If you’re like me, having been thoroughly drenched in Beatle lore from a young age, when Beatle movies played regularly on television, and aunts and uncles handed down their vinyl copies of Beatles For Sale and Rubber Soul, and Lennon’s murder caused a tidal wave of new interest in the music, you’ll enjoy the movie as a sort of reset button; it’ll remind you of why you liked The Beatles in the first place. In fact, I found myself teary-eyed at a couple of points, because I’d forgotten how close The Beatles came to sheer perfection; the sight and sound of them in their prime can still send shivers through me. How was it for people who experienced it as it happened?
The recurring theme in the movie is emotion. The band seemed to tap into a collective joy that most people didn’t know existed. Whoopi Goldberg recalls her own joy at seeing the band on The Ed Sullivan Show, and then, when she recalls how her mother conjured up two tickets for their Shea Stadium concert, she nearly cries. Even Paul McCartney gets emotional when he recalls the first day Ringo Starr sat in with the band, and how the sound, the miraculous sound, finally crystallized. And as has happened so often over the years, it’s Ringo who steals the show, especially in the old concert footage. A vintage clip of the band playing ‘I Saw her Standing There’ is a revelation, as Ringo hunches over his famous Ludwig kit like a bicycle racer, hammering away, the most underrated drummer in rock history. Again, Howard reminds us that these weren’t just four guys singing love ballads; they also rocked with awesome power.
It’s an unusual Beatle documentary in that there’s no Yoko, no LSD, no Maharishi, no death of Brian Epstein, no summit meeting with Bob Dylan. There’s a sense, though, that the game was nearly over before any of that stuff entered the narrative. We also get the feeling that something disastrous was about to happen; the crowds were growing larger and more out of control; the press was growing hostile; and American rednecks were bent out of shape over Lennon’s comment that The Beatles were bigger than Jesus. By retiring as a live act, The Beatles not only allowed themselves more time in the studio to create their late period masterpieces, but likely prevented some kind of catastrophe.
And why, exactly, were those kids going so crazy back in ’64? The theories about "Beatlemania" have never satisfied me - I think they would've hit regardless of the Kennedy assassination, or civil unrest - but watching this movie gave me a kernel of an idea. The Beatles were having fun onstage in a way that differed from most entertainers. They were unbridled. The kids in the audience wanted in. But since the fans were mostly 14-year-old girls, and since they couldn’t speak in The Beatles’ own language, their only response was to scream, swoon, or wet themselves. The girls in the movie are like anxious puppies scratching at their cages; they’re trying to communicate something that isn’t in their vocabulary. We see boys at the concerts, too, and they’re no less fascinating than the females. They’re not as frantic, but their smiles almost burst from their faces; they’re happy to be on the fringe of such an emotional earthquake. The boys were also seeing firsthand that their female neighbors had something untamed going on inside, which must’ve been a tasty concept in those pre-Summer of Love years.
Howard’s version of The Beatles is a good one for the time capsule. The fellas are portrayed as fun, cheeky lads, good friends having a good laugh, riding along on a typhoon of unprecedented success; they even stand up against segregated concert halls in the South (Howard includes a touching scene of a large black cop carrying a little white girl who has fainted at a concert). True, we get a few blah-blah comments from people like Elvis Costello and Malcolm Gladwell, and we get the usual music aficionado comparing The Beatles to Schubert and Mozart. The movie would’ve been fine without them. Journalist Larry Kane is onboard– he joined The Beatles for some of their touring, and his remarks are amusing, if not especially insightful. I preferred Sigourney Weaver’s sweet recollection of the hours she spent trying to choose the right dress to wear at a Beatles’ show, as if anyone might see her. And Howard sort of betrays his mission by not ending at Candlestick Park in ’66, where the band packed it in. Instead, he teases bits of Sergeant Pepper and the Let It Be movie. But such complaints feel unfair when discussing so electric and uplifting a movie as Eight Days A Week.
Theatrical showings of the movie are followed by the 30-minute Shea Stadium concert from ‘65 Not only is it restored and pristine, but to see it in its entirety is stunning. Before a crowd of approximately 55,000, the band rushes through a dozen or so songs, killing the old myth that their playing suffered in these stadium settings. Aside from McCartney flubbing a line in ‘A Hard Day’s Night’ – which drew a long chuckle from Lennon – the performances are strong, if a bit breathless. Yet, the band seems glad to leave the stage when it’s all over. Also intriguing is the number of covers they play – I counted three or four - as if The Beatles were still a bar band at heart, keeping their chops up, even as the joy they’d inspired turned grotesque.