Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr talk about Beatles concert film Eight Days a Week

Documentary embraces The Beatles as a live sensation and asks how they stayed sane; seeing the funny side of a situation when on tour was often a safety valve, McCartney says

PUBLISHED : Monday, 12 September, 2016, 5:25pm
UPDATED : Monday, 12 September, 2016, 5:25pm

To hear Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr tell it, The Beatles wrote the most beloved songs in rock history to avoid being upstaged by rival cover bands.

“The band before you could do your whole act,” McCartney says of the Fab Four’s earliest days as live performers. “It wasn’t like this great muse came down – it was the only way out of this situation. We’d better write a few because then they can’t do them before we go on.”

The two surviving Beatles are seated chummily, side by side, on an enormous white sofa in a plush villa at The Mirage in Las Vegas to talk about Eight Days a Week: The Touring Years. The documentary, directed by Ron Howard, tracks the group in concert – from the beginnings of Beatlemania through their last trek in 1966 – using fan-sourced clips and new and archival interviews.

The project follows a narrative arc that asks, “How on earth did they stay sane and stay together through this tidal wave of fame, fortune, glitz and people yelling at them, and not have their souls expropriated?” producer Nigel Sinclair says.

Howard’s idea was to look at “this moment of this kind of explosion through the point where it wasn’t really sustainable and make an adventure story out of it,” says the director, who watched John Lennon, George Harrison, McCartney and Starr burst into American consciousness in 1964 on The Ed Sullivan Show. Three weeks later, when he turned 10, “I wanted a Beatle wig. And that’s what I wore all around for my birthday.”

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In the film, The Beatles are seen performing sets that play like pantomime, unable to hear themselves over the deafening shrieks and nearly being crushed by surging fans.

“It’s about us dealing with the life we had to lead in those days,” says Starr, 76. Still, “we were never full of fear. In Wales, some kid grabbed me by the hair, which in those days was a lot longer, and would not let go. I was a little sore there for a while. But that was the most that ever happened.”

The chaotic 1965 Shea Stadium show, the beginning of the big-venue rock era, proved both momentous and manic.

“We could either be very angry and annoyed in front of 56,000 people or get hysterics, which is what kicked in,” says McCartney, 74. “And so there’s John doing his solo on I’m Down,“ he says, running his elbow up and down an imaginary keyboard: ”‘Rrrr, rrrr, rrrr.’ We’re just ‘Ha, ha, ha.’ It just went to hysterics, which was often the safety valve.”

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New to most fans is the revelation that The Beatles flatly refused to play to a segregated audience in Jacksonville and insisted on integrating the Gator Bowl.

“It wasn’t the kind of thing we wanted to boast about, to say, ‘Yeah, you know what? We’re anti-segregation.’ We just were,” McCartney says.

“Are they crazy? You can’t go to the gig? It was like a foreign thought,” Starr adds.

What fascinated Sinclair was how the eventual decision to quit touring illustrated The Beatles’ process as a collective. “If all four of them agreed, that was their universe. They created this centre of power and gravity,” he says. “Our aim was to show you that they had to decide to end, the butterfly emerging from the chrysalis” to focus the second half of The Beatles’ career in the studio.

But they feel good about those years on the road.

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“We get in a band, and, you know, the band gets good. It’s just this whole miracle of these four little guys from Liverpool coming together,” McCartney marvels. England had just stopped military conscription, “and we all would have had to go into the army the next year.“

“I always think of it like God opening the waters for Moses: ‘Well, OK, you don’t have to go in the army. You can be The Beatles.’ ”

The Beatles: Eight Days a Week - The Touring Years will be screened in Hong Kong on September 16 and 18 as part of the MOViE MOViE Life Is Art Festival, before opening on October 13.