Why hasn’t interest in the Beatles faded, as it has with so much other 1960’s phenomena? The Fab Four continue to fascinate us, as evidenced in a stream of music and film re-issues, and in brisk advance ticket sales for “The Beatles: Eight Days a Week —The Touring Years” at the Coral Gables Art Cinema.
You’ll find a number of answers in Ron Howard’s fascinating, richly layered documentary, which focuses on the band’s touring years, from 1962 to 1966. The film draws on more than 100 hours of rare and unseen footage from fans, media, archives and the Beatles’ private collection, as well as a fantastic array of photos, creating a vivid sense of the group and its evolution from irresistibly spontaneous teens to culture-shifting artists, and the mania that surrounded them. There’s so much concert footage (including a bonus half hour of remastered film of their famous 1965 Shea Stadium concert, which at press time was the subject of a lawsuit by a company representing the show’s deceased promoter) you come away feeling like you saw them live. Fans should be mesmerized, but even those who don’t know the group ought to be seduced.
But it’s the stories underlying the history that make this film so resonant. Some are familiar — how four naive, working-class kids conquered the world just by being who they are; the savvy manager who shaped their image (those bespoke mod suits) and turned them into a brand; the power of youth culture; the ultimately unbearable pressure of celebrity that drove the Beatles away from performing and into the studio and the creative experimentation that produced some of their greatest albums (hello, “Sgt. Pepper”) and changed pop music. That those stories have become part of how we understand pop culture and how it works doesn’t lessen their impact.
Other ideas are new, like the sense of universality that the Beatles inspired. “They gave me the idea everyone was welcome,” says Whoopi Goldberg, who’s interviewed along with Elvis Costello and other famous figures. Long interviews with Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr are particularly revealing, as when McCartney tells us how John Lennon was the first person he met who also wrote songs. Miamians should be fascinated by the stories of Larry Kane, then a news director at a Miami radio station, who accompanied the band on its whirlwind 1964 U.S. tour, when the Beatles’ refusal to play for a segregated audience (at the height of the civil rights movement) forced the Jacksonville Gator Bowl to open up to blacks and whites.
Some of the conclusions feel a little forced, and there is a lot packed into the movie. But the vivid, close-up imagery — Ringo shaking goofily at a press conference, the still unnerving hysteria of their fans, the growing wariness in the group’s eyes — brings the film home. That the source of the Beatles’ charm and artistry are still a mystery doesn’t make them any less compelling. There’s a saying in pop music that “a hit is a hit,” meaning you can’t ever quite explain why a song captures us. Why do the Beatles fascinate us? Because they do.