How do you even begin to break down the immense mythology of a group widely considered to be the greatest of all time into something digestible and accessible but also still reverent? The eight years of musical, visual, historical, economical, political and social impact The Beatles left behind looms like a giant block of marble that should only intimidate any author or documentarian foolish enough to try and mold it into a singular experience that does the group justice.
And yet in truth, it’s insanely difficult to craft a bad movie around the story of the Fab Four. For all of the pomp and circumstance surrounding the band’s legacy, any filmmaker who deigns to cover the band’s story essentially has the perfect subjects: four of the most affable, down-to-earth, creative and interesting people who ever walked the Earth. The filmmakers have a smorgasbord of every kind of song imaginable at their disposal to set a mood or tone, a majority of which are already in pop music’s pantheon of greatest ever. So really you’ve only got yourself to blame if you can make a bad film with all of that at your disposal.
With that said, at this point in history it is much easier to make a boring film about The Beatles. After so many books and documentaries covering every inch and aspect of The Beatles’ career, at some point a hardcore fan can only get so much out of a “new” interpretation a storyteller tries to craft out of that eight year marble block without some hint of what’s already come before.
And Ron Howard’s latest documentary begins dangerously on that cusp of blandness, threatening to turn into just a shiny new coat of paint on the same storyline even the most casual of Beatles fan is conscious of. The montage of those rough n’ tumble nights in Hamburg coupled with their subsequent haircuts/suits that led to Please Please Me’s chart-topping overnight success... it threatens on yada-yada-yada territory before the real fun actually begins.
Where Eight Days a Week begins to differentiate itself is in making you feel the absolute and all-consuming chaos of an event that was The Beatles’ touring years. A treasure trove of great concert material has been carefully remastered and restored for this documentary (a perfect justification for the film’s existence if you really needed one) and the footage of swaths of young people screaming their heads off, rushing stages, and evading police makes you feel just how singular an experience the Beatles were in history. Nothing had ever happened like this before and nothing would ever again.
The baby boomer generation was desperate for a way to express themselves, and these unassuming, charming lads with similar haircuts and incredible songwriting and vocal abilities came along and changed everything,These four young men were at the center of the world’s biggest cultural maelstrom and somehow trying to maintain their own sanity. The film runs you through the elation of Ed Sullivan and Shea Stadium all the way through to the bitter end at the KKK rallies in Memphis and the miserable Candlestick park final gig.
Their cheery and cheeky demeanor on that electric first tour of America heartbreakingly contrasted with the weariness of the magnifying glass is the film’s biggest success. It makes the mere existence of any Beatles music that followed the madness of their touring years seem like a God-given miracle.
The film wisely chooses to focus on the band’s overwhelming unity during these progressively trying times and puts a sunny disposition on the group’s overall dynamic. It’s nice to have a Beatles documentary that pits The Beatles against the world when so many others like to focus on their internal battles that came later. Those touring years, as Ringo mentions in the film, were when The Beatles had to look out for each other first and foremost. So while it may feel dishonest to exclude the turmoil of their later studio work, it’s impossible to deny the bond the Fab Four shared with one another.
There’s a few glaring omissions in terms of Beatles lore, in particular manager Brian Epstein is paid an abysmal amount of lip service considering how especially important he was to the success of this period of the Beatles career and in terms of interviewees, there’s hardly much on offer that hasn’t been stated better elsewhere (for instance the only real archival interview footage with George comes from the superior if exhaustive Beatles Anthology), and a few subjects may leave you scratching your head about their inclusion but overall it’s good fun and good-natured even if it doesn’t forge a brand new vision of history.
While hardcore fans familiar with most of these intimate details may not find anything revelatory here, it’s worth the price of admission for the glut of restored and remastered footage of some classic Beatles concerts and if you’re able to see it in theaters, the entire Shea Stadium concert plays following the movie, fully restored in 4K with remastered sound. It goes down like a smooth, soothing ale for those of us already under the Fab Four’s spell, while still providing those looking for an accessible entry point to the Beatles’ early career with a satisfying result.