Blu-ray Review: The Beatles: Eight Days a Week - The Touring Years

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Who directed the new Beatles documentary Eight Days a Week, George Lucas?? Some of the live performances (iconic stuff like their famous Washington Coliseum performance during their first U.S. visit and also some frequently-seen press conference footage) have been... colorized. Unlike George Lucas' endless revisionism with his Star Wars series, obviously a work of fiction, director Ron Howard has gone so far as a mess with actual history. Eight Days a Week purports to be a documentary. The material presented should have been left undoctored. What's next? Computer-generated renderings of a virtual "Beatles" performing songs from later in their career that never made it to the stage? Once the line is crossed and filmmakers no longer have any regard for the integrity of the actual history they're supposedly presenting, we get into very murky waters. (Note: no direct mention is made about the alteration of this footage within the film itself, it is presented at face value.)

Howard's film, which enjoyed largely rapturous reviews during its limited theatrical run this past fall, is now available on Blu-ray—as a single disc containing just the movie, or a double-disc deluxe package that adds a lot of extra material. Do yourself a favor and get the double-disc edition. While Howard's main feature offers yet another re-telling of the familiar Beatles narrative, there's more interesting material contained in the featurettes on the second disc. The "Alternative Opening For the Film" shows that somewhere along the line Eight Days a Week morphed into a safer, duller, and less ambitious. The alternate opening, with its artful "slideshow" visuals and intellectual, thoughtful commentary, is a glimpse at a more artful version of Eight Days a Week. One that wasn't to be.

Perhaps the reason Howard's film is such an uninspired retread lies in its foundation as an 'in-house' Apple production. The problem with "authorized biographies" is usually that the subject has too much control over the way their image is presented. The problem with "unauthorized biographies" is that the producers have extremely limited access to archival materials and interviews with the people whose stories are being told. That's an extreme simplification but one that applies here. The production team wanted/needed the full cooperation of surviving Beatles Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr, plus the John Lennon and George Harrison estates. They wanted photos and film footage people haven't seen before. So begins the compromise. Virtually nothing separates Eight Days a Week from The Beatles Anthology, save for the fact that Anthology tells the entire Beatles story—and in far greater detail with far more extensive live concert footage. 
rsz_beatles_eight_days_a_week_bd.jpg That's not to say there isn't joy to be had in viewing Eight Days a Week. But the film plays like a 100-minute EPK rather than an artful, probing, revealing documentary. And the supposed focus of the film—the Beatles as a touring band—is a bit watery. Plenty of time is still spent discussing the studio records and their songwriting process. Howard offers yet another version (albeit heavily condensed) of the story that fans have been hearing for decades. And most of the performance footage is heavily edited and truncated (and oh yeah, in some cases colorized), with songs interrupted for voiceover narration. For their part, McCartney and Starr's new interviews bring virtually nothing to the table. It's the archival stuff that offers a rather startling glimpse of a time when McCartney was actually a candid interview subject who wasn't so guarded about the image he presented. The material dealing with the band's opposition to segregation is absolutely vital and the best segment in the film.

Although interviews with famous fans like Sigourney Weaver (who was at one of the famed Hollywood Bowl concerts) and Whoopi Goldberg (who was at the even more celebrated Shea Stadium concert) are fun, it's a crying shame that interviews with The Ronnettes' Ronnie Spector, the Beatles' first manager Allan Williams, and more have been relegated to the bonus section. The stuff on the second disc is often more compelling than what's in the actual film. There's also some full-length performances and further interviews with the likes of artists like Elvis Costello (who is in the main feature, too—the film could've used more commentary by first-rate artists like this), the Beatles' fan club secretary Freda Kelly (herself the focus of the delightful documentary Good Ol' Freda—a superior Beatles doc to Eight Days, however less publicity it received), and more. The bonus disc contains some additional 100 minutes of great stuff, making it every bit as worthwhile as the main film.

After all these years, the best feature-length documentary about the Fab Four is director Patrick Montgomery's The Compleat Beatles (1982). This is a mature, dramatic, artfully conceived telling of The Beatles' story that conveys a sense of the band's importance and influence on the times that surrounded them. Narrated with magnificent gravity by Malcolm McDowell, this film filled the gap left by the Beatles' inability (at the time) to create their own "official" documentary. Reportedly it was Paul McCartney himself who snatched up the rights to Compleat from production company Delilah Films, ensuring that it will never again see the legitimate light of day. This way it wouldn't compete with any of the Apple-produced films. The Compleat Beatles was quite popular and successful back in the dark ages of VHS and (despite the presence of a few minor factual errors in the narration) is highly recommended if you can find it.

That sense of historical context that Patrick Montgomery and Compleat writer David Silver brought to their film is part of what's missing from Eight Days a Week (and Anthology for that matter). Somehow it seems that Apple manages to buff the artistry (or potential artistry) right off the films that have come out about the band. One of the greatest documentary filmmaking teams of all time, David and Albert Maysles, had their original What's Happening! The Beatles in the U.S.A. (1964) bastardized in favor of the "official" The Beatles: The First U.S. Visit (still a far better film than Eight Days in every way, but still—it's the historical revisionism that's deeply troubling). Someone called it the "Disney-fication" of the Beatles, back when Apple finally had its affairs in order enough to produce the spit-polished, stylistically-sterile Anthology.

Though it works pretty well as a general introduction to the Beatles for newer, younger fans, Eight Days a Week is largely a missed opportunity. The film not only fails to add much of significance to The Beatles' story as it has already been told many times (something Ron Howard himself acknowledged in press interviews), it willfully distorts history by adding ghastly colorization to existing black-and-white footage. Beatles fans of all ages will certainly add this new Blu-ray release to their Christmas lists this year—as they should. Hopefully this film will help introduce The Beatles to even more fans and help keep their legacy fresh and vital. But on its own terms, Eight Days a Week is a wholly unnecessary addition to the existing canon of officially-sanctioned Apple Corps product.

(The deluxe package also includes a thick—64 pages!—booklet with an introduction by Ron Howard, an essay by music journalist Jon Savage, and lots of photos.)

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Chaz Lipp writes for The Morton Report.

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