A four-headed monster
Ron Howard’s ‘Eight Days a Week’ catches The Beatles and their fans in a dazzling, imperishable youth

Between 1964 and 1966, the most documented people on earth were surely The Beatles. During those years the group toured the world, visiting Europe, Asia, Australia – a quarter of a million people lined the streets of Adelaide just to see their motorcade – and the United States on four occasions. John, Paul, George and Ringo were inhabiting a new sort of fame: wherever they went, there followed a tumult of flashbulbs, a crush of reporters, and always the fans, those assemblages of girls in their thousands and then tens of thousands, frenzied with worship.

Ron Howard’s new documentary about The Beatles’ touring years, Eight Days A Week, starts in late 1963, as Beatlemania was quickening. The band burst onto stage at Manchester’s ABC Cinema, playing ‘She Loves You’, their matching black-and-white outfits especially lustrous against the beige drapery. Every so often the camera cuts away to the audience, where girls are jumping out of their seats, and screaming with added intensity whenever Paul McCartney tosses his head.

We’ve seen all this before; if not this exact footage (filmed by Pathé News) then moments very like it: the suits, the haircuts, the grins, the girls. It’s an opening sequence made to echo the climax of the classic Beatlemania film A Hard Day’s Night (1964). But the achievement of Howard’s documentary is to make the familiar feel new again, placing the viewer inside that moment – even if you never lived it – when to witness The Beatles was to watch the horizon of your world brighten before you like the dawn.

The milestones of this story will be familiar to those with even a passing interest in Beatles lore: ‘I Want to Hold Your Hand’ reaching number one in the United States, the arrival at John F Kennedy Airport (newly renamed for the slain president, who had been shot dead less than four months earlier), the Ed Sullivan Show, Washington Coliseum, A Hard Day’s Night, Shea Stadium, the furore over John Lennon’s “more popular than Jesus” quote. The excitement lies in the telling. Howard concentrates on the American story of The Beatles because that’s where Beatlemania went from eager to fierce to deranged, and he pulls together newsreel footage, photographs, archival interviews and new interviews with surviving members McCartney and Ringo Starr, plus a generous sprinkling of audio outtakes from Abbey Road, which became the band’s haven from the world.

Listening to McCartney and Starr reminisce, what’s striking is their shared sense of detachment: The Beatles certainly happened to them, but being a Beatle was not quite the same as being oneself. They were stronger together; when they put on their suits they became, in McCartney’s words, “one person, a four-headed monster”. In an archival interview, George Harrison remarks that he always felt sorry for Elvis Presley, who lived out the weirdness of his fame in isolation, “but for us, we all shared the experience”. Consensus carried them through all kinds of pressures, from their refusal to play segregated venues in the American south to their eventual decision to stop touring for good.

Other talking heads appear throughout the film, bringing with them varying levels of insight. British composer Howard Goodall compares Lennon and McCartney’s melodic talents with those of Schubert and Mozart, which is an unnecessary justification of pop music on the terms of Western high art: surely at this point we can appreciate the genius of The Beatles because and not in spite of where it flourished, in the realm of mass culture. Elvis Costello is more interesting, pointing out the group’s remarkable ability to stay in tune when they played live, given that they couldn’t hear themselves for the screaming and the poor amplification. At Shea Stadium in New York, where they played on 15 August 1965 to more than 55,000 people, there was no PA, only the loudspeakers that were meant for broadcasting the baseball commentary. Whoopi Goldberg attended the concert with her mother, and her memories of being a young black girl who loved The Beatles are warmly spoken. “I didn’t think of them as four white guys,” she says. “They were colourless, and they were fucking amazing.”

Eight Days A Week has a limited worldwide theatrical release of one week, and as of writing there are only three days left of this run. It’s worth seeing at the cinema if you possibly can – rather than waiting for the inevitable DVD release – because it comes with a cinema-only bonus: after the credits is fully restored colour footage of the Shea Stadium show. Excerpts of this 35 mm film have been used in previous Beatles documentaries, but the complete footage hasn’t been screened since the original UK and US television broadcasts in 1966 and 1967 respectively.

Though a good proportion of the audio track was later overdubbed to compensate for the poor quality of the original sound (it has now been remastered by Giles Martin, son of George Martin), the footage still gives a vivid sense of The Beatles as a live act. Their 30-minute set is a mixture of covers (‘Twist and Shout’, ‘Dizzy Miss Lizzy’) and originals (‘Ticket To Ride’, ‘Can’t Buy Me Love’). The stage is so distant from the bleachers that they must have appeared, even to those in the front rows, like tiny figurines. Still ,they give it their all, and if at first the impression is of men caught in the eye of a hurricane (“Hello? Can you hear me?” asks Lennon, knowing that the question is futile), by the finale they’ve loosened up considerably, laughing with each other as they reel through ‘I’m Down’, one of their B-sides.

Then there are the fans. The cameras catch one girl fainting, and another sobbing as she pulls tissues from her mother’s handbag. Dozens of girls cling to the barrier fence, screaming with all their might, and a few even dare to make a run onto the pitch, trying to reach the faraway stage, only to be hauled off by the police. One boy – a rarity – dances in his seat. It’s easy to laugh at these kids, and possible to resent them, too, for their overwhelming devotion, which drove The Beatles offstage for good. But I love to watch them, especially the girls who seem self-conscious, wanting to feel the fever but perhaps not quite convinced of it, and the girls who are truly beside themselves, all propriety forgotten. (Which Beatle would have been mine? George, I think: he had the best hair, and, as one fan insists to a bemused reporter elsewhere in Howard’s film, “sexy eyelashes”.) Without them, The Beatles wouldn’t have become the phenomenon that no pop group has equalled before or since; at least for those touring years, band and fans were a mirror of each other’s youthful radiance, which was so dazzling as to feel imperishable.

Anwen Crawford

Anwen Crawford is The Monthly’s music critic.

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