As the demands of stardom begin to mount in “Eight Days a Week,” Ron Howard’s immensely enjoyable new Beatles documentary, Paul McCartney is asked the weighty question of his band’s place in Western culture. “It’s not culture,” he replies dismissively. “It’s a good laugh.”
No doubt the answer was an honest one at the time as the Beatles’ formative years as a touring act, the focal point of the film, abounded with good cheer – that is until, as the present day McCartney narrates, performance life got “complicated.”
“Eight Days a Week” doesn’t abound with many hidden secrets into the band’s staggering popularity, especially from 1964 through 1966, when its performance profile hit its zenith and then its breaking point. Instead, it is a glorious retelling of a fabled pop saga. Fans that grew up the Beatles’ music will undoubtedly sense a nostalgic vibe that comes from watching a familiar rock phenomenon unfold. Younger fans will likely marvel at the detail within Howard’s telling of a tale they may only be casually acquainted with. Curiously, rock scholars and Beatles die-hards may wind up the happiest given how completely “Eight Days a Week” outlines the Beatles’ early years, whether its through nicely restored footage they’ve seen a thousand times or scrappier, previously unseen segments (mostly from overseas shows) that flesh out the pageantry.
The film begins with a brief primer on the Beatles’ work-a-day beginnings – specifically, a performance regimen that hones the band’s skills as live performers even as its early ‘60s music creates a stir. “Eight Days a Week” really gets cranking, though, when it hits 1964 with the Beatles’ performance debut in North America. McCartney remarks how wary he was of heading Stateside for fear failure or indifference here would do irreparable damage to an already mounting global popularity. Starr, however, views the maiden voyage to America as an open invitation, one where New York was opening its collective arms to the band before it even landed for the famed Ed Sullivan Show appearance.
“It was like, ‘Come on down, boys.’”
The central topic among the historians, musicians, activists and comedians interviewed in the film is that the world largely viewed the Beatles then as a bubble ready to pop. But the film’s overall presentation details a band maturing at a rate no one, not its critics and especially not its fanbase, could keep up with. Such seeming conflict is hesitantly confessed by Elvis Costello, who registered how initially taken aback he was by an initial listen to 1965’s “Rubber Soul,” the album the Beatles cut in the midst of all the performance hysteria that clearly signaled a move away from the more outward pop cheer of the band’s early music.
The bubble doesn’t so much burst as implode. It’s not the audience that gives up on the Beatles. Rather, it’s the band’s dissolution with the manic hysteria surrounding its live shows and the very public demand it remain the same living portrait of pop innocence it was in 1964. “It was like being a politician,” says John Lennon in an archival interview. “You were on 24 hours a day.”
The film takes the saga up through the studio creation of “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band,” the Beatles’ first album after retiring from performance duty and an affirmation of how stardom would only ascend for the band without the demands of touring.
Most already know this story. But just as “The Compleat Beatles” did so expertly in the ‘80s and “The Beatles Anthology” did with such inclusive detail in the ‘90s, “Eight Days a Week” offers a new generational portrait of the innocence and dissolution that forged the Beatles into a pop music colossus. In short, it is a story well worth repeating.
A footnote: screenings of “Eight Days a Week” come with a bonus – a restored print of “The Beatles at Shea Stadium,” a chronicle of the August 1965 performance that may stand as the greatest visual performance document of the band. “Eight Days a Week” details the highs, lows and tolls taken during the Beatles’ concert years. “Shea Stadium” is, in effect, the end result – a 30 minute capsule of pop hysteria and improbability all made incredibly real.