We are very excited to present a new wrinkle in our "Five Questions" feature. We've been watching and reading all of the fab reviews of Ron Howard's new documentary film Eight Days A Week: The Touring Years, and wondered what the Beatles "experts" might think of it. We reached out to several well-known authors to ask them just that, and here is our first-ever roundtable discussion, about the film. We hope you will enjoy the show...
MEET OUR PANEL:
Jude Southerland Kessler is the author of the nine-volume John Lennon narrative "The John Lennon Series." Kenneth Womack, PhD. is a speaker, scholar, and author of six Beatles books, including "Long and Winding Roads: The Evolving Artistry of The Beatles." Aaron Krerowicz is also a Beatles music scholar and author of "The Beatles & The Avant Garde" and Donovan Day is a self-professed Beatles fanatic and author of the fictional work "Get Back Imagine...Saving John Lennon."
When you first heard Ron Howard was making this film, what were your thoughts and perhaps concerns with the film he might make?
Kessler: “I actually first heard about the film when my friend, Larry Kane – who was an advisor for the film and who narrated much of the footage linked to his years with The Beatles – told me about his upcoming work with Ron Howard. I had invited Larry to be the Co-Featured Author for the Beatles at the Ridge Symposium in 2014, and he had to turn the offer down because of his prior engagement. I was disappointed to lose Larry as our honored speaker, but I knew Ron Howard had made an excellent choice. Larry was an integral part of the Beatles’ touring years and his input into the film would be quite helpful. (He did a superb job in the film, by the way.)”
Womack: “I am positively disposed to Ron Howard’s work as a filmmaker. There is a certain kind of sentimentality that you see in movies like Cocoon, Apollo 13, and A Beautiful Mind — a kind of sentimentality verging on nostalgia. While there is always an element of risk with contexts such as those — that they will devolve into schmaltz, if you will — Howard tends to elevate his subjects rather than diminish them.”
Krerowicz: “First thoughts were excitement. I've heard some people say that The Beatles are overblown — they're good, but they've been done to death already. I disagree. In fact, that's precisely what makes the band so fascinating: There's ALWAYS something new. It's endlessly rewarding to study and learn about The Beatles because every time you look, you can find something to appreciate that you somehow missed on previous encounters.”
Day: “I was excited and couldn’t wait. I thought that someone with the pull of Ron Howard would be able to unearth never-before-seen material, and he did!”
And, following up, how did he do?
Kessler: “The film itself was ear-to-ear smiles. I could have started it all over again when it concluded and enjoyed thoroughly a second time. I watched it on Hulu, so I had the advantage of being able to pause, reverse, and play sections over again. I’m sure that those in the theater wished that they could’ve done the same. My one complaint with the film was the use of “talking heads” who have minimal connection to The Beatles. It seemed we heard from famous people whose relationship to The Beatles is nebulous at best, rather than some of the world’s most renowned Beatles scholars.
Also, the dearth of John Lennon footage was noticeable. There is sufficient footage available to balance John’s observations about touring with those of the surviving Beatles. The Beatles were, after all, his concept, his hand-picked group, and from 1957-1966, his band. John Lennon should have had a greater presence in the film.”
Womack: “I would argue that he mostly acquits the Beatles well, save for the American-centric point of view. Seeing the Beatles come to life on the big screen is a reward unto itself. If the movie has a genuine misstep, it occurs when Howard opts to colorize various footage as he tells their story. It’s as if his nostalgic angels got the better of him and he couldn’t leave the Fab Four to the arms of the past, with its black-and-white imagery of long ago.”
Krerowicz: “Extremely well. There's not much new information, but he presented the material in a new and compelling way. I go into more detail on that in question 5.”
Day: “Excellent. It's a fine doc, although I did catch one minor mistake....a photo of Ringo in the band was shown when it spoke of Brian Epstein discovering the boys. Of course, it was Pete Best who was the drummer Epstein first saw and it was not his idea to replace Best.”
One of the things most talked about is the newfound live footage and pristine audio in the film. What were your reactions to seeing the Fab Four “live” in that sense?
Kessler: “This was the film’s strength. I’ve heard a lot of complaints about the film being merely an abbreviated Anthology, but I did see some footage that I’d never seen before, and that was a real treat. The film was beautifully constructed. It was fast-paced, emotional, humorous, poignant, and never once dull. Brilliant editing! And the audio work? Superb! If Millennials and Gen Zers don’t fall head over heels for ‘the lads’ after viewing this dazzling offering, their hearts are stone.”
Womack: “Again, the film’s finest moments occur when you behold the band on the big screen, coming into being in that larger-than-life way that cinema makes possible. The audio was well-treated by Giles Martin and deserves kudos as well. Having noted this last point, though, it is important to remember that after the onset of Beatlemania, the Fab Four’s stage show and live sound quickly eroded. Hence, the notion of “pristine audio” is highly suspect during the band’s touring years, when they often rushed through songs and were sometimes well out of tune.”
