I can’t remember when I first knew of the Beatles but I do know that by the time they made their American TV debut on The Ed Sullivan Show in February 1964, I already knew the words to “She Loves You”. I was only five years old at the time.
Almost one year later, in January 1965, my family and I were driving back home to Toronto after a vacation in Florida. I remember us stopping in Buffalo, NY, for dinner. Near the restaurant was a record store and my mother thought it would be a good idea to buy my brother an LP for his tenth birthday, which was just a few days away. She didn’t know what music he would like but I did. I picked out the Beatles’ “Something New”, which was released about six months earlier. Beatlemania had taken hold in our home. (I’m not sure where that album is today. It disappeared along with our “HELP!” album years ago.)
Ron Howard’s (A BEAUTIFUL MIND; APOLLO 13) new documentary, THE BEATLES: EIGHT DAYS A WEEK – THE TOURING YEARS, looks back at the Beatles’ career through a very narrow window – 1962 (just days after Ringo joined the group) to 1967 (and the release of “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band”), which were the few years when the four lads from Liverpool toured together. There have already been five other documentaries on the Fab Four so the obvious question going into this film is whether it would tell us anything that we didn’t already know. The answer is yes, it does, but not much. Fortunately though, what is new is pure gold.
Because of its narrow focus, the film conveniently avoids mentioning Pete Best and Stu Sutcliffe, the former who preceded Ringo as the group’s drummer before he was kicked out by manager Brian Epstein, and the latter — a base guitarist — who died in 1962 of a cerebral hemorrhage at age 21. It also avoids mentioning Epstein’s death by drug overdose in 1967. In fact, the whole drug issue with the group is quickly glossed over, saying that the boys were high on marijuana while they were filming HELP! In reality, though, they were regularly taking barbiturates to stay awake in order to perform at their late night concerts in the early years and, by 1967, they were already well acquainted with LSD and other hallucinogenic drugs. Also not mentioned were John’s and George’s wives, though they may not have toured with them.
Where the film really succeeds is showing the boys as fun-loving but hard-working musicians, who were, first and foremost, best friends. There are plenty of scenes with them joking around with the press, partying it up after their shows, and knowing full well what makes the girls in the audience shriek with delight. (In case you didn’t already know, it’s the hair shake thing.) Because their recording contracts were so heavily skewed toward making money for Capitol Records and not them, they made a conscious decision to tour extensively in those early years. That was money that went mostly into their pockets. And, beginning in America, they played to crowds the sizes of which were never seen before. At the same time, Paul and John wrote scores of songs, many of which became huge hits not just for the group but for others as well. On April 4, 1964, their recordings occupied the top five slots in the Billboard Hot 100.
The film also does extremely well with the 4K remastering of the archival footage, which was a mixture of 8 mm film, TV and more. The music, too, some of which came from audio cassette, sounds amazing in the cinema. It may be that the music that we hear at their concerts was overdubbed though. As someone says in the film, the group performed at Shea Stadium using 100-watt amplifiers. The sound that the audience would have heard that day would have been akin to listening to 100 transistor radios at the same time. I don’t think that any amount of digitisation would result in what we hear with the film. In any case, the music is glorious and any Beatles fan would be hard-pressed not to sing along.
For people (like me) who grew up with the Beatles, this film really is a blast from the past. (I was one of the younger people watching the movie in my audience.) It’s fun, it’s joyful, it’s a rocking and it’s a rolling.
There has never been a group like the Beatles before and there probably never will be again. They created most of the soundtrack to the Baby Boomer generation.
Make sure to stick around at the end of the film because there is a 30-minute clip of the Beatles’ 1965 concert at Shea Stadium in NY. The film has been colourised (the original film was in black & white) and it looks and sounds great!
Listen to the review online on Radio 4. (Click on the link. Select Part 2 and slide the time bar over to 32:25.)
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