Eight Days a Week knows its audience and plays to them unabashedly. There is no doubt in my mind this film would’ve been Ken Hanke’s Pick of the Week and probably would’ve found its way onto his year-end best-of list — even though he hated documentaries. I’m slightly too young to fall within the target demographic likely to be transfixed by this mesmeric memory machine, but that qualification should grant me an air of credibility when I say that nostalgic baby boomers are not the sole audience to which this doc will appeal. For those of us who missed out on Beatlemania, but still grew up in a world indelibly altered by the band’s outsized influence, there’s a unique value in Ron Howard’s tightly focused recounting of four years in the life of what almost certainly amounts to the most famous group of musicians in human history.
At this point, is there anything left to say about the Beatles that hasn’t been mentioned often and elsewhere? If there is, Howard isn’t much interested in finding out. However, there is plenty of new material to show, and it all looks great. Rather than upsetting any unturned stones, Howard’s depiction of the Fab Four is all rose-colored glasses, digging deep into the vaults of the Beatles’ archives (courtesy of Apple Corps, corporate gatekeeper to all things Beatles) for some true gems of rare and unseen performance footage. Everything has been remastered to look and sound better than any Beatles film I’ve ever seen, and that’s no small feat for a band that has shown up in archival footage at least 120 times (if IMDb is to be trusted).
As its unwieldy but appropriate title would imply, The Beatles: Eight Days a Week – The Touring Years follows the band through their remarkably brief tenure as a troupe of traveling troubadours, starting in 1962 with the band’s finalized lineup playing early shows in Hamburg, Germany, or at the Cavern Club in Liverpool, England, and ending with the ill-fated 1966 tour that led the band back to the studio for good. What works about Howard’s curtailed narrative is that it favors depth over breadth, a focus that allows for a more evocative interpretation of this critical chapter in the history of the Beatles and rock music as a whole. I found myself wishing the film had gone on to cover Sgt. Pepper’s and beyond, but I doubt it would work as well if it had.
Notably absent is any salacious detail, as the film glosses over the groupies and cuts out right before the heavy drug use starts. But anybody dying for dirt can find plenty elsewhere (or just watch 2007’s Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story and get the gist). Instead, this is an unabashed love letter from a dedicated fan. If the spit-shine the band gets from Howard is every bit as superficial and contrived as the one they got from manager Brian Epstein in their early days, that doesn’t make it the slightest bit less fun.
If I have any real complaints with this film, they can only be assigned to Howard’s peculiar, workmanlike direction. Howard’s veneration of his subject is blatant, as though he were more concerned with presenting untarnished myth than unvarnished truth. While this is not, strictly speaking, a problem in and of itself, at times it detracts from the film’s stronger elements. As a documentarian, he seems to be resting on the laurels of his access to the archives, with the vintage performance and interview footage far outstripping his awkwardly animated stills and arbitrary talking heads. Is it interesting to see footage of a teenage Sigourney Weaver at an early concert as she recounts memories of straightening her hair with beer cans? Sure. Does it contribute much to the overall film? Not really. Of slightly more interest is the social commentary on the band’s significance to race relations in the U.S., as provided by Whoopi Goldberg and Dr. Kitty Oliver, but even these interviews seem largely extraneous. The only interview segments that unquestionably work are those of the band members (including John and George — obviously and unfortunately posthumous) and journalist Larry Kane, who was effectively embedded on tour with the band. But then Malcolm Gladwell pops up to talk about the genesis of youth culture and my eyes glaze over, if only for a moment.
Minor quibbles aside, Eight Days is a great film, and one likely to please devotees and more casual aficionados alike. It’s a genuine shame this film seems primarily aimed at the streaming home video market (the theatrical run almost amounts to a prolonged ad for its Hulu debut just days after it opens on the big screen), because this is a movie that begs to be viewed with a good audience and great sound. Just be prepared to have the soundtrack stuck in your head for days after seeing this one. Not rated.
Special 7:30 screening Thursday, with regular show times starting Friday, at Fine Arts Theatre