It’s been 46 years since the Beatles broke up, but you wouldn’t know it from the band’s enduring popularity. Aging baby boomers still hold The Beatles close to their hearts and a surprising number of young listeners have found their way to the band’s extraordinary recordings — The Beatles’ official Facebook page currently has more than 42 million “likes.”
Though The Beatles’ story is a familiar one, the last authorized feature film about the band was the 1970 documentary Let it Be. Director Ron Howard’s The Beatles: Eight Days a Week — The Touring Years aims to fill the void and present its story to new generations with a fresh look at the first half of the band’s career, from 1962 to 1966.
The project began with a simple hypothesis: given the explosive popularity of Super 8 film cameras in the early ’60s, there must be a lot of unseen, fan-gathered footage from the hundreds of shows the band played in that era. A call put out on social media brought an overwhelming response. A San Francisco woman shot much of the band’s last official performance, at Candlestick Park in August 1966, and had left the Super 8 undeveloped cartridges under her bed ever since. Holy grail material like this means that even diehard Beatles fans will find much to love in Eight Days a Week.
Howard’s crew of film archivists worked for three years to edit and restore more than 2,000 vintage film and photo elements for the documentary. New interviews with surviving Beatles Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr — along with a short list of band colleagues and perceptive fans — balance the archival material with warm reminiscences. But it’s the way the material is enhanced and assembled, along with an emphasis on little-known aspects of the band’s early history, that make Eight Days a Week compelling.
The new and seldom-seen performance material allows the film to illustrate — maybe for the first time — what a brilliant live band The Beatles were before they retreated to the studio for good to make late-career masterpieces like Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and The Beatles (“The White Album”).
It always has been hard to hear The Beatles over the hysterical screaming of fans in the band’s early live footage. But current technology allows the isolation and reduction of crowd noise — especially high-pitch screams — to let the music shine through. Surprisingly, what emerges when The Beatles rip through covers of Chuck Berry or Little Richard songs is a thrillingly wild garage band.
Cramming five years of tumultuous history into a 105-minute film means that Eight Days a Week can’t go deep on key aspects of the band’s story. But the film’s fast-paced survey leads to unexpected revelations, such as a little-known rider in the band’s performance contract that prevented The Beatles from playing before segregated audiences. The result was the first-ever integration of venues like Jacksonville, Florida’s Gator Bowl. Endearingly, McCartney himself was thrilled to rediscover that proud aspect of the band’s history through an early cut of the film.
That time of unprecedented social upheaval provides context for The Beatles’ story and the emergence of youth culture represented by Beatlemania. In Eight Days a Week’s intimate portrait of the band, we see a perfect storm of creative genius, thoughtful irreverence and budding social awareness — a new perspective for a new time. To our continuing benefit, The Beatles happened to arrive precisely when we needed them. Sometimes you just get lucky and things are never the same again.
The Beatles: Eight Days a Week — The Touring Years opens next Friday, Sept. 16 at The Broad Theater, and on Friday, Sept. 23 at the Prytania Theatre.