What Could We Possibly Learn from Ron Howard’s New Beatles Documentary?

These are not undocumented lives. What could 'Eight Days a Week' tell us that we don't already know?

An electrifying film about the Beatles is currently playing in select movie theaters across the country – thrilling and energetic, joyful and skilled, giving us a glimpse of these four iconic performers that we’ve never quite seen. There’s also a new Beatles documentary that you have to watch first. The good movie is The Beatles at Shea Stadium, a beautifully restored presentation of that full performance (all thirty minutes of it) from 1965. The other movie screening with it is The Beatles: Eight Days a Week – The Touring Years, covering (roughly) the period of 1963-1966, and telling the story of how the Beatles conquered the world. Again.

Let us be clear here: the Fab Four did not live undocumented lives. We have, first of all, the authorized (and still definitive) Beatles Anthology, which runs a staggering ten hours in eight parts. Before that, there was the efficient introduction The Compleat Beatles, and the Maysles Brothers’ non-fiction Hard Day’s Night, What’s Happening! The Beatles in the USA. Their story was retold in documentaries about John Lennon (Imagine: John Lennon; LennoNYC; The U.S. vs. John Lennon), George Harrison (Living in the Material World), and Paul McCartney (Wingspan). There’s a whole cottage industry of unauthorized straight-to-video “documentaries,” assembled from various public domain materials and soundalike recordings, with titles like Magical Mystery Tour Memories, Fun with the Fab Four, Rare and Unseen: The Beatles, and Paul McCartney Really is Dead: The Last Testament of George Harrison (yes, really). We’ve had Good Ol’ Freada, a documentary about their secretary; The Sixth Beatle, a documentary about their first promoter, just premiered at Toronto. So even as an officially sanctioned Apple Corps. Production, what could Eight Days a Week possibly add?

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The answer, unfortunately but unsurprisingly, is not much. We march through the familiar beats, of the boys slogging away in Hamburg, benefiting from the showmanship of Brian Epstein and the musical wizardry of George Martin, capturing American imagination in the immediate aftermath of the Kennedy assassination, watching the spread of Beatlemania from one country to another as they play bigger and bigger venues, but eventually finding themselves frustrated by the bubble existence of life on the road, and the limitations of performing to crowds who could barely hear them – particularly when they were beginning to make real strides in the studio.

If you’re a Beatles fan – and that’s who a movie like this is for – you’ve already seen most of this. Many of the aforementioned documentaries are excerpted liberally, particularly Anthology. There’s a modest sprinkling of lesser-seen archival material, some studio footage and chatter, a few funny TV interviews, some other nicely restored performances. But diehards (and I speak as one myself) will probably find themselves focusing more on stranger choices, like the odd call to colorize very familiar footage like the first U.S. press conference and the in-the-round D.C. performance from the lads’ first American swing; perhaps it’s meant to integrate the footage more seamlessly, but there’s plenty of black-and-white elsewhere, and the poor quality of the work renders it, more than anything else, a distraction. (Seriously, all the technological and cinematic advancements of the past thirty-plus years, and colorization somehow looks shittier now than it did in 1983?)

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The director is Ron Howard, a filmmaker for whom this viewer has plenty of affection – but he’s not enough of a distinctive voice to put a stamp on this material the way that, say, Scorsese did. And aside from the participants, his choices of interview subjects are downright bizarre (Love, Actually writer/director Richard Curtis?). He does manage to evocatively capture the way the stress and strangeness of their later tours began to crack their collective veneer. And he puts together one genuinely great sequence, placing the group in the context of the Civil Rights movement, noting how they spoke out against the fairly common Southern practice of concert seating segregation, put it into their tour rider, and insisted that rider be enforced at a gig in Jacksonville, Florida. Historian Dr. Kitty Oliver was at that show, and as she recalls the little charge of taking that seat, we feel a jolt too – because unlike so much else in the film, this is a story we haven’t been told.

Eight Days a Week is a co-production with Hulu, so it hit the streaming service Saturday, the day after its limited theatrical release. But unless you’re an absolute novice, it’s really only worth seeing in the theater; there is real experiential value in watching these performances on a big screen, with big sound. And the Shea Stadium film is only screening with it in theaters, so that settles that. The concert snippet itself is a real gem, giving us the rare opportunity (since they never made a proper, full concert film) to watch how they put on a show – how they programmed their sets, worked their crowd, reacted to the little dramas on the field and in the stands. We note their stagecraft, how the lead singer takes the solo microphone and the other two pair up on a second, except that Paul and John share the microphone on “Ticket to Ride” and “Baby’s in Black,” so they can nail those close harmonies. They laugh at their little mistakes and share private jokes, and in those interactions (surely invisible to the 56,000 people in the crowd), we see how their joy for performance – for the music, for each other – shines through. Usually, we don’t catch that stuff, because these performances are normally only seen in flashes. In documentaries.

The Beatles: Eight Days a Week – The Touring Years is currently streaming on Hulu and playing in select cities.