While Ron Howard was making a documentary about the five-year period the Beatles spent touring the world, the director drew an unlikely parallel to another one of his films. Apollo 13, the 1995 feature about NASA’s disastrous moon mission, is a story of survival. So was Beatlemania.
By their final show in San Francisco’s Candlestick Park in 1966, they were intensely famous, disenchanted with the media and unable to hear their own music over screaming fans. Despite making the majority of their money from playing live, they retired from touring to focus on making music in the studio.
“In Apollo 13, you have three guys in a capsule trying to figure out how to survive a crisis and not die,” explains producer Nigel Sinclair, who also produced Martin Scorsese’s George Harrison doc Living In The Material World. “That’s an extreme thing, but it’s three people thrown into a situation and making decisions together. Although you can’t parallel the Beatles journey, you could list half a dozen examples of young people that faced the onslaught of public life and fame but disappeared into drugs or chaos.”
Produced by The Beatles’ Apple Corps with Sinclair’s White Horse Pictures, Howard and Brian Grazer’s Imagine Entertainment and coproduced by One Voice One World (OVOW), Eight Days A Week is the first official Beatles film since the 2003 TV doc series The Beatles Anthology and the first official feature since 1970′s Let It Be.
The challenge for any filmmaker interested in working with the Beatles and Apple Corps is one producers had to overcome in presentations to surviving band members McCartney and Starr, as well as Lennon and Harrison’s widows, Yoko Ono and Olivia Harrison. That is, what else is there to say about the group that hasn’t already been said over the past 50 years?
Howard and Sinclair wanted to satisfy discerning, long-time fans of the band, but they also wanted Eight Days A Week to appeal to younger audiences.
“What millennials are interested in, I am told, is the why of things – not the what,” explains Sinclair. “Why did the Beatles become so perfect? How did it go so powerfully for so long? What was the magic that made it work?”
The idea for the film began in 2003, when producer and archivist Matthew White pitched a project about the Beatles’ touring years to Apple Corps. Then a producer for National Geographic, White thought of the idea after coming across archival footage shot by Nat Geo wildlife filmmakers in Alaska when the group’s plane was diverted to Anchorage en route to Japan in 1966.
“It made me realize that wherever the Beatles went there were cameras,” says White, who founded OVOW with producer Stuart Samuels and Bruce Higham, cofounder of ’60s London club Sibylla’s.
Realizing the rise of Beatlemania coincided with the widespread availability of 8mm home movie cameras, he initially pitched the project to Apple Corps as a doc that would tell the story of the group’s live tours through amateur footage.
White was also interested in doing a project that would be led by archive. Rather than come up with a treatment first, the idea was to amass archival material and let it shape the story.
Moreover, he hoped an archival-led Beatles doc would demonstrate the value of preserving deteriorating footage as part of programming budgets.
The Beatles on a train between Washington, D.C. and New York.
“Most filmmakers go into archives trying to look for material that supports the story, which is not the best use of archives,” he says. “There are things in there that [you] might miss or might not be what you’re looking for.”
After leaving National Geographic, White began researching a proof-of-concept to see if he could find footage that Apple Corps had not been able to uncover for the Anthology. He approached specialty 8mm transfer houses and asked if anyone had brought in Beatles films.
Massachusetts-based Brodsky & Treadway connected him to a collector named Erik Taros, whose mother refused to let him go to the Beatles’ 1966 show at Suffolk Downs near Boston.
He’s spent much of his life collecting home movies, photos and fan memories to recreate that concert. Taros would prove a pivotal contact.
“He’s part of an underground collectors’ network that exists in all of the places the Beatles played around the world,” explains White. “They work with each other but aren’t public about what they do.”
Members of the secretive network were scared to give their material to the Anthology for fear it would be taken away. Moreover, they often buy Beatles footage and audio at auction houses such as Sotheby’s and exposure via films can lessen the material’s resale value.
Meanwhile, Jeff Jones became the CEO of Apple Corps and was interested in finding ways to exploit unseen archives the band controlled. He had been keeping track of OVOW’s project and in 2012 financed a six-month archival search based in the University of Maryland with 30 researchers around the world.
The search yielded the only known footage of the Beatles performing in Madrid, British Pathé’s 35 mm color fi lm of the 1963 London Palladium show, clips of the band performing on a Scottish kids’ show in 1964 and good quality soundboard recordings from a number of concerts. White and Taros then flew to London to review what they’d found with Apple Corps.
