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There is an absurdly vast selection of music movies and documentaries available on Netflix, Hulu, HBO Go, and on and on and on. But it’s hard to tell which ones are actually worth your 100 minutes. Watch the Tunes will help you pick what music doc is worth your time every weekend. This week’s edition covers The Beatles: Eight Days a Week – The Touring Years, which is streaming over on Hulu.
New angles to approach the Beatles are getting scarcer and scarcer. Practically every minute of every day of their entire history has been hashed and then rehashed half a dozen different ways and still the public demands more. This is a group whose nerd-base is so steadfastly ravenous that even someone as peripheral to the band as the head of their fan club has been made the subject of a feature length doc (a very good one, I might add), so if you’re going to go and make another film about the Fab Four you had better have a uniquely illuminating take on them. This week’s Watch The Tunes entry, Ron Howard’s The Beatles: Eight Days a Week – The Touring Years, manages to do exactly that by tackling the specific era leading up to Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band during which the lads from Liverpool were grinding it out on the road playing shows for fans whose screams routinely drowned out the music itself.
One of the interesting problems of making anything about the Beatles, aside from just the hook of the thing, must be figuring out just who exactly the target audience is going to be. For every uber-fan who could tell you with a glance which pressing plant a given album was manufactured in, there are hundreds of other casual listeners whose interest doesn’t go past Abbey Road, and hitting the sweet spot that’s going to be worth the time for fans from both ends of that spectrum creates a tough challenge. With its scope constrained to the mid ‘60s Beatlemania and a truckload of never before seen footage, Eight Days a Week is primarily aimed at the old timers who are well-acquainted with the history of the group, but it still manages to set things up in a way that always feels inclusive for viewers.
Being a member of the Beatles for the first half of their existence may sound like it was awesome, but the act of taking their show on the road sounds like it was generally nothing less than a colossal pain in the ass. Think about it. These rock and roll shows were some of the very first to ever take place in massive stadiums, and the very new technical infrastructure was shoddy at best, to say nothing of the way the horde-like crowds of swooning teenage girls were controlled. You're in one of the first musical groups that was arguably "bigger than Jesus" but the audience is screaming so loud during the whole show that they're literally drowning out the music itself. Press events were exhausting scenes, with reporters asking rude questions and receiving testy, if still somehow charming, answers. Thanks to disorganized security measures, hospitals would see an uptick in concert related injuries at every tour stop, but barnstorming from city to city was how musicians made their money, a fact that hasn’t changed much in the fifty-plus years between then and now. It’s no wonder that the band was overjoyed to stop touring altogether around the time Revolver was released.
Clearly this was far from the most gratifying chapter of their artistic lifespan which, to be honest, makes dedicating a feature length documentary to it an odd choice. The filmmakers manage to keep the bigger and more positive picture in focus with celebs like Whoopi Goldberg and Sigourney Weaver popping by to offer unexpectedly moving memories of seeing the band in the flesh, and some interesting commentary from Malcolm Gladwell of all people. As much of a hassle it was for everyone to have toured that heavily for four years off and on, thought (not even including the years spent hustling in Hamburg), these gigs ended up being a trial by fire, forcing them to evolve as artists along the way. In one of the more memorable moments, George Harrison says that they were “ force grown like rhubarb” because of course that’s the comparison he immediately reaches for.
Even with it’s relatively tight frame of reference you might not feel like you’ve gotten the whole picture of what it was like to be in or around the group on the road by the time the credits roll. You’re dealing with a timeline that saw eleven albums recorded and released in less than a decade, on top of a grueling tour schedule, so it’s so easy to feel like you’re missing out when fascinating tidbits flash by and no one makes a point of drilling down on them. For example, I’d happily watch an entire documentary just about the Beatles tour through the American deep south while it was still segregated or their show at Tokyo’s Budokan Hall, but here they’re explored all too briefly.
Fittingly enough, Eight Days a Week ends with footage from the final time the band performed live, on the roof of Apple’s headquarters, staged as part of a rehearsal session for a whole new tour that the band was working towards. Ultimately things just got too messy, and the possibility of going back out on the road exacerbated the already strained group dynamics. What once forged them together a mere handful of years before was now part of the thing that pushed them apart, and Eight Days a Week does a great job telling that story.
Chris Lay is a freelance writer, archivist, and record store clerk living in Madison, WI. The very first CD he bought for himself was the Dumb & Dumber soundtrack when he was twelve and things only got better from there.