Krerowicz: “I know this is sacrilege, but I've never been overly concerned with audio quality. I haven't compared the new Hollywood Bowl album to the old one because I've not felt the need to do so. Others certainly can — and have — but it doesn't change the music itself (the compositional decisions). My studies focus primarily on The Beatles' abilities as composers, and audio fidelity bears little relation or significance to that focus.”
Day: “I was more impressed with the audio than the video. Even when Ringo said they were playing like ‘shite’, the sound of the band singing ‘Nowhere Man’ in Japan was actually quite good. And I loved the ending footage of the rooftop concert. They were still a tight band and looked so happy despite all their personal feuding there at the end. It made me think that perhaps some of the feuding was the invention of the press and not quite so bad.”
I loved Paul McCartney’s quote in one of his recent interviews about the film where he said, “The Beatles were a good little band.” What does this movie do to the Beatles myth or story?
Kessler: “It’s very difficult for me to answer this question because I’m working now on Vol. 4 in The John Lennon Series, a book that covers 1964-66, and as such, I live daily with the facts, details, and back stories of Eight Days a Week. I see, first hand, how hard those four young men worked, how tired they were, how determined they were. What I viewed in Howard’s footage only confirms what I’m reading, studying, and writing. Eight Days a Week was, for me, a very accurate depiction of an extremely difficult period in the lives of John, Paul, George, and Ringo. How they survived the brutal demands of those years is the real mystery. No amount of Prellies, marijuana, or other drugs could account for the energy and tenacity it took. The Beatles were driven. And Eight Days a Week demonstrates that.”
Womack: “It is indeed a theme that McCartney comes back to time and time again. It is mindful of their incredibly tight sound and chemistry. Ironically, that aspect is rarely in evidence during the heights of Beatlemania — or in Howard’s film, to be fair — but rather, a very apt way for understanding their power to evolve across the years on their sound recordings.”
Krerowicz: “The film renews interest. Many millions (billions?) of people still love The Beatles and their music. The documentary helps maintain interest and enthusiasm, even 50 years after the fact.”
Day: “The Beatles were only four guys playing instruments. They had no back-up singers or others on stage to augment the sound. In that way, Paul was right on, as always.”
I am always struck by these kinds of films, particularly with the 1960s audience footage, just how different the world is today – culturally and musically – and the absolute love and joy The Beatles inspired. That’s more or an observation than a question, but I wonder what your thoughts are about that?
Kessler: “I agree. In many ways, the 1960s were much simpler and “sweeter.” Those were the days, my friend (and I really did think they’d never end) It was a time of hope as we touched the moon, conquered polio, fought the war on poverty, and watched James Meredith enter Ole Miss. It seemed a time of growing possibility where every year we hated less and embraced more…where “Come on people now, smile on your brother, everybody get together, try to love one another right now” was the general consensus. I know there was another side to that coin, though…race riots, Vietnam, Kennedy’s murder, the loss of innocence in the Summer of Love. Life wasn’t all “yeah, yeah, yeah.” I know that.
But here’s the thing: Liverpool was the one city in England in which nothing good was supposed to happen. But it did. And it happened to not just a boy from upper middle class Woolton. It also happened to a sad-eyed drummer from the Dingle where “you know it don’t come easy.” Those four boys succeeded in spite of…in spite of broken homes, mothers who died far too early, illnesses that stole away childhood, and tragedy. And their unparalleled success made believers of all of us. We began to believe that if they could make it, we could make it. We, too, could reach the ‘Toppermost of the Poppermost.’ We could be bigger than Elvis.
Part of the screaming and jumping up and down was about that. It was a celebration of the vast potential that The Beatles unleashed in men, women, boys, and girls. It was sheer joy.”
Womack: “This is an intriguing way of thinking about the larger impression that the film attempts to leave in its audience: that the early to mid-1960s were a contrastingly innocent place — at least, culturally and in terms of mass entertainment—than we experience today. But if you remove the Beatles from the time period of their creation — an admittedly impossible way to think about their place in history — you still have these early Beatles songs that are contagious in their joy and largely optimistic outlook. The pure joy that they inspire in those early songs in particular will transcend the ages.”
Krerowicz: “I just read a comment on Facebook that Howard "missed the feel" of Beatlemania. Granted, I wasn't there, but I actually found the emotional side to be the film's strength. As a scholar, I try to be objective in my analyses. In my most recent book, Days in the Life, I make a point of stating that my youth (I'm 30 years old) makes me ideal to study The Beatles because I have a certain historical objectivity that most Beatles experts don't and can't have because they lived through it. So from that perspective, I found the emotional content to be engaging and touching — especially Whoopi Goldberg's story of her mother surprising her with tickets to the Shea Stadium concert. It's something I don't really think about while analyzing chord progression, but I could tell how much it meant to her.”
Day: “Back when the Beatles were playing live, both England and America were more buttoned up societies. They were coming out of the world war and there was a conservative, authoritarian streak in society. The Beatles were at the tip of the spear for the baby boom generation. They led the way with long hair, drugs and rock music but they were hardly the only ones. They were just the first – and best.”
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