A month or so ago, while at my daughter’s house, in one of my first forays into on-demand television, I stumbled across Ron Howard’s 2016 Beatles documentary “Eight Days a Week: The Touring Years.” It was an hour and 45-minutes well spent, very entertaining — how could it not be, for someone who turned 14 the year that the Fab Four exploded on the American scene?
But it only teased me, and within a couple days I was thinking about getting the DVD so I could spend more time with the movie (and also write about it in this space, of course). And the availability of a deluxe package — including paperback book and a second DVD of special features — sealed the deal.
Howard, of course, is the child-actor (Opie in “The Andy Griffith Show,” Ritchie Cunningham in “Happy Days”) who grew up to be an Academy Award-winning movie director (“Cocoon,” “Apollo 13,” “A Beautiful Mind,” “The Da Vinci Code”). “Eight Days a Week” is thus unsurprisingly well done.
But Howard’s introduction to the included (but all-too-short) book shows that it wasn’t just another motion picture project to him. He writes that he was 10 (and about halfway into his tenure on the “Griffith Show”) when he saw the Beatles’ February 1964 American live TV debut on “The Ed Sullivan Show,” and that he was a big fan immediately.
Howard’s seven pages of commentary (less than a quarter of the book) is less fan chatter, and more reflection on how he approached the film. He talks about his fascination, as a movie director, with how small groups of people handle difficult situations (vis “Apollo 13”).
Which sets up his detailing the grueling schedule, mostly on the road and performing live, and lifestyle the Fab Four endured in “The Touring Years” (1962-66): 350 gigs (in terms of venues, but perhaps 800 actual performances) in four years, plus recording some 120 songs (hit single after hit single) on seven albums.
But Howard also addresses the Beatles’ impact on culture worldwide, particularly the rapidly-growing (because of the coming of age of the Baby Boom generation) youth culture. Those themes are expanded upon by music journalist Jon Savage, who made his name during the Punk Rock era, in the balance of the book.
Savage goes into more detail about the Beatles’ touring lives, but also the recording of the albums and singles, and the group’s increasing emphasis on studio work. Not exactly scintillating prose, but Savage’s writing offers detail and depth that most people will find new and interesting.
Ditto, for the main disc. A lot of the video likely has been publicly available before, but Howard and Co. have cleaned it up — converted it to HD, or whatever — and arranged it to tell the story. The concert, backstage, press conference and other footage is complemented by explanatory/cameo appearances by the likes of Elvis Costello, Whoopi Goldberg, composer Howard Goodall, Simon Schama (author of an excellent series of books, made into a TV series, on the history of Great Britain) and Sigourney Weaver.
Goldberg and Weaver attended early U.S.-tour concerts; the former, who I’ve never particularly liked, comes across in her comments as much more likable. The movie basically concludes with that wonderful rooftop performance from “Let It Be” — the Beatles’ final live show.
The bonus disk, as one of its segments is called, takes “A Deeper Dive” into the group’s history, career, songwriting and music. Goodall goes more into the weeds on musical styles and influences, and there are full-length live performances, more interviews with notables, etc.
While the DVDs chronicle in detail the touring years, Howard emphasizes the increasing importance of their studio work. But because of emphasis on the recording and the technology involved, we tend to forget that the Beatles were originally a performing rock and roll band that had played together live something like 1,200 times before cutting their first album.
“Eight Days a Week: The Touring Years” brings the viewer back to that fact. The ability, energy and enthusiasm they brought to the stage during their live performances jumps off the screen at you: left-handed bassist Paul McCartney practically chest to chest at the mic with right-handers George Harrison or John Lennon, Ringo (a vastly underrated drummer) churning away on his kit, the soulfulness of their singing.
There is lots of interview footage of the Fab Four themselves, but the contemporary interviews with the two surviving Beatles are, for me, particularly poignant. Paul and Ringo look their ages, 75ish, and more; they remind me how far we’ve come, how long it’s been, since those heady years of the early- to mid-60s.
Then, the most game-changing musical ensemble of all time was performing, and you could see them, live and on stage. And they look so young in the performance and other video, it reminds me how young I was back then.
I never got to see them in concert back then, but “Eight Days a Week: The Touring Years” fills that void somewhat. All in all, Howard’s movie is just about a must-see for Beatle fans, and also for most anyone who was that young at that time.