During the week of September 23rd, 1960, the Beatles were caught up in the sound and fury of their first residency in Hamburg, West Germany. By nearly every account, their years on the Reeperbahn were a vital ingredient in their legendary story, not to mention the gritty site of their shift from journeymen players into top-flight musicians. “We were performers,” John Lennon would later recall in a 1971 Rolling Stone interview, “in Liverpool, Hamburg, and other dance halls. What we generated was fantastic, when we played straight rock, and there was nobody to touch us in Britain. As soon as we made it, we made it, but the edges were knocked off.”
In many ways, Ron Howard’s documentary The Beatles: Eight Days a Week—The Touring Years tells the compelling story about how the Beatles’ “edges were knocked off” as they transformed from that well-honed club band of the early 1960s into the stuff of unparalleled superstardom.
In its finest moments, Howard’s film celebrates the whimsy and power of the band mates’ first brush with fame. Their pure joy at making it big after so many years of toil is contagious, and you can’t help but root for them as they break through one barrier after another during their global onslaught, from the heady early days of American Beatlemania through the traumas of their final concert at San Francisco’s Candlestick Park in August 1966.
In this manner, Eight Days a Week affords viewers with a largely effective portrait, complete with new interviews with Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr, that will likely round out the Beatles’ story in satisfactory ways for first-generation fans and new listeners alike. While the film offers little in the way of new revelations, McCartney’s running narrative about the horrors of the band’s final American tour is truly heartfelt and affecting.
McCartney’s memories prove to be especially powerful during his recollections about being driven away from Candlestick Park in an armored car, the literal instant when the band mates decided, once and for all, that they simply couldn’t take it anymore—that the increasingly nerve-racking conditions of their touring lives had become too harrowing to endure for a moment longer.
While McCartney and Starr’s micro-narratives about life on tour are integral to Howard’s documentary, Eight Days a Week suffers from larger narrative uncertainties that limit its capacity from emerging as the stuff of greatness—as a go-to entry in the group’s filmic canon. Instead, the documentary stands as a fairly rudimentary, if uneven telling of the Beatles’ early life and times on the road.
Eight Days a Week’s uneven quality finds its roots in the documentary’s largely American-centric point-of-view. To be fair, there are clear asides devoted to the group’s various forays in France, Europe, and the Land Down Under, but for the most part, Howard’s film concentrates its energy on life in these United States. Unfortunately, this means that the documentary makes only passing gestures towards the incredible onset of British Beatlemania. Indeed, the signal moment of their October 1963 performance on Val Parnell’s Sunday Night at the Palladium is omitted altogether, as if the filmmakers were in a mad rush to get to The Ed Sullivan Show triumph in New York City in February 1964.
Perhaps even more vexing are the questionable editorial choices that occasionally plague Howard’s palette, including the foolhardy decision to colorize footage in various instances when the textual authenticity of the original black-and-white stock would have served the story just as well, if not better. And then there’s the odd reference to the British album releases in the very same moments in which the documentary is addressing distinctly American events. In such instances, the historical disconnect will likely seem jarring for die-hard fans who are interested in facticity.
Such issues notwithstanding, Eight Days a Week hits its most profound notes when the documentary illustrates, warts and all, the ways in which the Beatles went from being a crack rock combo into a road-weary band that by the mid-1960s was blowing through its truncated sets with little care for sound quality. But who really could blame them, given their feeble amplification, which had scant hopes of beating back the wall of sound produced by the screaming multitudes?
As Lennon remembered during his 1971 Rolling Stone interview, the seeds of their demise as live performers had been sown well before the days of British Beatlemania—and long before John, Paul, George, and Ringo were so much as a glint in Ed Sullivan’s eyes. “The music was dead before we even went on the theater tour of Britain,” Lennon recalled. “We were feeling shit already, because we had to reduce an hour or two hours’ playing, which we were glad about in one way, to 20 minutes, and we would go on and repeat the same 20 minutes every night.”
By that time, of course, the band mates were seemingly light years removed from their salad days as top rock performers in Liverpool and Hamburg. And while it is purposefully dispiriting at times, Howard’s documentary makes this point indubitably clear as the Beatles endured their fateful progress towards Candlestick Park. To Howard’s great credit, Eight Days a Week takes shrewd advantage of this key moment to connect the dots from the band’s choice to abandon their touring lives in order to liberate themselves as artists and enjoy the transcendent heights of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, The White Album, and Abbey Road. With such a bounty to their name, opting to rid themselves of the soul-draining traumas of the road must have been a no-brainer.