This documentary about the Beatles’ early years is screening now on Hulu. I saw it over the weekend at an art film house where the show apparently sold out every showing last weekend.
It’s fun to watch because, even today, the Beatles story is such a surprising one.
One day the Fab Four were obscure 20-year-old English musicians who had spent years writing and performing catchy dance tunes at small clubs in Liverpool and Hamburg. The next day, they were an international phenomenon unlike anything that had been seen before or, arguably, has been seen since.
Starting in 1962 the Beatles performed in increasingly larger venues and were the heartthrobs of apparently every teenage girl on the planet. (While their records sold in the millions, their recording contract was not favorable, and so they made most of their money from live performances. This sounds a little similar to the current situation.) Finally, four years later, after a “concert” before 56,000 people at Shea Stadium in Brooklyn, the lads had had it. They never performed for a live crowd again.
The movie includes well-restored film and sound from the 1960s, plus interviews with three of the four, as well as with people who knew and admired the band and with general commenters who provide a little bit of context.
True as it seems to be to the events, “Eight Days a Week” doesn’t do much to account for why Beatlemania arose so suddenly when it did. I suspect there were at least three reasons.
First, the Baby Boom, the largest generation in world history, was coming of age. The Beatles and their music resonated with the young people. It didn’t hurt that the Beatles’ hair — long by that day’s standards — annoyed the heck out of boomers’ parents, who had no idea what all the fuss was about.
Second, the Beatles were cute and attractive to young women. True, Frank Sinatra and Elvis Presley had legions of female fans, but there were four Beatles, all of them young. If you didn’t like John, you probably did like Paul or George or Ringo.
Third, the culture was far less splintered then. When the Beatles came to New York and performed on the Ed Sullivan television show, a popular talent show, 75 percent of all the television viewers in the country watched. No broadcast, not even the Super Bowl, commands that kind of market share these days.
The movie is interesting and well made, but it was released with the cooperation of Apple Corps, which owns the Beatles name and music and associated properties (there’s a Beatles video game, etc.), and this shows.
While the film discusses John’s flip remark about the Beatles being “more popular than Jesus” and current-day Paul admits that “we were all a little high” on marijuana during a 1965 recording stint, there is no mention of their LSD use the next year. These were serious matters 50 years ago.
In contrast, it goes on a bit long about the band’s refusal to play in segregated stadiums. It was an excellent gesture, of course, but easy for the Beatles in a moment when the country was riven by civil rights unrest and many brave people, not protected by hundreds of police officers, suffered for their activism.
Much is made of Paul and John’s cooperative songwriting — far better than the sum of their individual parts — but there is no mention of the developing rift between them. George, apparently a self-contained loner, and happy-go-lucky Ringo are mostly carried along for the ride.
I wish the film had taken at least a glance at how music and the culture had begun to change during the Beatles’ touring years. The Rolling Sones released their first album in 1964. From there, rock music grew many branches — acid, metal, funk, punk and hip hop among them. Everything from fashion to film to politics was rattled by the boomers’ growing pains.
In the theater where I saw the movie, the 50-something man sitting in front of me had rather large earplugs (distenders that left round windows in the middle of his earlobes.) My guess is that he had several tattoos as well.
Back when the Beatles were the big new thing with mop top haircuts and suits and ties — a man this age would have found them strange and weird. Now, I guessing, to the man in the theater, the early Beatles look quaint and cute and almost square.
What a long strange trip it’s been.