Saturday, September 24, 2016

The Wrong Kind of Easy: Eight Days a Week – The Touring Years

A scene from Ron Howard's The Beatles: Eight Days a Week – The Touring Years.

Ron Howard’s The Beatles: Eight Days a Week – The Touring Years is a documentary covering the Beatles’ life as a live band from 1963 to 1966, with interludes on their studio work, and everything about it is easy. Why shouldn’t it be? The Beatles were nothing if not easy – “easy,” as Bob Dylan put it in Chronicles, “to accept.” But there are different kinds of ease. Dylan wrote that the Beatles “offered intimacy and companionship like no other group,” with the implied knowledge that intimacy is one of the scariest things in life, for it contains everything that is possible in human relationships. Intimacy is sometimes looking the other in the face in complete silence and not knowing. Intimacy is risking enough so that, if you lose the other, you might lose yourself. The Beatles’ ease was never the ease of knowing that every landing would be soft, or every revelation safe; theirs was the ease of surrendering, gladly and freely, a part of yourself that you’d never get back. To surrender to something as powerful and lovely as the Beatles, and as laden with promises of sadness and death – that was the intimacy they offered, the terrifying intimacy of lovers.

Though it’s full of screaming and it talks about pressure, Eight Days a Week is the wrong kind of easy. It’s as comfortable as going through high school yearbooks. It is soft, smooth, and shallow – the essence of nostalgia and of anodyne. I want so much more than this movie is giving. But the paradox is that its ease makes it difficult, at least while sitting, as I did, in a packed suburban theater with an adoring audience made mostly of white baby boomers – many of whom, surely, were in the Beatles’ concert audiences as kids – to know what that “so much more” might involve. Because what it does give is clearly useful and heartfelt. What should a film about the Beatles’ touring incarnation, from the arrogant innocence of ’63 to the seared disgust of ‘66, amount to, what should it give? Something you feel only in its absence. Something deeper than this, scarier; some vision taking in both the blissful scream and the bottomless hunger, the vertiginous height and grinding depth of Beatlemania. Something capturing and elaborating glimpses that were caught in previous documentaries: The Beatles Anthology, The Brian Epstein Story, George Harrison: Living in the Material World. Something that sniffs out mystery and alienation, that doesn’t seek only a smile, a nod, a surge of warmth, a safe landing. Something not merely familiar, but intimate; something uncanny.

In one very basic sense it is foolish to critique a movie made by fans, for fans. Eight Days a Week is wall-to-wall Beatles, and even the most critical fan wants that. But we have to go past the surface pleasure of watching the band in color and in black and white, in rich film grain and in sizzling television dots, to ask what such a movie gives, what it takes. For Beatle fans – especially, I can only estimate, for baby boomers – Eight Days a Week is a pillow under the head, and over the mouth. What it affords is an insular sensation of well-being, and what it smothers is shadow and grimness, any suggestion that the Beatles’ phenomenon cannot be contained in goofy, giggly shots of fainting fans and cops plugging their ears. I looked forward to the segment on 1966, to tracking once again the Beatles’ harried race through that scarifying year: right-wing protest in Japan, mob assault in Manila, mass burning in the South; all of that on top of faltering musicianship, drug fugues, the increasingly disjunctive confrontation between four jaded grownups and mobs of kids still wearing retainers. Surely no film focusing on the Beatles as a touring band could fail to make a dark feast of this material, to at least summon some sense of the evil spirit that followed the group through that year. Well, Eight Days a Week could so fail – by not attempting. By skimming. By mentioning, name-checking, referring to, but never lingering on. Quick shots of John Lennon’s sour Chicago smile as he bitterly “retracts” the Jesus remark; but no sense that we should taste of that bile ourselves, feel the fear of murder that forced him into a show of contrition he would spend the rest of his life undoing. The enormity of Beatles ‘66 goes by in a wisp. But then nothing in this film is held onto for silence or for wondering, or even for simple drama. Its average cut is timed to the smile and the nod, to the “mmm” and the “ahh.” We never look the other in the face in silence, not knowing.

The Beatles arriving at JFK Airport, February 7, 1964.

Obviously, there’s great charm to the movie. Ringo and Paul are with us throughout, funny and game in their interview splices, their unretouched sags and wrinkles providing a partial, if subliminal, stop against nostalgia. There are scraps of novelty: I was unaware that a certain Ed Freeman, a Boston teenager and aspiring folksinger, served as roadie for part of the 1966 North American tour; where has he been all these years, and why is he given only a few seconds of screen time? A number of celebrity talking heads are brought in as expert witnesses – ones we’d enjoy more of, like Elvis Costello, and ones we wouldn’t, like Malcolm Gladwell, evidently invited because he’s famous and talks about trends. Sigourney Weaver appears, randomly it seems, until we see recovered footage of her among the Hollywood Bowl throng in 1964, precisely and unmistakably herself. (As against the anonymous girl filmed at the Beatles’ 1966 Shea Stadium concert whom various magical thinkers have insisted, in defiance of visual and historical evidence, is a teenaged Meryl Streep.)

