"I never saw The Beatles live," Academy Award-winning director Ron Howard admits. "I was very aware of them, though. I watched them on Ed Sullivan, which was on February 9th , and my birthday is March 1st, so for my tenth birthday that year I wanted a Beatles wig and Beatle boots. My parents couldn't find Beatle boots anywhere, but they did find a Beatles wig at a toy store—that's what I wore through my whole tenth birthday!"
The image of Howard in a Beatles wig was stuck in my head as I talked to the director about his documentary The Beatles: Eight Days a Week – The Touring Years, out today in theaters, which chronicles the Fab Four's tumultuous mid-'60s world tours.
"When I first heard about the idea of focusing on the touring years, and I did some research, I began to see it as an ensemble adventure/survival story," Howard explains of his earliest days being affiliated with the project. "I was very interested in tracking their growth as characters, as an ensemble, but also as individuals. They were innovating at a tremendous speed, and to great effect, while they were enduring these incredible challenges—being tested and pushed in all sorts of directions. I'm always fascinated by individuals whose character, whose mettle, is being tested, and I felt like there was that potential in this story. And so my question to the team was, did they think we had the footage to be able to tell that story."
That daunting task fell to producer Nigel Sinclair, editor Paul Crowder, and the team at White Horse Pictures.
"I worked with Ron on his film Rush and had gotten to know him quite well," Sinclair says. "I asked him one day, 'Ron, do you like the Beatles?' And he said, 'Well everybody likes the Beatles. Why?' So I said, 'I'm producing this documentary. Have you ever directed a documentary?' And he said he hadn't. I was excited by the idea of the fresh perspective he'd bring to the project."
"My father had worked for Paul [McCartney]," Paul Crowder says, "and I'd been involved with two documentaries that Paul was part of, so I really wanted to do a film where he's in it the whole way through. When Nigel approached us, I was obviously gung-ho to be involved."
While Sinclair was putting the team in place, Howard was cutting his documentary teeth by working on Jay-Z's Made in America. He found it was a different kind of storytelling, and it inspired him to pitch The Beatles their own story, built around a fresh idea that moviegoers—both diehard Beatles fans and newer fans—could connect with.
"I pitched it to Ringo and Paul, and Olivia [Harrison, George's widow] and Yoko Ono, as well as the folks at Apple, just like I would any other film I wanted to make," Howard says, remembering the day in vivid detail when he recalls it for me. "It was important to me to not just get handed this assignment, because I really wanted to be sure that my idea held water and that it made sense to them. The way I explained it to them was by comparing it to Apollo 13 and Das Boot. They were very excited about that and thought that I was onto something."
"The story is, 'How do you go from playing in Liverpool and Hamburg to the level of creativity that they achieved?'" Sinclair says. "Of course the touring is the through-line, but it's only part of the story. We found very early on that there was a natural story arc, which was that they put the suits on—literally and figuratively. They dressed up and became The Beatles."
With Howard at the helm, things began to take off. The project had begun in 2002 by the company One Voice, One World with The Beatles' tentative approval, based around the idea of utilizing as much fan-shot film of the band's 1964 world tour as possible in order to tell the story of that peak year of Beatlemania. With sales of 8mm cameras exploding during the period, plenty of footage was available, but the clips were short and of wildly varying quality. With Howard pushing for a strong narrative, the team became inspired.
"Originally we were going to do sections of four [musical] performances," Crowder explains. "We wanted to give the audience the feeling of being at a real, live show. But it became apparent when we laid the film out that stopping for complete songs was hindering the storytelling process. Our first cut was two hours and twenty minutes, and it was obvious that the story was suffering from the fatigue of screaming girls—which after two hours does really start to get to you—because that's all that was happening to them." The audience's ecstatic fervor became as complicated for the filmmakers as it did for the band. "They were getting on and off planes, and on and off stages, and playing this amazing music without people listening to them or even being able to hear themselves," Crowder says. "At first my argument was, 'But this is their experience. Shouldn't we give that to the audience? Imagine what The Beatles had to go through.' But from a storytelling standpoint, it was killing the film."
