So Sir Paul and Sir Ringo decide to make a documentary on The Beatles’ brief but tumultuous touring history. Academy Award-winning director Ron Howard is approached to direct. You get the opportunity to mix the movie’s sound. I can imagine that, like Beatlemania itself, your experience was both exhilarating and overwhelming.
This is the biggest band in the world, after all.
Even 50 years later, the term “bigger than The Beatles” is still purely hyperbolic. So it’s difficult to fathom that there might still be something we don’t know about the band’s meteoric rise to fame. Their story has become so much of what we understand about the Sixties, rock and roll, youth culture, and the shift of the collective consciousness, that it’s almost impossible not to take them for granted. The Beatles Eight Days a Week: The Touring Years filters through this white noise to give context to a phenomenon that all these years later still seems unbelievable.
Through restored footage and new interviews, the documentary pieces together a closer look at the brief time that the band extensively toured. Howard focuses the narrative on the live shows, beginning with performances for their 1962 album Please, Please Me, until their final show at Candlestick Park in San Francisco in 1966.
When it comes to mixing the Beatles live shows, there’s one instrument that matters most: the screaming. The sheer hysteria The Beatles inspired was literally unprecedented, and, we learn, was something “the lads” themselves didn’t quite understand. Even with five decades to reflect on it, the interviews with Paul and Ringo reveal that they are still quite mystified by much of what transpired in the early days. Paul admits that much of their success is due to the vision of their manager, Brian Epstein, which, he says, “was beyond the vision we had of ourselves.”
Howard (and by extension, you) manages to make hearing The Beatles playing live seem revelatory. He doesn’t always show them singing their most popular songs, and he lets the songs play out. It allows us to see just how in sync they were, despite the fact that they could rarely even hear each other. Ringo reveals how he would sometimes have to watch John’s and Paul’s asses shake to know where they were in the song. Throw in the fact that many of the stadiums had no monitors (the sound was played on garbage P.A. speakers), and, as one interviewee suggests (and you might agree), you can truly appreciate just how in tune they were.
As a pretty substantial Beatles fan, I also thought I was in tune with their history. But through the film, I found out that it was law enforcement that urged The Beatles management to hold shows in stadiums – a concept never before imagined. They worried that playing at 8000-seat auditoriums would mean being responsible for the safety of 20,000 more fans outside. Nor did I realize that the Beatles refused to play segregated stadiums in the Southern U.S. It made me respect them even more.
By the end of the film, Howard amplifies the hysterical fervour to match the band’s growing disenchantment with performing live. So when the band finally decides to focus solely on recording, it comes as a relief. Their camaraderie is most evident in the studio, when they’re experimenting with new sounds and new personas. Looking at what is now considered archaic recording equipment, and hearing the first cuts of a song like “Tomorrow Never Knows”, it’s obvious that quitting touring allowed them to make music no one else was making. The changed the way music was played, and then they changed the way music was made.
This doc isn’t pretending to be anything but hagiographic, but despite its obvious fandom, it does a great job of reminding us just how ground breaking and popular the Beatles really were. More so than Elvis, and yes, maybe even Jesus.