Saturday, September 17, 2016

Review: Beatles' "Eight Days a Week" full of fun, missed opportunities

I don't recall ever coming out of a movie theater with my ears ringing, but it happened last night. There's a lot of high-pitched screaming in "The Beatles: Eight Days a Week - The Touring Years." Imagine what it must've been like to be in the band?

That's essentially the experience the movie provides, putting us in the eye of the hurricane that was Beatlemania. It's loud, exciting, fun and scary. There are so many screams and so many faces: smiling, crying, laughing, contorted.

Better than any documentary I've seen, including "The Beatles Anthology," Ron Howard's documentary captures the liberating hysteria of Beatlemania and the band's hectic touring days.  There's scene after scene of screaming, stampeding fans and the Beatles traveling around the world, boarding and de-boarding airplanes.

There are hilarious fan interviews, as with the young girl who insistently tells a reporter that "George has sexy eyelashes," and stunning scenes, such as a gigantic  crowd of Anfield Football Club fans in Liverpool patriotically singing "She Loves You." In a talking head interview, actress Sigourney Weaver talks about going to go see the Beatles at the Hollywood Bowl and then, amazingly, we see her as a teen, smiling in the crowd.

Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr also provide new interviews and we hear a good amount via archive interviews from John Lennon and George Harrison. Howard captures the band's humor and camaraderie. Their appeal then, and now, is clear: These guys are funny, friendly, supremely confident and super-talented.

It's all exhilarating, to the point of being too much. The montages of screams and travel eventually get redundant and I started to long for more of what I came for -- extended live performance footage from the band.

When first announced, the intention of "Eight Days a Week" was to create the missing Beatles concert film, to collect performances -- both fan-shot and professional -- and present the band playing its music. But, somewhere along the line, the mission got muddied and we now have a mix of a Beatles biography and, still, a live-performance showcase.

Don't get me wrong. There's some jaw-dropping performance footage here, and several songs are played in full. I'm thankful for every one of them. Yet, I kept wishing for more and thinking about performances that weren't, and should've been, included.

For example, songs played before live TV audiences get short shrift. There's very little footage from the band's excellent "Drop In" appearance in Sweden in 1963 and none at all of Paul singing "Yesterday," even though excellent renditions exist from both "Blackpool Night Out" and "The Ed Sullivan Show."

I wish Howard/Apple had dropped some of the biography and chronology and included more songs. Yet, I also want to have it both ways: I was very moved by the film's section on the band's refusal to play segregated concerts in the U.S. South and by historian Kitty Oliver's comments about how much it meant to her, as a teen in Jacksonville, to see the band play and stand among fans both black and white.

Certainly, a film focused on the Beatles and their cultural impact is worthy, but so is one focusing on their songs and performances. And so, for that matter, is one about their growth as artists in the recording studio. There are a few sections in "Eight Days a Week" that focus on this, contrasting the Beatles' ability to experiment and innovate in the confines of Abbey Road versus being creatively stifled by too much touring and too much screaming.

When we finally reach the end of the touring years -- after Jesus, Imelda Marcos and the Budokan -- the film is like a student trying to finish a term paper 10 minutes before class. Everything from Sgt. Pepper through Abbey Road becomes a blurred montage, with an on-screen caption telling us that, after they left the road, the band happened to record some of the best music of the 20th Century. Then we go out with a couple of songs -- in tantalizing quality -- from the "Let it Be" rooftop gig. It's all a case of trying to do too much in too little time.

Given that, it was a relief in the theater to sit through the credits and then watch the 1965 Shea Stadium film. Finally, after all those rapidly changing scenes, we could relax and see the band play several complete songs in a row. The picture and sound quality was excellent and the scenes of John losing a grip while playing organ on "I'm Down" never cease to make me crack up and laugh out loud. If only more of Howard's film could've been like this.

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