It’s been 50 years and one month since The Beatles played their last concert in public – a blustery night in Candlestick Park on the western shore of San Francisco Bay. After five plus years of constant touring, the four musicians were hurried away from 50,000 screaming fans in the back of a van, their bodies heaving to and fro as the steel truck sped across the grass and through outfield gates towards the exit. It was at that point, according to Paul McCartney, the four bandmates realized playing for crowds wasn’t worth it – the steady grind from city to city, the terrible sound systems and the constant din of teenagers shouting louder than the music they played convinced them to cease touring for good. The world’s greatest band - the group that was and remains a cultural phenomenon like no other – called it quits, opting instead to pursue loftier goals inside the recording studio.
Ron Howard’s new documentary, The Beatles: Eight Days a Week, was released this month, both in theaters and online via Hulu. The film focuses on the Fab Four’s touring years, beginning in their days in Liverpool clubs, through Hamburg, across England and Europe and as they arrived in New York City in February, 1964 to throngs of fans at the newly named Kennedy Airport. Using still photos, news clips, handheld movies and newly found footage discovered by fans after Howard’s public plea for anything Beatles-related, Eight Days a Week captures the frenzied crowds, the crying girls, the bewildered police and the staccato voices of old fashioned radio reporters saying things like, “This Beatlemania has swept the nation,” and, “Why do your fans scream so much?” To which the four Beatles replied, “We don’t know!” as they laughed and mugged for the cameras.
Much of the sound from those concerts was remastered for the film, and listening to performances of “She Loves You” from 1963 in London and “You Can’t Do That” from a show in Melbourne, Australia in 1964 are fascinating. Ringo Starr, his suit coat still buttoned, slams away at a drum kit that looks like you’d find it near a dumpster after a yard sale in Penacook, and you can see the sweat running down John’s, Paul’s and George’s make-up caked faces as they wail away on “I Saw Her Standing There.” I learned The Beatles’ refusal to play at a segregated concert at the Gator Bowl in Jacksonville, Florida had a lot to do with forcing large southern stadiums to rethink their segregationist approach, and hearing Whoopi Goldberg describe her surprise trip to see the band at Shea Stadium as a young girl obsessed with The Beatles is touching.
Howard does a skillful job of sharing something new about The Beatles, not an easy task for the most documented, filmed and dissected group in modern musical history. I consider myself a true Beatles fan –perhaps not a Fab Four musicologist, but I know all the music, all the words and details about George’s love life that teeter on unnecessary. My friend Sean and I would listen to hour after hour of the White Album, Revolver, Live at the Hollywood Bowl, Beatles for Sale and all the others from grade school up through high school and college. I still listen to them at least once a day, and every song I hear – from “I Feel Fine” to “I’ve Got a Feeling” to “Tomorrow Never Knows” still makes me grin. Watching this film showed me scenes I’d not caught before and outtakes of songs I’d never heard. Watch when George holds a transistor radio to his ear in the Plaza Hotel or learn about how John felt about his career and the band’s trajectory while making the film Help – all of it compelling to any Beatles fan or fans of popular music and culture.
The four Beatles as well as their producer George Martin, their manager Brian Epstein and their road managers and roadies help paint a picture of the sheer speed at which the band went from a local favorite to a worldwide force in a handful of years. Howard keeps the lens on touring and performances, showing their growing disenchanted with life on the road and how, only three months removed from their last concert in San Francisco, they started working on what many consider the greatest album of all time – Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, a concept Paul created as a way to distance himself and the others from the idea of The Beatles as a thing bigger than themselves.
At one point in the film, a reporter interviews Paul, asking, “So what kind of impact do you think you’ll leave on Western culture?” Paul stops, thinks for a second and responds, “It’s not culture – it’s a good laugh.” I’d suggest it’s a lot of both – popular culture in its highest form and more than a good laugh – more like a smile ear to ear as we get to listen to what they left behind forever.
The Beatles: Eight Days a Week is available on Hulu and is showing for a limited time at Red River Theatre in lovely downtown Concord. The film is rated PG but should be shown to toddlers and infants so that they might develop an appreciation for the best music ever written, despite Ringo’s incessant cheekiness.