repeated tales in his other interviews. He shows us the masses of unidentified young women at the centre of the mania. Wouldn’t it now be interesting to hear how some of them describe in hindsight what they went through? Or how those experiences have informed their lives over the subsequent half-century?

Beatles fans

Beatles fans Photo: Dominion Post

Unfortunately, Howard chooses to speak to celebrities rather than fans, and to more men than women. We get comedian Eddie Izzard and screenwriter Richard Curtis offering unnecessary confirmations of the Beatles’ greatness, and actors Sigourney Weaver and Whoopi Goldberg recalling the concerts they saw. Goldberg’s account is interesting, if only because she offers the perspective of a black American. In a country divided by race, the Beatles, she says, seemed to her to have no colour at all.

Howard doesn’t give screen time to the viewpoint, expressed by some black performers at the time, that the Beatles had taken both their music and their jobs.

He does, however, show that at a time when concerts in some southern states were still segregated, the Beatles had a clause written into their contracts specifying that they would not play to segregated audiences. Admirable though this is, he fails to note that black performers such as Sam Cooke and Ray Charles had already been bravely waging a boycott of segregated venues in the South for years before the Beatles showed up.

Which doesn’t mean there’s nothing here to enjoy. Much of the film is thrilling, mostly on account of the Beatles themselves. Combining well-known concert footage with previously unseen material sourced from amateur film-makers, it confirms what an unstoppable force they were on stage. A modern sound mix by Giles Martin cuts through the incessant roar of the crowds and compensates for the inadequate sound systems of the day, making the music far more powerful and present than it would have sounded at the actual concerts.

Excerpts from interviews and press conferences – again, mostly seen before – remind us of their razor wit, and how they subverted the traditional image of the pop star.

The film clearly illustrates the Beatles’ trajectory from innocence to experience over those few brief years. At their first US press conferences they are hilarious and charming; just over two years later they are exhausted, frustrated and embattled. There has been the John Lennon ‘Beatles are more popular Jesus’ furore, and the incident in the Philippines where the Beatles snubbed an invitation from the ruler Ferdinand Marcos, preferring to take a day off than visit the kleptocrat and his wife. Yet, once again, Howard doesn’t follow the story through to its conclusion. As told in the 1995 Anthology television series, the snub had violent consequences, with the Beatles being assaulted and bullied by military personnel as they made their way to their departing plane – details Howard swerves away from.

The last three years of the Beatles’ career, in which they reinvented themselves - and rock music - with elaborate studio creations, are briefly summarised on our way to the finale: their final live performance to an unsuspecting London, from the roof of the Apple building in early 1969.

Howard has made a feel-good movie that will leave audience smiling. But as a multitude of previous and better-made documentaries have hinted, the Beatles story is more complicated and interesting than that.