The Beatles: Eight Days A Week – The Touring Years

David Gritten / 15 August 2016

Viewed as a shrewdly targeted joyous nostalgia aimed at baby-boomers, Ron Howard’s new documentary about the Beatles’ first years of fame fits the bill perfectly.

But there’s more to it than that. The Beatles: Eight Days A Week – The Touring Years certainly details the extraordinary phenomenon of this, the most successful of all pop groups ever. Yet it shines a light into unexpected corners – the drawbacks of fame, the loss of any personal privacy, the pressure to keep working incessantly when you’re this successful, and the impossibility of satisfying the demands of adoring fans.

Read David Gritten's recollections of growing up with The Beatles

All this is rather more than one might expect from an ‘authorised’ documentary, one that proceeded with the full blessing of Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr (both of whom appear separately, reminiscing about their lives in the 60s) and the co-operation of Yoko Ono and George Harrison’s widow Olivia. The film could have been a whole lot blander.

In truth, it’s a well-judged selection of footage of the Beatles, mostly on tour, that make it worthwhile. These are sometimes illuminating.

One had forgotten the pace at which they worked in those days – an album every six months, a single every three months, and a total of 815 concerts in 90 cities worldwide in four years

The hysteria of those fans has never been matched – at least not in those numbers. Their fervour, their urgent desire to be near their heroes, was frankly terrifying. One comes away thinking it’s miraculous no Beatle fan was ever crushed to death at one of their concerts.

Filmed alone, the Fab Four come across at their best – shrewd, witty, and constantly surprised at the level of their celebrity, yet smart enough to know that this was no real life for four adult men.

We’ve long gathered that there were differences between them (John and Paul were reportedly at loggerheads as time went by) but Howard’s film glosses over any discord. Instead it stresses the loyalties within the group: Paul observes that no major decision was made unless all four of them agreed on it. Ringo recalls that he grew up an only child, but as soon as he joined the Beatles, “I felt like I had three brothers.”

The relevant film clips come thick and fast: early footage of the boys in the Cavern Club, footage from their legendary Hamburg days, touring in Britain, their first appearance on Ed Sullivan’s TV show in the States (watched by 73 million viewers), and subsequent giant stadium concerts worldwide that grew bigger and bigger, making them impossible to hear clearly, let alone touch.

It’s no wonder their sense of disillusionment grew. The only way they could escape the treadmill they were on was to quit touring; some later lyrical passages in the film show them in the studio, writing and recording songs, with the world at a safe distance. They look like calm, contented people who survived and escaped some awful trauma.

This period in the studio produced their greatest work, but there’s also a slight melancholy about the film; here, after all, are four young men who came to feel imprisoned by their astonishing fame and had to defy the expectations of their fans to stay sane. This subtle subtext to the Beatles’ story makes Howard’s film even better than it needed to be. 

The Beatles: Eight Days A Week – The Touring Years is in UK cinemas from September 15

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