In the 90s I used to wear a Beatles t-shirt featuring the animated characters. I’ve never received so many random smiles or thumbs up or been stopped by strangers to chat about my shirt, such was the effect this motley group of Liverpudlian musicians had on popular culture. And it still reverberates today. I had the same sense of excitement before seeing this documentary.
Ron Howard‘s effort takes a nostalgic look at the early touring years of the Beatles. (While Americans think it all began with the Ed Sullivan show, they were already selling out around Europe). This doco skims through their early years – Ringo has just joined the band and Brian Epstein has just taken notice of them. It tightly focusses on the two years from their first visit to the USA to their final Candlestick Park concert. Vox had made special speakers for it – all of 100 watts – and music was pumped out over the PA system. It was when they were being whisked off in the back of a meat van at the end of the gig they decided: ‘That’s it. We’ve had enough.’
There’s not a lot that’s new here, but it’s entertainingly assembled. Sir Paul and Ringo talk and seem to be bit players in the crazy story. Howard cleverly uses lots of old interview footage of George and John. It was fun seeing a young Sigourney Weaver at a gig; Whoopi’s recollections show they crossed racial lines and it has insights from Bob Kane, a respected journalist who toured with them through the States. Many of the other interviewees, like Elvis Costello, tell us what we already know. They were magic.
What is new is the revelation they refused to play segregated stadiums in the South, as a matter of course, not cause. And the intense schedule of daily recording and performing helped them, rather than hindered. It’s the first insights I’ve seen into their songwriting and how quickly some of their hits were churned out.
You get the strong sense of camaraderie they had back then. They really were a group. Howard does well to show the rising tension and tiredness of constant touring – They performed over 815 times in 15 countries and 90 cities, over four years. After Australia (June 64) we see footage of them a week or two later performing in Stockholm before going back to the States in July. It was relentless because they had signed up to a bad record deal and made most of their money from performances. And it shows the strain of the ‘We are bigger than Jesus’ episode on Lennon.
The documentary also shows lots of concert footage, previously unseen. It’s been amazingly restored and they claim the music hasn’t been dubbed – only the screaming has been toned down. They were pretty damn tight considering they couldn’t hear each other over the girls. I now realised what a gun drummer Ringo actually was, up close.
It unapologetically targets today’s millenials and wants to show them how boy bands don’t always involve synchro-steps and bad music. Howard tries to place them in the context of American times, but it doesn’t work for me. The Beatles were a breath of fresh English air for a country still grieving over losing JFK and its innocence. The US experience was part of a long tour of madness that was bigger than the rest. They were receiving death threats from the clan, Marcos supporters in Thailand and Japanese were upset they were playing Budokan. They had more impact on the States than it had on them, but it definitely wore them down.
It all ends before the second part of their careers, which is when they really became more than a pop band. They had to stop touring, as they simply couldn’t play anything from Rubber Soul or Peppers on stage. They were progressing as songwriters.
What this documentary does do well is reflect on the 60s and the Beatles place within it. It sidesteps anything unsavoury and only shows a couple of family photos, so it avoids some hypocrisy, but does cut the women out, just as their pr did.
There have already been plenty of movies and documentaries covering every other minute aspect of their lives and this is a close look at their break into the USA. This is one to sit back, and enjoy. And the full 30-minute footage of the Shea concert added to the end of the theatrical release reminds us how damn good they were. History making. They really were four-star stars.
Con’s Score: 4 magic moptops.
Con Nats – Talking Arts