Film review – The Beatles: Eight Days a Week, The Touring Years (Ron Howard, 2016)

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.

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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.

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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.

Eight Days a Week is available to purchase as a special edition Blu-ray and a standard DVD.

Those Magnificent Men in their Flying Machines; Or, How I Flew from London to Paris in 25 Hours 11 Minutes (Ken Annakin, 1965)

On 14th July 1965, NASA’s Mariner 4 spaceship performed the first flyby of Mars, returning the first ever pictures of another planet and providing Earth with closeup observations of the surface. It was a time where the world was gripped by the space race, seeing two world powers at loggerheads to prove their technological superiority.

Just one month earlier, Ken Annakin’s epic ensemble comedy Those Magnificent Men in their Flying Machines hit cinemas globally. A homage to the beginnings of manned flight, the story follows fourteen pilots in brilliant replicas of 1910 aircraft as they attempt to fly from London to Paris (via Dover) to win a £10,000 prize put up by Lord Rawnsley (Robert Mawley), a British newspaper magnate. Mixing madcap humour with a loving recreation of the excitement once felt by the world for the flying machines now seen as highly primative, the film not only captured the essence of 1910 but also the imagination of the 1965 cinema-going public.

One of the main threads that runs throughout the film is the love triangle between the magnate’s daughter Patricia Rawnsley (Sarah Miles), her fiancé Richard Mays (James Fox) and rugged American Orvil Newton (Stuart Whitman), the latter two of which are also competing in the race. This thread serves as a springboard for a small amount of humour but allows the bigger laughs to be built around this central plot.

Many of the other characters conform to the national stereotypes: the Prussian Colonel Manfred von Holstein (Gert Fröbe, fresh from his titular role as bond villain Goldfinger) can’t do anything without a set of instructions; French womaniser Pierre Dubois (Jean Pierre Cassel) spends the whole film flirting with identical women (all played by Irena Demick) from different European countries in one of the film’s best running gags; Yamamoto (Japanese megastar Yujiro Ishihara) is a well-spoken Japanese naval officer who all the competitors fear will easily win the race. Elsewhere there are rewarding cameos from Tony Hancock, Benny Hill and Eric Sykes.

The main theme tune contains a highly infectious melody that has remained in the public conscience far beyond the popularity of the film itself. Ron Goodwin’s music is introduced alongside a humorous caricatured animation provided by Ronald Searle and it serves as the perfect introduction to the film. Beware – it gets stuck in your head and will refuse to leave for days.

There's a hint of Wacky Races throughout.

There’s a hint of Wacky Races throughout.

Whilst the concept behind Those Magnificent Men in their Flying Machines closely follows It’s A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World – released two years earlier in 1963 – to dismiss it as a carbon copy is to do it a disservice. There’s more on offer here than a simple rehash.

It also spawned a sequel that would be more easily associated to this film but for the fact its name was changed for most releases from Those Daring Young Men in Their Jaunty Jalopies to Monte Carlo or Bust. That film has a nearly identical premise, with many reprised roles, but is set around cars rather than planes.

There’s plenty on offer here to warrant a first viewing and those that grew up with it won’t be disappointed by revisiting it.

Those Magnificent Men and Their Flying Machines is available to buy now from Amazon on extortionate Blu-ray or DVD.

[Note] Huge thanks to Ahoy Small Fry for the recommendation on this!