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There once was a time when the members of The Beatles believed they would never make it big. They would go in circles, getting depressed and pumping themselves back up. They were determined but realistic.
We all know what happened with that.
In a departure from his usual feature work, Ron Howard dove into documentary filmmaking to stitch together The Beatles: Eight Days a Week—The Touring Years. Rare and previously unseen fan and archival footage of Paul, John, George, and Ringo from 1963 to ’66 compose the film, with commentary from McCartney and Starr as well as older video of the late Harrison punctuating the performances and interviews from more than five decades ago.
The result is a treat. “By the end, it got quite complicated, but at the beginning, things were really simple,” McCartney now says of the remarkably short 10 years the band was together. The early shows—actually, all of the shows—are lively and engaging, the Fab Four having nearly as much fun as their shrieking, mostly female fan base. McCartney comments that for some reason, young women would go crazy when the singers would vigorously shake their heads, such as during the “hand” part of “I want to hold your hand!” And the footage backs that up.
The interviews are just as entertaining, with the teenage guys acting like stand-up comedians, rarely taking questions seriously and proving lightning-quick with witty answers. McCartney said, “It wasn’t culture. It was a good laugh”—in other words, the joyfulness one feels when your hobby first becomes your career. When he claims that they “partied” whenever a single or album hit No. 1, Howard follows the comment with a photo of the four having a pillow fight.
Eight Days a Week is more than just a concert film, however. Whoopi Goldberg is one of the outsiders who provides some insight into the phenomenon that was Beatlemania. “They were The Beatles. They were colorless,” she says, still giddy at the memory of seeing them live. In Jacksonville, the group integrated the Gator Bowl for the first time, refusing to play shows at venues that segregated audiences. McCartney recalls regarding segregation as “mad” and “stupid”: “You can’t treat other human beings like animals,” he says. Larry Kane, a DJ who was embedded with the band on one of its early tours, remarks that the four were “very sensitive to other people’s feelings”—undoubtedly why McCartney and Lennon were able to easily write close to 300 songs, many of which are as popular today as they were when they first dominated the charts.
As history attests, however, Beatlemania took its toll on the jubilant young men. The hysteria first frustrated Lennon, who claimed that the song “Help!” was autobiographical. Of course, he later also claimed that The Beatles were bigger than Christ; by 1966, McCartney says, “[Touring] felt dangerous.” At its Shea Stadium gig in August of that year—playing in front of 56,000 fainting fans and ushering in the era of arena concerts—Starr says he had to watch his bandmates’ feet and swaying hips during the performance to know where they were in a song because they couldn’t hear themselves. Harrison said that their existence turned into a “freak show,” adding that “music no longer mattered.”
Despite this unraveling, however, Howard ends the documentary buoyantly, following The Beatles’ return to the studio (where the band practically reinvented themselves) and capping the film with the group’s famous rooftop performance. There, they were long-haired and decked out in fur coats, the sight quite a departure from the innocent teen moptops in suits that they once were. But true fans knew what to do: Let it be.
The Beatles: Eight Days a Week—The Touring Years opens today at The AFI Silver and The Avalon.