Review: Eights Days A Week
(M) The Beatles
Directed by Oscar winner Ron Howard, Eight Days a Week stands at the pinnacle of documentary storytelling. The story Howard is sharing is the early years of The Beatles, when Beatlemania took off all over the world; when “silly love songs” sold in droves, but before the band became (as many aficionados think) a serious musical force. The superb documentary combines old video footage and still photographs with recent, specially recorded interviews, to deliver a superb biography. Many viewers of a certain vintage will be taken on a journey that is both familiar and yet also fresh.
Eight Days A Week presents the origins story of how four mates from Liverpool – who’d been playing their kind of music in the bars and pubs of northern England for years, before their global fame – became the Fab Four. Howard’s documentary also captures what drove them, what pulled them onwards, what got in their way and, eventually, what led them to pull back completely from touring and performing live to concentrate on the studio productions of the late 1960s which cemented their iconic status in Western culture. Eight Days A Week is also, at least incidentally, the story of an emerging culture and its development through the years – when the first round of post-war Baby Boomers became teenagers (and started to exert their desire for their own voice and to shape the world in new ways).
Often, the risk with documentaries is that they can become slow moving, dull and simply an information download. Howard’s directing avoids that by deftly getting the timing of the journey exactly right. When it needs to be fast-paced it is frenetic, following The Beatles from city to city through intensely packed performing schedules and interviews with a press that couldn’t be satiated in its demand for insights into the unprecedented phenomenon. However, at key points, Howard subtly touches the brakes, slowing down to dwell on an issue and to reflect more deeply on its significance, both for The Beatles and for society.
Perhaps the most significant example of the reflective element is when The Beatles reached the Deep South on their first tour of the USA and learned of the segregation laws that would split the crowd. John, Paul, George and Ringo refused to play under those conditions. “We just played for people,” said Ringo. “Not for these people or those people, just people.” And because The Beatles didn’t want segregation, the laws were relaxed so that negro teenagers and white teenagers stood together to take in the experience.
Reflection on moments like these includes newly recorded interviews with people who were there. Historian Kittie Oliver speaks passionately of how she, an African American girl, was able for the first time to occupy the same space as the white kids – and what a transformational moment that was. Elvis Costello, Whoopi Goldberg, Sigourney Weaver and others lend their memories to help enliven the journey. Of course, only Paul and Ringo were available for modern interviews with The Beatles. Their reflections are vital for turning what might otherwise be just historical footage into a vibrant story of how the group was developing. Echoing Ringo’s comments about the segregation issue, Paul tells us how the group operated “as one”. Every decision needed to be unanimous so that all four could go into a venture firing on all cylinders. That dynamic was critical for the whole becoming so much greater than the sum of the parts; understanding how that worked is one of the key themes and insights of the film.
In making a documentary like this, any director stands on the shoulders of Ken Burns, who broke new ground with his classic Civil War series. Ron Howard has matched Burns in the way he’s done his research, uncovering footage and photos that have not been seen before and piecing them together with more familiar images. One little touch that Ron Howard employs successfully is to overlay original stills with some slight moving element, such as smoke rising from a cigarette. He doesn’t overuse this, but subtly puts it to great effect in keeping us interested as viewers.
I had put off watching this study of the 1962-66 period of The Beatles for quite a while, but friends kept on mentioning how good it was and how they’d watched it over again recently. I found it hard to imagine how a Beatles documentary could grab and hold my attention because I thought I knew the story already. Turns out that perhaps I didn’t. And perhaps none of us did – after all, based on Howard’s documentary, Rolling Stone magazine wrote an article about the 10 things we learned about The Beatles.
Or perhaps it’s just the genius of Ron Howard to put this old wine into new wineskins without them breaking. Either way, whether you think you know the story of The Beatles or not, Eight Days a Week is a compelling re-telling of the story that repays the time spent watching it.