The Beatles’ career as a live band came to a — literally — screeching halt in August 1966, when on their final American tour, the howling of frenzied female fans became so deafening they could no longer hear themselves play. Author Tom Wolfe, describing a San Francisco stadium gig, wrote of “great sheets of scream like sheets of rain in a squall … and that sound he thinks cannot get higher, it doubles, his eardrums ring like stamped metal with it until suddenly Ghhhhwoooooowwww, it is like the whole thing has snapped … a writhing, seething mass of little girls.”
Wolfe was one of the few writers to pick up on the sometimes terrifying mass-hysteria aspect of Beatlemania, but it was clear enough to John, Paul, George and Ringo, whose reaction to this extreme adulation went from amazement to burnout in a few short years — so much so that they stopped playing live.
Those screams are all over director Ron Howard’s “The Beatles: Eight Days a Week — The Touring Years,” a rockumentary that follows the whirlwind first half of the Fab Four’s career, from 1962-1966, when the Beatles were fresh-faced mop-tops playing amped-up rock ‘n’ roll, releasing hit records like “A Hard Day’s Night” and “Rubber Soul” and embarking on massive stadium shows, the first of their kind. It also captures the chaos of being driven to gigs in armored vans so as not to be torn apart by freaking-out fans, and how an offhand remark (“bigger than Jesus”) could lead to mass Beatles’ record bonfires.
“Eight Days A Week” arrives with a tagline promising, “The band you know. The story you don’t,” to which many will respond: seriously?
The Beatles, after all, are the most obsessively documented band ever. Aside from the mammoth six-hour documentary “Anthology” from 1995, there are enough bootlegs, memoirs, box sets and rock docs to fill the Albert Hall.
Yet “Eight Days A Week” does come up with the goods. Howard crowd-sourced his scavenging, and fans have contributed all sorts of fresh film and photos, including a super-8 reel from that final gig in San Francisco. Recent interviews with the two surviving Beatles, Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr, are intercut with archived comments from John Lennon and George Harrison.
In many ways, though, “Eight Days A Week” feels like a franchise reboot: The story we know, but told with better technology, which in this case means digital restoration and audio enhancement. (Although despite the hype, there’s no scream-removal device.)
“I knew that you would see the Beatles better, hear the Beatles better, and therefore connect with them, both backstage and in performance, in a way that you hadn’t before,” said Howard in an interview with Fast Company magazine, and his film aims to create an immersive, first-hand experience of Beatlemania.
The irony, of course, is that people loved the Beatles in the 1960s for their very newness, their embodiment of generational change. As Beatles producer George Martin once noted, they “expressed perfectly a feeling that was very much in the air at the time: that everything and anything was up for grabs.” We can never re-experience that, only marvel at it. For older viewers, each Beatles revival is not just nostalgic, but also a bit of a taunt.
“Then is when it all happened,” critic Greil Marcus once wrote about the ’60s. “Over and over, people a generation younger than I am have been told that the sound of which they can claim only the echo happened once, and it won’t happen again.” Sixties icons continue to cast a long shadow over today’s music, and the debate rages: Was the music simply better then?
A big part of the appeal of baby-boomer rock docs like “Eight Days A Week” is clearly nostalgia as a collective cultural experience now that we’re in an age of fragmented media. In 1967, the Summer of Love, the Beatles album “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” was ubiquitous; journalist Langdon Winter wrote of how “driving across country on interstate 90, each city where I stopped for gas or food — Laramie, Ogallala, Molina, South Bend — the melodies wafted in from some far-off transistor radio or portable Hi-Fi. For a brief moment, the irreparably fragmented consciousness of the West was unified.”
Compare that to 2016, the Summer of Trump (oh, Lord, take me now), and we’re all staring YouTube but watching different cat videos, as algorithms feed us more of the same, but our earbuds are having the opposite of a shared experience. The pace of virality seems too fast for anything to form a deep and lasting impression, let alone an emotional connection. It’s telling that the most musically unifying events of 2016 were the deaths of David Bowie and Prince, stars from the ’70s and ’80s. Compare that outpouring to the blip of a reaction that met, say, Kanye West’s “Famous.”
Pop culture was ephemeral even in the ’60s, but somehow — through charisma, talent, curiosity — the Beatles transcended that. Watching “Eight Days A Week,” it’s amusing to note that the Beatles were once just a prototypical boy band, mugging for the cameras, goofing around and singing with puppy dog eyes to their “baby” or “little girl” in much the same way as Justin Bieber or One-Direction. There was a raw energy and honesty to it, though, which stands up well next to today’s cynically fabricated pop products.
McCartney points out ruefully in the film that by 1966, “The Beatles were the show, not the music.” This realization — that artistic exploration and self-expression meant more than celebrity and adulation — led to “Sgt. Peppers” and all that came after, a wildly eclectic songbook that hasn’t been matched since. No doubt there’s a movie coming on that too.
“The Beatles: Eight Days a week — The Touring Years” is now playing at cinemas nationwide.
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