Live by Night
The key question behind Live by Night isn’t so much “Why did they bother?” as “What went wrong?”
Here’s what I remember: It was the second Friday in January and I was getting ready for school when “I Want to Hold Your Hand” came on the radio. The sound grabbed me instantly and I listened intently all the way through. At school that day, a lot of kids were talking about the song. Within a week or two, it was number one on the charts. Then, on February 9, the Beatles made their epochal first appearance on the "Ed Sullivan Show," drawing 73 million viewers—the largest audience for an entertainment show in U.S. television history.
From unknowns to the Biggest Thing Ever in roughly a month: for sheer massiveness and suddenness, nothing has ever, and probably ever will, equal the Beatles’ conquest of the U.S. and, soon after, the world. The music’s infectious brilliance deserves most of the credit, of course. But it was also a unique historical moment. Edward Yang’s magisterial “A Brighter Summer Day,” set in Taiwan a few years before, makes the point that icons like John Wayne and Elvis had already created a global pop-culture idiom that especially united the young. But an unrepeatable set of social, technological and demographic circumstances in the early ‘60s forged the conditions for an unprecedented cultural explosion that spanned the worlds of music, fashion, television and film.
It’s hard to overstate the galvanic impact the Beatles had, almost instantaneously, on all those realms and more. And while the tunes were paramount, the image was just as revolutionary. When they stepped onto Sullivan’s stage, they might as well have been extraterrestrials. America had never seen anything like them. With their identical suits, astonishing “long” hair, anarchic humor and disarming good looks, they overturned every convention about musical acts were supposed to look and sound. It was the girls who screamed to high heaven, but we boys were just as ecstatic over their promise of a new era of creativity, freedom and cool.
It would be impossible to recreate the moment of the Beatles’ advent, but Ron Howard’s “The Beatles: Eight Days a Week – The Touring Years” does a great job chronicling that singular breakthrough. As its cumbersome title indicates, the documentary was founded on the wise choice of not trying to make a single feature that would encompass the band’s entire career. Rather, in focusing on the years when the band became the first ever to mount several world-spanning tours, it offers two things at once: a history of the Beatles during the years of their initial success; and a tribute to the group’s powers as a live act.