Ringo Starr, undeniably the least gifted of the group, is ironically responsible for more Beatles movie titles than any other member. A Hard Day's Night was taken from John Lennon's favorite Ringoism. Likewise, Eight Days a Week comes from a phrase the drummer used to suggest the punishing, time-warping nature of the band's tour schedule, which involved playing more than 800 shows in 15 countries. Looking back, it's comical to note how hard the Beatles' management worked them, assuming the mania would fade and the music fall out of favor.
Ron Howard's documentary does a brilliant job of covering that period. Not only does it chronicle the band's conquest of the world between 1963 and 1966, but, for the first time, it takes the viewer behind the mob scenes into the hotel suites and airliners where the four were virtual prisoners. What emerges is something quite touching. These were boys entering manhood, far from home and in the midst of an unprecedented cultural maelstrom. Their only support was each other. It's revelatory to see what devoted friends they were throughout this unimaginably challenging time.
That's just one of the film's revelations. Another is what a great live act the Beatles were — unbelievably tight, tested and hard rocking. You've got to remember — or, if you're taking Beatles 101, realize — that, before Howard's film, what we heard of the group's stadium concerts was primarily the screaming of teenage girls. The band's late, great producer, George Martin, likened the noise to what you'd hear standing beside a jet engine. Martin's son, Giles, has performed a miracle of restoration using the latest computer technology. For the first time, we hear in all its pristine richness what the Beatles were playing in Washington, D.C. (1964), on the field at Shea Stadium (1965) and at the Budokan (1966). It's amazing.
Howard combines familiar images with archival footage and home movies to piece together a picture of life on that long and winding road. Along the way, we watch the four evolve from eager-to-please entertainers to artists and authority figures. Here's another revelation: The group single-handedly suspended the practice of segregation when it played the Bible Belt. The Beatles simply wouldn't have it, and, for the first time, in state after state, blacks and whites twisted and shouted together.
By the end of the film, you can see the toll the craziness took. Someone remarks to Lennon that the band appears to have aged more than two or three years. "We were force-grown," he responds, "like rhubarb." When the Beatles play Candlestick Park in August of '66, it's clear they've reached the end of the road. Howard presents footage of a press conference that contrasts poignantly with the playful ones from the time before the Beatles appeared on "The Ed Sullivan Show." Now Paul McCartney struggles to put a sentence together, seeming apologetic for the group's weariness. It would be their last live show.
Though, as everyone knows, the show continued on the Beatles' terms in the confines of Abbey Road Studios, where they did the unimaginable. They transcended themselves and created music that made the world's collective jaws drop.
The filmmaker gives us the example of Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band as the documentary equivalent of a happy ending. Often regarded as the greatest album ever made, it's that and more: the perfect tease for a follow-up to this insightful film. Here Howard has given us the definitive cinematic record of the touring years. With his access to Apple Corps, the Lennon and George Harrison estates, and Martin's son, just imagine what he might do with the soaring, experimental studio years.
In everything else, the Beatles were the exception, so it's only fitting that they are in this case, too. Eight Days a Week is that rare work that absolutely demands a sequel.