Saturday, September 17, 2016

Eight Days a Week: The Beatles—The Touring Years

Now You Know How Many Holes it Takes to Fill the Albert Hall

You would think that Apple Corps had mined every last shekel that could be squeezed from The Beatles product—I have always thought that Paul McCartney would eventually release a CD of just his guitar-parts called "All my Bass" (which, actually, might be kind of interesting, as his work I've always found surprisingly soulful). 

The one aspect that hasn't been picked to the bone was the work they did as concert performers, a proposition that is daunting as their tours, once they got out of the UK-Hamburg-Sweden "struggling-artists" circuit, were sparse (they were one-night shows), contractually controlled, and brief (their concerts lasted a fleeting 30 minutes at most, but less if they were tired, scared, or the conditions were impossible, the definition of which was impossibly high*). That may sound like a larkish breeze, but the logistics were usually slopped together, the crowds were hysterically riot-level wherever they went, and they basically played without hearing themselves as the crowd levels crushed the limits of their primitive equipment on stage.**

"Larkish breeze?" The Beatles were in the eye of their own self-made hurricane. Hence, the ironic limits-busting title of the documentary. 
But, records of those concerts are rare, except for television appearances, and the odd promotional film that provided mere tastes of the experience. What there is bear the limits of audio equipment that couldn't filter the constant "white noise" made by the concert-goers and the limitations of film to deal with a continuous 30 minute experience.*** And there are legal issues...The Beatles were also in an economic hurricane, anybody who could get a piece of The Beatles to sell would do so at the drop of a...well, anything The Beatles dropped (I think I still have a piece of the room carpet from the Edgewater Inn where The Beatles stayed when they played Seattle in least they said it was. It was treated like a talisman in my house). So, Eight Days a Week is the product of a plea from Apple for material from concert-goers for footage from whatever primitive recording equipment the audience had in their possession (ironically, Apple (not that one, the phone company) has just filed a patent for technology that will prevent you from doing precisely that at current concerts). It must have been a struggle because director Ron Howard has been working on this thing since 2012.
Howard has two things in mind in this: to show the footage in the best possible way, but also tell the story of the transition from The Beatles being boys who liked to play music to artists who became disenchanted when the music became disappointingly irrelevant to the effort they were putting out...and the risks they were taking to achieve it. Popularity killed the tours, and The Beatles, for whom the music was paramount, realized it was the least important element in the craziness of the concerts. After the particularly hectic and controversial 1966 tour, in which it seemed that everybody had a grudge against them, they would retreat to the studio to make music, away from the madness of the crowds, working in isolation from their fans, and frequently each other, until even that arrangement no longer satisfied them. Howard uses his fetish for graphics to tell the story of The Beatles concerts in conjunction with album sales to make the point that they achieved their highest goals once they stopped touring.
The results are ingenious. They—the editors of the thing—desperately try to make individual songs visually coherent: they start with a newsreel that has good sound and color and looks very good and they've colorized the first "official" US concert in Washington D.C. and then the results go steadily down-hill as the film progresses with grabbed 16mm and 8mm footage, snippets cobbled together with just a snatch of lip-movement that might match a song-lyric. The music, which is always a problem with Beatles footage, has been heroically over-processed by George Martin's son, Giles, to try to maximize the music while not distorting it TOO much. 

They've also tried mightily hard to not simply re-hash and re-purpose footage already familiar from "The Beatles Anthology" series, which is still the best record of The Beatles phenomenon extant. There will be things that look familiar...the Washington DC concert, the newsreel footage—they trot out the first Sullivan show, of course—and folks seeing it in a theater will see the four's part of the Shea Stadium concert again, with one of my favorite Beatles moments—after trying vainly to be heard over 65,000 fans (and Lennon tries, he really TRIES, during "I Feel Fine,") they give up on the last number "I'm Down" and just go a little crazy, Lennon especially. They start laughing, trying to keep it together, but NO-body can hear. They're almost done and safe...what does it matter? I love that moment, but it's like a rosetta stone for the beginning of the end. They had created this hysteria far beyond appreciation and it defeated the purpose of actually being there. "How can you laugh?" How could you not?
But beyond providing that timeline, Howard really does not bring much to the party other than that perspective. The interviews are fairly perfunctory, although the ones of McCartney and Starr seem a bit more personal than before. There is a rather useless interview with a "composer" explaining the importance of The Beatles to song-writing output (comparing to Schumann and Bach...for how much they wrote, completely unnecessary), Eddie Izzard comments on the Beatles irreverent press conferences (yawn), Sigourney Weaver is there for a few seconds because they found a few seconds of footage of her at the first Hollywood Bowl concert. Whoop Goldberg's interviews are animated and touching and they bring up a point known to few—The Beatles had a "rider" in their concerts that the venues couldn't be segregated. Now, that's impressive and shows the positive influence of the group. It would be ridiculous for The Beatles, who were so influenced and awed by America's black artists to play before segregated crowds and they had the clout...and the potential to cause riots...that even the deepest Southern venues gave in.
The Beatles at the Seattle Coliseum-my sister is in there somewhere.
The best interview—and really the best part of the film besides the concert footage—is the interview with Philadelphia newscaster Larry Kane. He traveled with The Beatles during their tours in 1964 and '65 and his recollections and, more importantly, his archive of material make up a good...make that a great...swath of the film's middle section. The man is as straight as they come and sober as a judge and his dispassionate stories about breakneck deadlines, life on the road, riots, fear, and the four's closeness and empathy make for an intimate glimpse without getting fannish about it. He was inside the eye of the hurricane but not generating it and his observations of what might seem to some the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse reveals that they were, instead, the door-men for a shift in the culture that went far beyond the music and the men who generated it. And they opened that door wide...for generations to come.

* One of their roadies says in the film that during the August 21, 1966 St. Louis concert held during a driving rain-storm, he had instructions to "pull the plug" if he saw one of The Beatles "go down" from electrocution. What he doesn't say in the film is that he watched the concert warily as sparks flew every time McCartney's electric bass got too close to his microphone (which happened frequently).

** One of the better laughs the movie gets is when somebody mentions that, for the Shea Stadium concert in New York, Vox made brand, new powerful amplifiers for the group...a whopping 100 watts. Ringo mentions that he could only tell where he was in a song by watching the asses of Lennon and McCartney.

*** The Shea Stadium film leaves out two of the songs, each at the 10 minute mark, so the cameramen could reload their gear and there was not enough "coverage" to match the rest of the film. 

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