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The music buoys Ron Howard's doc 'The Beatles: Eight Days a Week — The Touring Years'

The music buoys Ron Howard's doc 'The Beatles: Eight Days a Week — The Touring Years'
Ringo Starr, left, George Martin and John Lennon on a train between New York and Washington, D.C., in a scene from the documentary "The Beatles: Eight Days a Week — The Touring Years." (Apple Corps Ltd.)

It's no surprise that a documentary on the Beatles and their music is a treat, but the fact that it is not an unalloyed pleasure is a bit unexpected.

As directed by Ron Howard, best known for studio fare like "Apollo 13" and "A Beautiful Mind," "The Beatles: Eight Days a Week -- The Touring Years" takes full advantage of being authorized by the group.

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That means there's a great deal of delightful classic Beatles music here, performance footage from a dozen concerts around the world featuring such familiar tunes as "She Loves You" and "I Saw Her Standing There."

The music is so strong, and such a demonstration of how potent the group was in action, that it alone makes the film worth seeing.

Approached by Apple Corps Ltd. to do the film, Howard decided to focus on the early years, including a brief look at the Beatles' pre-fame days working at small clubs in Liverpool and Hamburg.

Most of the focus, however, is on the roughly four years, from June 1962 to August 1966, when the band toured an astonishing amount, performing 815 times in 90 cities in 15 different countries.

Yet, despite all the craziness that movement implies, the film backs up Paul McCartney when he says that while "by the end, it became quite complicated, at the beginning, things were really simple."

Simple, however, does not necessarily make for involving filmmaking, and the air of self-satisfaction, however justified, that creeps into the interviews that go with the performance footage does not make for a scintillating experience.

Howard has done extensive interviews with McCartney and Ringo Starr, the only Beatles left alive, specifically for the film, and has made use of previously taped encounters with John Lennon and George Harrison.

The film also includes brief conversations with what seems like a randomly selected group of celebrities who have Beatles-related anecdotes to share, everyone from fellow musician Elvis Costello to actress Sigourney Weaver. They vary in quality, with a story told by Whoopi Goldberg about her mother and the group's concert at Shea Stadium being perhaps the best.

The documentary, with its access to all kinds of footage, including outtakes from Albert and David Maysles' "What's Happening! The Beatles in the USA," is accurate, but it turns out to be somewhat disconcerting to relive aspects of the Beatles phenomenon.

For one thing, the absurdity of journalistic questions and worries about the group presaging the end of western civilization seem beyond inane today.

For another, the Beatles' inevitably glib and cheeky responses do not wear well either, which leads to renewed respect for how director Richard Lester was able to harness that energy in both "A Hard Day's Night" and "Help!"

And finally, to observe the textbook hysterical response that most audiences had to the Beatles can be a scary thing, bringing to mind less savory manifestations of frenzy and hysteria going all the way back to the Salem witch trials.

Fortunately, "Eight Days a Week" does have that splendid music to fall back on, and as the Beatles story moves forward in time, less self-congratulatory aspects of the narrative make themselves known.

A segment on Beatles manager Brian Epstein, who in effect discovered the group and put its members in identical suits, is fascinating, as is the group's refusal to play in segregated arenas in the South, leading to the first multiracial audiences in places like the Gator Bowl in Jacksonville, Fla.

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Perhaps most real world of all is the film's careful delineation of how exhausting all that touring was, and how it led to the group's decision to abandon the road and concentrate on making music in the studio. "Eight Days a Week" shows that this was not only a good decision but also an inevitable one.

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'The Beatles: Eight Days a Week -- The Touring Years'

No MPAA rating

Running time: 1 hour, 39 minutes

In general release

ALSO

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