“When did The Beatles break up?
That question was whispered to me as the Rooftop Concert sequence from Ron Howard’s Eight Days A Week wrapped up.
The query came from a long time baby boomer college friend sitting next to me during a first weekend theatrical showing of the film.
I knew she wasn’t looking for the long discussion on the subject that was part of the 400+ pages of my The End of The Beatles? book. She had a straightforward information question and I quickly whispered “1970” and added, “but they were coming apart in 1969.”
That was all she was looking for.
In that case, “less” was more informative than going on and on and on.
It was also a reminder as to why, in all my Beatles writing and research, I’ve always looked beyond my immediate circle of well-schooled audiophiles, collectors, and chroniclers for big Beatles fans who bring a more general view of what made John, Paul, George, and Ringo “The World’s Most Popular Foursome” (as touted on the cover of the U.S. album Beatles VI, which contained the hit single “Eight Days a Week”).
They are the ones who understood perfectly why Ron Howard won the 2017 best music film Grammy for The Beatles: Eight Days a Week — the Touring Years.
The film gave them just enough of what they were looking for.
My college friend’s point-of-view was just the type of grounding fan observation that has long helped me to keep a critical balance on material that I would view first as an historian, then as a collector, and lastly as a fan.
I’ve long appreciated that The Beatles cast such a long shadow across the pop culture world because of that last category. Those enthusiastic fan numbers are what helped keep them on top.
Yet it is striking how possessive we all are of our own images of The Beatles. If you think the recent U.S. presidential election process showed a divided country embracing dramatically different takes on the same contest, just follow an internet discussion of the film. There’s real passion at work there starting with the refusal of some to even label it a documentary.
Among the sins charged: so much of their concert performing lives did not make the film; there were few full length performances; among the performances included, there was sweetening along with outright substitution of audio tracks; the “Ed Sullivan” footage was surprisingly below the quality access to original masters should have produced; images were plucked out of context and seemingly arbitrarily dropped in for visual convenience, ignoring actual time lines; and some true documentary footage (including an early U.S. press conference) was altered by colorization.
There were also plenty of editorial decisions questioned such as including retrospective comments by people who back then looked on as fans (Whoopi Goldberg, for instance) rather than turning more to insiders offering behind-the-scenes insights. This film seemed to truly reflect its “official” status, deliberately limited in where it wanted to go with this story.
Not to be flippant about those complaints (and others): Guilty as charged.
But, practically speaking, mostly irrelevant.
Many have described Eight Days a Week as “The Beatles Anthology Lite,” but that seems to me less a putdown than a mission statement. Given the parameters of covering all the touring (with some career context) in less than two hours, this film could not stretch to Anthology length and hope to keep an audience. It was a carefully crafted “Beatles 201” course. (101 would assume you still need to learn their names.)
In the theaters, devoting an entire separate film (Shea Stadium) demonstrated how challenging it was to be a detailed concert documentary: consecutive song performances take a great deal of time. On the home video releases, the parallel background bonus footage takes a slightly less hurried approach in reminiscing.
Here’s another reality. The record shattering tours of the group during their intense run from 1963 to 1966 were viewed by a comparative handful of fans, even back then, compared with record sales, film box office, and TV ratings.
So for most of the audience, this was not a flash back down memory lane, it was a bullet point summary of events unfolding either before their own time, or detached from their personal experiences (even if they attended the shows), cleaned and sorted for ease in following the touring treadmill.
As the film’s clever use of PA sound from the “ball park announcement system” illustrated, those in the stadium were not hearing anywhere near the experience brought to today’s movie theaters or home viewing systems. Already this was a departure from being there, with enhanced audio and video far beyond that era. (No Paul McCartney solo tour extravaganza equipment back then.)
Perhaps the best way to cast this film is not really as a traditional documentary, but “an illustrated record” of the events. For my own Beatles research and lectures, I would not use this as my ONLY source of material. Rather, with its many compromises and enhancements, it is indeed a snapshot designed to “tell a better story.”
In that context, there are just enough “for further study” moments that could spring from this film, such as the highlighted refusal to play before segregated audiences or the key presence of Brian Epstein as tour maestro.
In a way, Eight Days A Week reminded me of the Allan Williams book The Man Who Gave the Beatles Away. You could not use that book (written by the Liverpool promoter who first got them to Hamburg, Germany) as a disciplined guide to a chronology in the lives of The Beatles. I know. I once tried to (unsuccessfully) sort the text anecdotes into a timeline.
However, what the Williams book absolutely conveyed was a sense of the early Beatles story from someone who dealt with them on a business level. Any specific detail he related might be more “last call” storytelling than research guide, but at the end a reader was left with the sense of the era. This was not working for the group. Something else had to happen. Enter Brian Epstein, the man who would redefine the art of being a manager.
So, too, with Eight Days a Week. By the time Ron Howard gets to the last year of touring, audiences can feel a numb sense of the exhaustion, of going through the motions on stage. In a way, that’s why Howard HAD to skip ahead to the non-concert tour live performance on the Apple rooftop. That was glorious. The 1966 run ended with a cold, back-of-the security van thud.
For the very end of the film, you could appreciate how Ron Howard, the expert showman, deftly played to the (anticipated) movie crowd. There was a joyful outburst of spontaneous singalong over the closing credits, set to the film’s title song run in its entirety. That reportedly was not unique to the Music Box Theatre in Chicago (where l sang along), but experienced at many other venues as well.
It did not matter that The Beatles never sang the song “Eight Days a Week” in this concert film, or ever in concert. It did not matter that this was not even one of their official “canon” UK single releases. It did not matter if (by chance) you had never heard the song before: this was one of their instantly accessible singalong numbers.
Ultimately, the song, and the film, impressed me as the essence of the Beatles fan experience. Throughout half a century of Beatles history, scholars and chroniclers of the group have usually been at a loss to completely explain the “why.” What made them the earth shaking force in popular music history? Eschewing attempts to “explain it all,” the Eight Days a Week film offers the only truly creditable answer.
Look. Listen. And just TRY to resist it.
Copyright 2017 by Walter J. Podrazik. An alternate version of this article was first published in the magazine Beatlefan.