Do the Beatles still matter?

2016 Ron Howard (Director) The Beatles: Eight Days A Week – The Touring Years, Apple Corps.

YES OF COURSE THEY DO. How could they not? They are the standard bearers of how a pop group should look, sound and behave on and off the stage. This in itself is a huge legacy. But they achieved much more than that. Their popularity, unassailable for a decade, was so colossal that they brought taboo and underground practises into the mainstream: Think experimentation with LSD, flirtation with mystic religions, a tolerance of, if not faux appreciation for, the avant-garde in art, literature and technology. Although their influence in the cultural sphere was for the most part osmotic, it was sometimes direct and personal, as in the case when Paul McCartney, playing the role of king-maker, interceded on behalf of Jimi Hendrix to get him onto the artist roster for the Monterey Pop Festival. Had it not been for McCartney’s manoeuvring, Hendrix would have remained an obscure curiosity of the European club circuit and iconic brands synonymous with the guitarist’s name, such as Fender and Marshall, would have gone out of business ages ago.

As I make my way into cinema 1 at the Dendy Opera Quays to watch Ron Howard’s The Beatles: Eight Days A Week – The Touring Years, a different question presents itself: Who cares? I mean, no matter how important historians think the fab four are, who dwells on the subject of the Beatles in the twenty-first century? Judging by the number of people in attendance, not many it seems. That said, it’s quite typical for audience numbers to peter out a few weeks after a film screens nationally. But still, there’s hardly anyone here!

I settle comfortably into the darkened cinema and wait with some anticipation. Ron Howard is a thoughtful director so I’m optimistic he’s going to give us something, at least a few perspectives or insights, we haven’t encountered before.

The results are mixed but not unedifying. Using a fairly tried and true music documentary format that cleverly cobbles together live footage, band member and celebrity interviews, Howard delivers a slightly less familiar version of the Beatles than we’re accustomed to.

As promised by the subtitle, ‘The Touring Years’ focuses on the period from 1960 to 1966 spanning the Beatles’ Hamburg days to their performance at New York’s Shea Stadium, one of their last major public gigs. Howard organises the footage in a historical sequence interspersing it with an animated time-line. This feels like a clever and fun way to guide the viewer through the musical narrative.

The synopsis of Howard’s account is this: The Beatles were a tight-knit group with a social conscience. They were a bloody good live band because they played their bums off for ages before they were discovered. But, no matter how good they were, they couldn’t have made it without the smarts and connections that Brian Epstein brought to the table. Although this pretty much sums up the story-line there are nuances worth mentioning.

  • When they toured America in 1964, 1965 and again in 1966 they refused to play to segregated audiences in the South. Given their popularity at the time this political gesture would have definitely been a positive force of change.
  • Lennon and McCartney, maternally orphaned at a young age, found in music a vehicle to articulate this loss. Their shared biography and passion for rhythm and blues bound them together into one of the most successfully creative partnerships of the twentieth century.
  • The Beatles, pre-fame, were on the brink of breaking up more than once and we are told that it was Lennon who kept their flagging spirits alive through sheer force of his charismatic personality. Interesting.
  • The Beatles were quintessentially working class lads from Liverpool. It was this salt of the earth work ethic that underpinned their persistence in the face of crappy hotels, and disinterested and rowdy audiences. By the time they were discovered they were a polished act.
  • Lennon, McCartney, Harrison and Starr were destined for humdrum working class lives. The impact of the Beatles’ fame on their personal biographies cannot be underestimated. Nothing in their respective life histories prepared them for Beatlemania. What insulated them from the pressures of fame (drug abuse, madness etc.) was safety in numbers. They were four, not one, like the trail-blazing but tragically lonely Elvis Presley.
  • In a peculiar kind of way the Beatles sound is the sound of Liverpool. It’s delicious to think that after the Beatles we’re all a bit working class in our tastes. As if to make the point there’s a great little segment in the film (available on YouTube) featuring a 1964 football match between Liverpool FC and Arsenal where thousands of Liverpudlians are singing Help! in unison. Really powerful stuff.
  • John Lennon’s 1966 ‘we’re more popular than Jesus’ faux pas rates a mention in the film. This has been covered a million times before. Indeed, it’s a turning point in Lennon’s biography. Two things come to mind: First, the resulting public furore was a catalyst in his renunciation of the fickle nature of pop fandom and the beginning of his gradual withdrawal from public life. Secondly, the fact that he would come to live and die in the country which deserted him at the height of Beatlemania has a quality of irony that hadn’t occurred to me until tonight.
  • By the time they were limbering up for the Shea Stadium concert we learn that the Beatles were tired, exhausted and freaked out by the unwieldy beast they had co-created with Brian Epstein and George Martin. Smaller venues were no longer an option due to crowd control issues and safety concerns. But surely there was an economic imperative in playing to arena sized crowds, even if the sound system was abysmal. Apparently the Beatles couldn’t hear themselves above the screaming din. For all these reasons we’re told that George Harrison didn’t want to perform live anymore. The others fell in behind him. After all the Beatles were, McCartney and Starr remind us, a democratic unit. At the same time the adverse public reaction to Lennon’s irreverent comparison of the Beatles with JC must have weighed heavily on the group’s mind.

Google the words ‘Beatles’ and ‘Tour’ and it will become immediately evident that the boys had a punishing touring schedule from 1960 until they ceased performing live. Is the film’s subtitle, ‘Eight Days a Week’ an acknowledgement of this? Maybe.

Howard is clearly a Beatles aficionado and this film feels like a labour of love. Why else would a bonus 30-minute reel of the Shea stadium performance be included at the end of the feature, bringing the total viewing time to 2 hours and 38 minutes. I wonder if Howard himself was at Shea? We do know that Whoopi Goldberg attended. Her story of what the Beatles meant to her and how she came to see them that night is so touching that it’s worth the price of the film’s admission ticket alone. The glamorous Sigourney Weaver also makes an appearance. To be honest I can’t remember what she said because I was completely bowled over by how beautiful she looks in her older age.

But this is Howard’s baby and the question is will there be a sequel dealing with the Studio Years? Interestingly, he relegates their studio achievements from 1967 to 1970 to footnote status, rushing through these critically important years at the very end of the feature. If brevity of treatment implies disinterest, then I won’t hold my breath for Howard’s follow-up.

The feature concludes with the famous 1969 film recording of the Beatles performing ‘Don’t Let Me Down’ on top of the Apple Corps Building in Savile Row, London. It would be their last gig together.

Authorised documentaries are susceptible to touchy topics not being given a hearing, or the past being viewed through the biased lens of individuals and entities cooperating with the film maker. Howard’s effort is no exception. It’s interesting that hardly any other band or artist is discussed in the film. Moreover, Pete Best, the drummer of the Beatles from 1960 to 1962 barely gets a mention, even though he was with the group for the first third of its touring life. For a film that promises to cover the touring years, does this omission undermine its value as an authentic historical document?

I stay on for the bonus half hour Shea Stadium concert which I quite enjoy. This too is available on YouTube, but it’s a superb viewing experience on the big screen.

The performance finishes, the credits roll and the screen goes dim. The house lights come on, gently bathing the cinema in a warm soft glow. It’s ghostly quiet. I look at my watch and it’s nearly midnight. The last ferry has departed from Circular Quay. I rise from my chair and look around. Ha! There’s no one here. As it turns out I’ve been watching the film all by myself for the entire evening.

Walking out of the Dendy into the cool spring night, I start singing the words ‘she loves you yeah yeah yeah’ over and over and over again.

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