Sinclair explains that the a-ha moment came when the team realized that the focus should be The Beatles' rise, when the band became "the first mass market, mass audience" cultural experience that, in hindsight, we take for granted. "That was unprecedented then," Sinclair says, noting that it played a major role in their creative output. "The life they led while they were on tour locked them in a room together, because they couldn't go out. And as a result, what they did was they traded music and wrote music and thought of structures for music. So they were forced to concentrate on it, particularly in that period. And it was like being in a hothouse."
"You have to give yourself over to the footage you have and the story that exists," Howard says, conveying one of the hard truths of documentary filmmaking. "You can editorialize by making decisions and choices about what you're going to show, particularly when it's feature length and it can't possibly be comprehensive. So the challenge was to tell a story that would capture the spirit in an authentic way. But most of all I did want this kind of personal perspective, and the feeling of being inside their world with them as much as possible."
With Sinclair and Crowder both diehard Beatles fans, Howard admits his primary role was to offer perspective. "I love The Beatles, and have since I was a kid, but not at that level," he says. "The thing I could bring to it was the excitement of discovery—the wide-eyed perspective. I've done a number of scripted movies based on real events, and I didn't know anything about going to the moon or Formula One or mathematics or boxing. But part of the excitement of those stories, for me, was that discovery and then trying to convey it, and it was the same here."
That story is a powerful one, but ultimately The Beatles' music is at the heart of anything that bears the band's name. The task of taking the multitude of mostly poorly recorded sources and turning them into a cinema-quality experience fell to Giles Martin, the son of Beatles producer George Martin and the band's go-to producer since his Grammy-winning work on the groundbreaking 2006 Love album.
"If you took a 1980s telephone message machine to a Coldplay gig, and you pressed record and recorded the concert and made a tape, that would be the same quality as what we had to work with," Martin says with a laugh. "It just wasn't recorded properly. My goal was to make [the audience] feel as though they're at Shea Stadium or the Hollywood Bowl or wherever, watching The Beatles play. That was my drive."
One of the most powerful clips is of The Beatles' performance in Washington, DC, two days after their earth shattering appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show to 70 million viewers.
"The Washington concert was really badly recorded, so of course I was never completely happy," Martin admits. "But watching the movie, I think you get the message that they could really cut it live. It's just so exciting to watch!"
"They had no sound check, they had no idea what they sounded like because they had no monitors, the amps are facing in the wrong direction for 50 percent of the show, there was a hail of jellybeans coming at them and on the floor and they're playing in basically a boxing ring, like they're prizefighters," says Crowder of the astonishing performance from Washington of "I Saw Her Standing There" included in the film. "But through all of that their playing is fantastic—it's probably Ringo's greatest live performance ever—and you can see that they're just having so much fun."
It's also remarkable to see the Washington concert and, less than an hour later, see the band performing half-heartedly, with their interest in live concerts in tatters, at the Budokan in Japan in June 1966.
"That's very two different people, and two very different experiences happening there," Crowder says of Ringo Starr's performance in particular. "I think those moments are very, very telling in the film. You know, the fact that Ringo was not holding back, taking no prisoners in Washington, and just two years later he looks as though he wishes he were somewhere else. I think that's a very telling moment, and helps show the arc of their experience."
Ultimately, the grind of the road wore The Beatles down, and they gave up live performance after their appearance at Candlestick Park on August 29, 1966 for the cozy confines of London's Abbey Road Studios. Sgt. Pepper's, the White Album, and Abbey Road lay ahead.
"We definitely tried to underscore that in the movie and demonstrate that as an example of how the creativity kept growing and where it led them," Howard says. "My takeaway was that the studio became a more inviting place because they could really grow, they felt, if they just had the time and could focus."
"It's a fascinating evolution," Sinclair says of the band's decision to give up the road, which was far more lucrative than record sales were for them. "Eventually they made the decision, which now seems inevitable, to focus on the studio. As John Lennon says in the film, 'There's not much point to being a Beatle unless you can play music.'"
"Like so many people, I grew up with The Beatles—and, like the catchphrase on our poster says, I thought I knew the story," Howard says as we wrap up our interview. "But it's just so much more intense. We have the advantage of looking at it with this perspective that's social and political and cultural, and I think The Beatles keep looking better and better by the hour, because of this creative integrity that they held onto and maintained. The most inspiring thing to me was recognizing that the decisions that they made clearly were not geared towards maximizing their earning potential. They were following this calling, with this intense creative integrity. I really respect that."