But charm has relatively little to do with the intimacy at the heart of the Beatle-fan complex. The best bits in this documentary’s epic recovery project are tossed away or fumbled altogether, while the worst are stroked like precious cats. Whoopi Goldberg is another of the celebrity heads. She is part of the film’s valid and important sense that black fans are part of the Beatles’ story, that the Beatles have played a part in some of their stories. But Whoopi, cherubic to begin with, goes maudlin very quickly in telling a (logistically dubious) story about her mother and two tickets to Shea Stadium, and it is just too much: a pillow over the face. (Ron Howard might instead have talked to Spike Lee, who in a 1997 Playboy interview with Elvis Mitchell admitted loving the Beatles on the radio as a child, only to have them silenced by his jazz-snob father. But that would have invited a contemplation of conflict, raised a sliver in the softness.)

Everything around the Beatles, the movie reminds us, was unprecedented. Perhaps only an unprecedented feat of filmmaking could begin to get near them as a live, global, mass-action phenomenon, something of flesh and concrete, tears and urine, electric wires and inflamed emotions, all building to a cosmic deafness whose only possible sequel was physical retreat – the Beatles into their studio, the audience into their movements, fragments, communes, cults. Ron Howard – decent man, decent director – will never do anything unprecedented. What he will do is incorporate technology and narrative in a seamless crowd-pleasing coherence free of dumb mistakes, stray thoughts, wild tangents, or streaks of the unaccountable. He’ll show us every trick, and never catch the magic.

The Beatles performing at New York's Shea Stadium in 1965.

But if a theater near you is showing Eight Days a Week, go there now. (Truly, now: the limited release is also a limited run, and the film will be on DVD in November.) Eight Days a Week is being followed in theaters by a “bonus track” – a 30-minute edit and restoration of The Beatles at Shea Stadium, the long-unseen TV documentary of the historic August 15, 1965, concert. Drawing in excess of 55,000 people to a Flushing Meadow baseball arena on a sweltering night, the concert was an important part of the Beatles’ multi-stage demolition of existing limits on popular possibility. Cut from its original 50 minutes by excising opening acts and backstage montage, the film is simply the Beatles in more or less real concert time, performing their standard 1965 lineup. (Anomalies: “Act Naturally,” the Ringo showcase which was overdubbed in the original film with the studio version, is restored to its liveness; “She’s a Woman,” absent from the original, plays over the end credits.) It is blessedly unnarrated, unwritten, un-talking-headed. It is both raw and near-hallucinatory, the frame wide, the color vivid, the skin bracingly near. It is filmed and cut to the real time and lived momentum of an experience that remains, at some base level, unbelievable.

Especially coming after the Howard documentary’s shallow dip, the Shea film is a prolonged immersion. We swim in the blue and white light, in the heat that unites Beatles and fans in a democracy of sweat. We swim in the onstage byplay of the group, their gestural jokes, their little taps and feints. Though all four members are fully present, vital, energized – Paul’s screams, George’s guitar flash, Ringo’s blistering time – it must be said that we mostly swim in John Lennon. He is dominant, rapacious, threateningly funny. Grinding into his Rickenbacker for the first bars of “Dizzy Miss Lizzie,” legs split and jacket askew, he is as sexy as the young Elvis, and more insinuating. Lennon tosses Shea Stadium around like a ball. He speaks in tongues and lifts his arms to the sky as if the very heavens were his to take. He’s irresistible and uncontainable, recognizable but not safe. Uncanny.

After a half-hour of Shea, you feel older, not younger. It has been lovely and loving, joyous and joyful – I’m tempted to reach for Pauline Kael’s questionable invention and call it a “bliss-out” – yet there’s no denying the nervous tension that has been roiling in your sternum. That’s the tension of knowing, amid the joy, not only that two Beatles are long dead and that two more will die, but that you will die. Memento mori: what Beatle fan hasn’t felt that from the first time he or she heard their music? Who has ever forgotten it in their presence? That’s the uncanny ease of the Beatles, and it’s what Brian Epstein in the original Shea film called their mix of “happiness and tragedy”: an immediate excitement shadowed by a sorrow outside of time. The Beatles at Shea Stadium catches what Eight Days a Week, in its mere canniness, misses completely: the blue light that bathes the Beatles and their lover-fans, and the black, cold sky beyond it.

– Devin McKinney is the author of Magic Circles: The Beatles in Dream and History (Harvard, 2003) and The Man Who Saw a Ghost: The Life and Work of Henry Fonda (St. Martin’s, 2012), and a contributor to the anthologies Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch (Cambridge, 1999) and Screening Violence (Rutgers, 2001). Formerly a music columnist (The American Prospect Online), blogger (Pop with a ShotgunHey Dullblog), and TV writer (The Food Network), he writes regularly for Critics at Large and the pop culture site Hi Lobrow. He works as an archivist in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, where he lives with his wife and their three cats. His latest book, Jesusmania! The Bootleg Superstar of Gettysburg College, will be out in November 2016.

No comments:

Post a Comment