Filmmaker Ron Howard’s Documentary The Beatles: Eight Days a Week is Boomer Therapy
Ron Howard knows a little about what it’s like to be in the public eye. As a child actor, he starred as Opie in The Andy Griffith Show that ran from 1960-69. The Opie label would be one he had trouble shaking even as he then segued into the role of teen good guy Richie Cunningham on Happy Days.
Now 62, he is an established and respected director with successful films like Cocoon, Apollo 13, A Beautiful Mind and The Da Vinci Code to his credit. Howard, I’m guessing, probably saw a little something of himself in The Beatles as he followed the rise of the group in the early-to-mid 60s; though his own career trajectory was hardly rock ‘n’ roll, he did grow up in front of millions of viewers. In his more than capable director hands, his freshly-released documentary tribute to The Beatles is not necessarily groundbreaking (except for some recently uncovered footage of the group’s last live stadium concert in San Francisco), but probably the last look at a group that has had more than its share of coverage since they disbanded in 1970.
Like Spike Lee’s documentary, Michael Jackson’s Journey from Motown to Off the Wall, Howard’s look at The Beatles is filtered through a mostly sanitized, adulatory lens. The group’s decision to stop touring came after what would be their last live stadium performance in 1966 at Candlestick Park in San Francisco. While being tossed about in the back of an armoured car leaving the concert, it seems the boys had had enough. (Nothing is said about the fact that only 25,000 tickets had been sold in a stadium that had a 42,500-seat capacity, a bit of a come down from their 1965 Shea Stadium concert that sold 56,000 tickets.) Maybe word had got around that sound at these stadium (and arena) concerts was crap, the group’s music often re-routed through the stadium PA system. This is pointed out in the film with a voice-over from Elvis Costello, who says, it must have sounded “like a thousand transistor radios.”
There’s nothing in the film about the deterioration of the band’s relationships post-live concert period. Or that Lennon hated the McCartney-written ,Yesterday. Or that McCartney wanted to go back out on tour. Or that the Lennon shredded McCartney’s post Beatles rock-lite music in a song, How Do You Sleep? he wrote in 1971 that was one of the cuts on the album Imagine. Lennon was in no peace and love mood when he wrote:
The sound you make is Muzak to my ears
You must have learned something all those years
How do you sleep?
Ah how do you sleep at night?
(To understand why Lennon was an angry young man, look no further than the 2009 film, Nowhere Boy to see why.)
Howard’s documentary does however illustrate the sheer danger of being a Beatle. Crowd scenes make you wonder how they even got out alive. Fans so rabid they’d gladly take a piece of a Beatle home with them. Lennon’s comments about the group being more popular than Jesus lead to death threats, concerts picketed by the KKK and Beatles record burning “parties” organized by some of the very same radio stations that had just weeks before been major Beatles boosters. (At The Beatles one and only Montreal concert at the Forum in 1964, bomb threats and anti-Semitic-based bullying – aimed at Ringo Starr based, it seems, solely on the size of his nose – marred that concert. Their manager, Brian Epstein, kept his promise to never re-visit Montreal.)
The way the rest of the band members circled the wagons after Lennon had to retract his controversial statements was heartwarming. If The Beatles: Eight Days a Week says one thing with certainty, it is that John, Paul, George and Ringo were in it together as brothers.
I’m happy to leave it at that, despite all the post-touring nastiness that ensued. The film ends with a portion of the group’s last live stand on the roof of the Abbey Road studios. It looks as if they’re all having fun, which was the way it all began back in their home town of Liverpool. It’s staggering to think that they only really toured for about four years, but Howard’s film manages to capture all that chaos and beauty in a deftly-edited film that chooses to not muddy the waters. McCartney and Starr offer their comments throughout the film, tinged by impressions still remarkably fresh after almost 50 years. “By the end, it became quite complicated,” says McCartney. “But at the beginning things were really simple.”