The audiences — girls, pretty much — are going bananas; really bananas; incredibly, laughably bananas; lining streets, swarming hotels, rushing stages, fainting and screaming screaming screaming bananas, and the Beatles and everyone surrounding them are trying to answer one question: Is this a fad or some major cultural phenomenon?
In those early days depicted in Ron Howard’s documentary “The Beatles: Eight Days a Week—The Touring Years,” an interviewer actually asks Paul McCartney about the fledgling band’s place in cultural history, and the young Beatle seems baffled.
“It’s not culture,” he responds. “It’s a good laugh.”
Yet more than 52 years after the Beatles first touched down on this side of the ocean, surviving members McCartney and Ringo Starr and others are still reflecting on that question. The Liverpool foursome arrived like thrilling visitors from another planet, but now the Beatles are a ubiquitous part of the landscape, and the band as corporate entity has done an expert job of keeping them that way, whether through McCartney’s energetic, legacy-boosting tours or the annual pre-holiday releases of newly refurbished Beatles product.
This season’s theme is what a hot live band the Beatles were, hence the long-awaited CD/digital issue of a souped-up “Live at the Hollywood Bowl” plus this documentary from Oscar-winning director Howard, made with the cooperation of McCartney, Starr and John Lennon’s and George Harrison’s estates. And they were a hot band; Mark Lewisohn’s staggeringly comprehensive “Tune In: The Beatles — All These Years, Vol. 1” notes that by the time the Beatles had finished their Hamburg residencies, they had more on-stage experience than any other rock ‘n’ roll group up to that point.
Howard thrusts you into the action, with the Beatles exploding into “She Loves You” at a 1963 concert in Manchester. This is a hurricane as experienced from the eye; the storm moves from city to city, country to country, but the screams remain the same while Lennon and McCartney manage to make their shared-mic harmonies sound sweet.
At first the Beatles — charmingly quippy as always, as captured in much rarely seen footage — enjoy the commotion. They’d figured they’d have to work to win over American audiences, or as Lennon says at the time: “We thought it would be much quieter.”
But by 1966, when the band is accused of snubbing Imelda Marcos in the Philippines and then must deal with a Bible Belt backlash to a Lennon comment about Christianity, the frenzy has begun to feel dangerous. The musicians weary of every hotel maid and elevator operator wanting a piece of them, and they also wouldn’t mind if they or their audiences actually could hear their live performances.
Then there’s the gulf between the band’s artistic growth on record and its pile-driving approach on stage. On Aug. 5, 1966, the Beatles released their mind-expanding masterpiece “Revolver.” Twenty-four days later, the band played its final ticketed concert at San Francisco’s Candlestick Park, glimpsed here in vivid fan footage.
They opened with Chuck Berry’s “Rock ‘n’ Roll Music,” closed with Little Richard’s “Long Tall Sally” and played nothing from “Revolver” before being carted away at the back of a meat truck. No wonder they wouldn’t play another live show until their 1969 London rooftop gig filmed for the overdue-to-be-reissued “Let It Be” film and shown briefly here.
Howard is more interested in wowing audiences with exuberant, hysteria-ridden performances than he is in digging for explanations. John F. Kennedy’s assassination is touched upon, but Beatlemania already was in full swing in England at that point, and it hit just as hard in other countries, such as Australia, as it did in the U.S.
I’m glad Howard doesn’t gum things up with a procession of psychologists and musicologists. His experts are along the lines of Elvis Costello, an eventual McCartney collaborator who relates to being initially perplexed by 1965’s largely acoustic “Rubber Soul” album; Whoopi Goldberg, who touts the band’s cross-racial appeal (the Beatles’ refusal to play for segregated audiences also gets highlighted); and Sigourney Weaver, who is shown as a girl in the Hollywood Bowl audience.
What’s missing is musical or cultural context for the Beatles’ explosion, why “I Saw Her Standing There” whipped up listeners in a way that previous rock ‘n’ roll songs did not. Ringo gets his due as a drummer; Pete Best, whom he replaced, is never mentioned, and the movie echoes Lennon who, when asked why the girls scream, replies with a straight-faced, “I don’t know. I couldn’t tell you.”
And don’t expect dirt from such an authorized account. The Beatles’ pot-smoking on the “Help!” set gets cited, but that’s it for drugs, and there’s no sex — or tension within the band, for that matter.
Howard and his team have colorized some of the footage, though not well-known performances such as on “The Ed Sullivan Show.” It’s understandable that they wish to present the Beatles in a more contemporary light, but the faces sometimes take on a uniformly peach complexion, and once you’re aware of this digital manipulation — as you are now, thank you very much — it can be distracting.
The appeal of “Eight Days a Week” requires no trickery anyway. The world often falls for acts and phenomena (Pokemon Go, anybody?) that rarely achieve greatness. The screaming over the Beatles was bananas, but as seen and heard here, the object of those screams delivered the lasting goods.
“Eight Days a Week” is showing with a digitally restored version of the Beatles’ rousing 30-minute Shea Stadium performance from 1965, back when the Beatles were still amused by the screaming and scrambling about.
Hulu Documentary Films presents a documentary directed by Ron Howard. Running time: 129 minutes. No MPAA rating. Screening Thursday at local theaters, with showings continuing on future nights at the Music Box Theatre. Streaming begins Saturday on Hulu.