Because the Beatles were such a multi-faceted phenomenon — creators of an enormous body of first-rate compositions; fomenters of a level of pop fandom bigger than anything before or since; experimenters in recording methods that revolutionized what pop album-making could do — the simple fact that they were a working band is now often obscured or ignored. This is the welcome reminder of Ron Howard’s new documentary, Eight Days A Week: The Touring Years, premiering Saturday on Hulu. (The film is also opening in, as they say, select theaters.)
Director Howard has set himself a confined task — documenting the years (roughly 1962 to 1966) in which the Beatles were a touring band — and succeeds in illuminating the Fab Four’s mastery of this aspect of pop stardom. Working with a limited amount of archival film, Howard has new interviews with Paul McCartney, Ringo Starr, and a number of other Beatle-related witnesses which help contextualize early Beatle life. There’s little here that’s new to a fan: We know about the group’s apprenticeship working grueling hours in tiny, hot, jammed clubs in their native Liverpool area and their stint at the Hamburg, Germany Star Club. We know that, once Beatlemania hit in 1964, the band was catapulted into new, unknown territory — forced to play stadiums normally reserved for sporting events simply to accommodate the number of fans and to avoid riots. Here, as Ringo points out, the Beatles were essentially being heard through the public-address systems — the tinny audio devices through which announcers usually gave crowds the batting line-ups at a baseball game.
But actually seeing and hearing the Beatles do this work is always startling, and Howard has laid out the material nicely. What strikes you is how superbly those tiny-club days honed and trained their ability to play well, with an almost brutal efficiency. Contrary to the late-period Beatle-myth that the quartet were arty types floating over the pop scene, Eight Days A Week — the title image not just a song title, but a phrase capturing the workload the band took on during the early days, feeling as though they were cramming eight days’ work into seven — convinces you that this was a very tough band. Paul, Ringo, John Lennon, and George Harrison were compelled to become a united, forceful sound that could be heard over screams, and through horrible sound systems. They learned how to control a crowd, how to pace a set for maximum effectiveness. Yes, their original songs were wonderful, but, watching Eight Days A Week, it’s just as thrilling to hear them tear into slashing covers of songs such as Chuck Berry’s “Roll Over Beethoven” — they attacked the music while also articulating its meaning.
Eight Days A Week isn’t a great rock documentary — as I said, Howard doesn’t have any new insight, no new revelations emerge from the interviews, and the pacing of the movie, simply given the brief length of time the Beatles toured, is constraining. But my oh my, it’s fun, it’s exciting, and it will introduce many non- or casual Beatle fans to the idea that, for a brief but life-altering space of time, the Beatles weren’t just the greatest rock band in the world, they were one of the toughest and best of all time.
Eight Days A Week: The Touring Years is streaming now on Hulu.