'The Beatles: Eight Days a Week': Film Review

Eight Days a Week Beatles Poster H 2016
White Horse Pictures

Eight Days a Week Beatles Poster H 2016

A great-sounding primer.

Ron Howard chronicles the tours that carried the Beatles around the world, and burned them out.

A more conventional music doc than his previous entry into the field, the Jay-Z team-up Made in America (2013), Ron Howard's The Beatles: Eight Days a Week supplies a month-by-month account of the band's brief tenure (shockingly short by today's standards) as a live band. Predictably full of great performing footage and incorporating new interviews with the too-few surviving witnesses, the doc may hold few revelations for baby boomers and their kids, who've had ample opportunities to revisit the material. But it will make a fine entry point for younger auds who grew up with the songs but never had Beatlemania shoved down their throats. Prospects on Hulu seem stronger than in theaters, though a theatrical bid one day before the film's Sept. 17 digital release will surely drum up attention.

While Howard made his presence felt in Made in America, he leaves no mark here, delivering an almost impersonal doc whose biggest departure from music-bio expectations is (as in the previous film) its attention to race. Whoopi Goldberg shows up to talk about how she "felt like I could be friends with" the Fab Four as a kid, despite the color of her skin. (She also recalls how her mother surprised her with impossible-to-get tickets to 1965's famous Shea Stadium concert.) African-American historian Kitty Oliver brings personal perspective to talk of how the band refused to allow Southern promoters to segregate the audience at their shows.

Thinking back on that political stand, Paul McCartney recalls that, for the Beatles, all big decisions had to be unanimous. (In a vintage interview clip, George Harrison agrees.) The group's esprit de corps is a natural focus for a film charting the toll that touring took, and Eight Days easily captures both the anarchic fun times of their first months in America in 1964 (their comic chemistry when dealing with the press is hardly unknown, of course) and the grind that set in two years later, after they had started to have lives as individuals, and being carted away from stadiums in an armored truck wasn't as exciting as it once might have been. "That's enough of that," was the general sentiment — advanced most strongly by Harrison, we're told — and the band retreated to the studio, at which point Howard puts the film in wrap-up mode.

But before he gets there, the filmmaker gives us many scenes of the band playing together live; reportedly much of this material is rare, though it's hard to imagine how it has gone unexploited in the half-century since the last Beatles tour. We see them play "I Saw Her Standing There" for a Washington, D.C., crowd in 1964 (the footage looks like B&W film that has been colorized); watch them at the Hollywood Bowl, where an insert from the crowd shows a young Sigourney Weaver in close-up (she tells Howard now that she "was in love with John"); and bear witness to some lackluster performances near the end, when McCartney admits they were "going through the motions." The sound in general is excellent, though one telling scene imagines what it was like for those in the back of the crowd at Shea, listening to the group through a PA system made for baseball games. (The Vox company made new amps for the group to use in unprecedentedly large venues, but these could hardly compete with tens of thousands of Beatlemaniacs.)

Howard's interviews with outsiders generally offer insight (though do we really need a sound bite from Malcolm Gladwell about the birth of youth culture?), and journalist Larry Kane, who was sent on tour with the band, is especially helpful. We get just enough about the rigors of meeting the public's demand for new records to explain what a whirlwind of work the years 1964-1966 were for these young men, making their decision to retreat easy to understand. Viewers wanting to learn more can, of course, find it elsewhere, like the six-hour Anthology miniseries that remains in print on DVD.

Distributor: Abramorama
Production companies: Imagine Entertainment, Apple Corps, White Horse Pictures
Director: Ron Howard
Screenwriter: Mark Monroe
Producers: Nigel Sinclair, Scott Pascucci, Brian Grazer, Ron Howard
Executive producers: Jonathan Clyde, Guy East, Nicholas Ferrall, Jeff Jones, Michael Rosenberg
Director of photography: Michael Wood
Editor: Paul Crowder

Not rated, 99 minutes