The band you know,” goes the tagline for The Beatles: Eight Days a Week – The Touring Years, “the story you don’t.” Can that really be true? The Beatles have not authorized a feature-length documentary like this one since they broke up in 1970, but surely everyone knows pretty much everything about the bestsellingest band of all time, the band that kickstarted the cultural revolution of the 1960s and helped create a truly global pop culture. Don’t they? Everyone’s seen A Hard Day’s Night, right? I mean, I’m not the most devoted of Beatles fans: I really like their music — who doesn’t? — but I have not studied them extensively, yet there’s nothing in the overall arc of the story here of the early Beatles phenomenon that I was not aware of. (One thing did surprise me: I couldn’t believe that I had somehow missed hearing that director Ron Howard had a new film that isn’t based on a Dan Brown novel.)
That said, many of the details are fun and fascinating, and the vintage footage — some of which has not been seen before — is, well, fab. (If you see Eight Days a Week in a cinema, stick around after the film for 30 minutes of remastered footage from the 1965 Shea Stadium concert. You can actually hear the music, not just the screaming of fans.) From small performances in English clubs to that first appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show to the US tour that invented stadium rock to that final impromptu concert on the roof of their London offices in January 1969, Eight Days a Week tracks the trajectory of John, Paul, George, and Ringo from a gaggle of cheeky lads mystified at the religious ecstasy of their fans to mature artists burnt out on Beatlemania and moving on to make sophisticated rock. Lots of now famous creative types check in regarding how they were influenced by the Beatles as kids: we hear from Eddie Izard, Richard Curtis, Sigourney Weaver, Whoopi Goldberg, and Elvis Costello, among others. And there are new interviews with surviving Beatles Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr, too.
Perhaps the best thing about Eight Days a Week is the reminder — desperately needed these days, when nostalgia for a supposed “greater” time is obscuring the horrors of recent history — that the supposedly innocent past was hardly innocent. Amidst the conflict of the civil rights struggle in 1960s America, for instance, four clean-cut white boys refused to play in front of segregated audiences, which was the norm in the South… and their insistence on equality and fairness forced genuine social change that might have taken a lot longer to come about. It’s become sort of a gentle joke, to look back now and marvel at how terrified certain conservative culture watchers were of the Beatles with their “long” hair and loud music. But they were radical in some ways that were truly dangerous to a status quo that needed shaking up, and always does.