There is a single reason why The Beatles hitherto remain a subject largely untouched by documentarians. Quite simply, the story has been told to death. It is a well-reasoned argument that stems from the fact that a story is far more interesting if we don’t know the ending; even less so if we know the beginning, middle, end and every conversation along the way.
As a result, we have been treated to a flurry of fascinating documentary films in recent times on artists relatively unheard of to the general public: Rodriguez (Searching for Sugar Man), Anvil (Anvil! The Story of Anvil), under-celebrated back-up singers (20 Feet from Stardom); Phil Ochs (There But For Fortune). All excellent films that manage to capture the imagination of cinema-goers precisely because they tell a story as fresh as any fictional tale in the same media.
The Beatles are, however, one of the greatest bands of all time, taking over the world as clean-living heart-throbs that made radio-friendly sounds that were loved over the world. Their live performances were legendary and, at the time, revolutionary as they proved that rock bands could turn massive profits by putting in performances in large stadia.
It’s a story that has been told many times over and it would take a brave director to try to tell it in an interesting way that didn’t feel like retreading old ground. Fortunately, the man at the helm on the clumsily titled The Beatles: Eight Days a Week – The Touring Years is the one and only Ron Howard, the genius behind the likes of Cocoon, Apollo 13, A Beautiful Mind and Frost/Nixon.
It is a truly brilliant piece of documentary film-making, managing to tell the familiar story with a flurry of individual memories that bring to life again a rise to stardom that has not and will not ever be replicated. There are wonderful talking head contributions from the likes of Howard Goodall, Dr Kitty Oliver, Sigourney Weaver (who the editors managed to pick out from the crowd footage of the 1965 Hollywood Bowl performances) and Elvis Costello. It is Whoopi Goldberg’s retelling of her mother surprising her with a ticket to the Shea Stadium performance that really stuck out and showed the positive effect they were having on both small and large scales throughout their tours.
The real stars are The Fab Four themselves, and with hours and hours of footage recorded by a press hungry for a piece of them (a point touched on in the film by Paul McCartney), we are lucky enough to be able to build up a truthful story of what was happening to a level impossible for all other artists in the charts at the time. As Eddie Izzard points out, their ability to respond to heckling in press conferences puts them all up at the same level as professional comedians.
The film is centred around their live performances rather than their time in the studio and as such it was essential the largely bootlegged sound recordings from their gigs were remastered to a usable state. Up steps Giles Martin, son of the late George Martin, to ensure everything hits the mark. Audible for the first time in such high quality, these sound recordings are evidence that despite them not being able to hear themselves or each other play they still functioned as a wholly tight musical four-piece. All that hard work out in Hamburg seemed to have paid off, then.
It is a shame that the film cuts off in the middle of 1966 as the band released Revolver. They wound up their US tour in California, and it was a tour they were glad to see the back of. John Lennon had to painfully respond to the “bigger than Jesus” comments, there were death threats from the Ku Klux Klan and ticket sales were in decline (a point unsurprisingly missed out of the film). As a result, whilst Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band gets partial coverage, the albums Magical Mystery Tour, The Beatles (a.k.a. The White Album), Yellow Submarine, Abbey Road and Let It Be are covered in about 30 seconds, before a welcomed clip of their Abbey Road rooftop performance rounds thing off with them revisiting their glory days just before bowing out.
The film is genuinely crying out for a sequel to do justice to these missing years and perhaps beyond, though many of this is covered by the much-celebrated Anthology series released in 1995 but sadly still awaiting a Blu-ray release.
If you’re a fan of The Beatles then put this straight on your Christmas list as it will be a perfect trip down memory lane to revisit the greatest band of all time.