The Beatles might be the most documented band in the world. In fact, they are unique for having their every move filmed and chronicled before doing so became commonplace. So it’s hard to imagine what a new piece, particularly one with so narrow a focus as the touring years, could possibly tells us that hasn’t already been discussed. Which is the biggest issue with Ron Howard’s new documentary, never offering enough new information for existing fans or enough depth for people first discovering the Fab Four.
Unlike the comprehensive 8-part The Beatles Anthology series, which pretty much made the final word on the band back in 1995, Howard’s film looks almost exclusively at the active touring years. From Liverpool’s Cavern Club in 1962 and their final stadium gig in San Francisco in 1966, the film attempts to cover the pressures the four were under to record and perform in the public eye, with the period covered effectively being one long tour.
If you are an existing fan of the legendary group, otherwise known as a “human”, there’s a good chance you’ve seen much of this footage before. Howard’s film doesn’t break the formula, combining archival footage and photos, new and existing interviews with the band, and several other (mostly American) talking heads. What it does incredibly well is create a sense of the intensity and camaraderie of those touring years, and like Grant Gee’s seminal Radiohead doco Meeting People is Easy, it conveys the genuine frustrations and weariness the band felt by the time they retired to the studio.
Howard also attempts to add some specific historical perspective to the canon, and it’s also principally an American one. Howard and credited writer Mark Monroe draw parallels with the Civil Rights movement in the US, including the band’s refusal to play to a segregated audience in Jacksonville. Of the handful of talking heads interviewed, an emotional Whoopi Goldberg offers a touching story about her mother scraping together enough money to take her to the Shea Stadium show. It would feel like a total non sequitur if it weren’t such an endearing story, but like many things in the compressed format, it’s given a perfunctory amount of screen time. Similarly, massive tour stops, such as the unprecedented 300,000 people that greeted The Beatles in Adelaide, are glanced over as a footnote.
Few new pieces have been uncovered, and these are mostly talking heads from obvious folks like Paul McCartney, Ringo Starr, Richard Lester, and touring media Larry Kane. Less obvious are Goldberg, Sigourney Weaver, Eddie Izzard, filmmaker Richard Curtis, and Elvis Costello, who only appear to be to give newer audiences someone familiar. On a technical level, Paul Crowder’s skilled editing pulls together the most compelling slices, creating a visual montage of the tension and fanaticism that surrounded the subjects at all times. Some odd choices are made, however, with inconsistent colourisation of key moments that would have been better remaining in black and white.
Hopefully there’s an intention to release “The Studio Years,” as THE BEATLES: EIGHT DAYS A WEEK – THE TOURING YEARS only tells part of the story. The studio is depicted as a sanctuary for the band, where some of their best music emerged, but the last four or five years of that recording time (or anything prior to Hamburg) is only mentioned in a handful of title cards. Closing on the final “Rooftop Concert” from the Let It Be sessions, you get the impression of a neat package that’s been wrapped up, but this is far from the case. Nevertheless, it is a compressed introduction for a new generation, albeit missing a few key moments, and the accompanying 4K restoration of the 1964 Shea Stadium gig looks and sounds amazing, perhaps giving us a far better glimpse at what being a Beatle on tour was really like.