“By the end of it everybody was just high from all the different things that we were finding,” he says.
Apple Corps greenlit the fi lm and brought White Horse and Ron Howard on board to make it. A year later, in May 2014, they went public and asked fans to submit amateur footage via a website advertised on the Beatles’ Facebook page, which has more than 40 million likes.
Fans discovered the White Horse office number and jammed the switchboard for three days. In all, producers amassed 2,000 separate pieces of audio and photographic images that needed to be cleared and cleaned up for the screen.
The final film mixes amateur footage with archives from the Beatles’ collection and archival sources. It began rolling out theatrically on September 16, with Abramorama handling U.S. distribution, and became available on SVOD platform Hulu a day later. It is the first film acquired by Hulu Documentary Films, which launched in May.
With 100 minutes to tell the story, Howard focused on big themes such as the group’s tight-knit relationship, how it unfolded and how the band stopped touring to protect that relationship and their ability to make music together.
The closeness of that relationship was evident in both the footage and in decisions they made. In 1964, the band went up against segregation in the American South by refusing to perform at the Gator Bowl in Jacksonville, Florida unless black fans could freely mix with white fans – a moment recounted in the doc by Kitty Oliver, one of a few black teens who attended the gig.
“They were like an arts collective,” says Sinclair. “English men don’t really like to touch each other. We’re shy in public. With the Beatles, this sense of this chemistry between them really comes across in photographs. They’re so good at presenting themselves as a foursome.”
If you want to make a Beatles fan ecstatic, release a new Beatles film. If you want to make that fan do a celebratory cartwheel, give the film a new angle.
Ron Howard’s “The Beatles: Eight Days a Week – The Touring Years,” which opens for a one-week theatrical release on Thursday, before Hulu starts streaming it, does just that. It’s not a biopic (“Backbeat”) or a fictionalized account of some days in the lives of the Fab Four (“A Hard Day’s Night”) or an uncomfortable fly-on-the-wall look at their breakup (“Let It Be”). It’s a song-filled, freewheeling documentary, a raucous yet intimate peek into their hectic four years of constant touring (1962-1966), first in England and Germany, where they cut their performance teeth and honed themselves into a tight live band, and soon after throughout Europe.
On Feb. 12, 1964, at a few minutes past 8 p.m., just after a shoe-polish commercial, Paul McCartney sang the first words of “All My Loving” on “The Ed Sullivan Show,” signaling the emergence of the Beatles as international pop stars.
Filled with new and old interviews as well as professional and newly found fan-shot concert footage, the film shows the band’s down time in hotels and dealings with the press. Additionally, it notes that in the midst of this tumult, they also kept creating fresh new music. In 1966, they retired from the road to perform exclusively in the studio.
The project was initiated by the small archival company One Voice One World, which approached the Beatles’ Apple Corps Ltd. with the idea of searching for fan footage to make a documentary about the Beatles’ 1964 tour. But the focus of the film grew, and Apple Corps CEO Jeff Jones approached film producer Nigel Sinclair (“George Harrison: Living in the Material World,” “Bob Dylan: No Direction Home”) to take it on.
“Making a Beatles film is like building a ship,” said Sinclair, a Brit now residing in Los Angeles, at his offices at White Horse Pictures. “It’s so complex, politically and operationally, and the brand is so vast. I had been working with Ron Howard as executive producer on ‘Rush.’ One day, I thought, Ron and the Beatles, that would be interesting. He had just directed his first documentary, ‘Made in America’ [about a Jay Z music festival]. I said, ‘Do you like the Beatles?’ He said, ‘Well, that’s a silly question; everybody likes the Beatles.’ Then one thing led to another.”
Howard, speaking by phone from Las Vegas, recalled the discussion.
“I hadn’t seen all that many music documentaries,” he said. “But I really admired the Harrison and Dylan films that Nigel made. When he asked if I would be interested in talking about the Beatles and their touring years, I was very flattered, and a little daunted, but I began to do some research. I soon thought of it as a story similar to ‘Das Boot,’ in a way. They’re kind of in the bubble, this submarine, and depth charges and other things are happening on the outside, and it affects them, but they’re committed to each other and to their mission. Then Paul and Ringo and Yoko [Ono] and Olivia Harrison heard my take and were supportive of the idea, so I jumped into it.”
The question was how to begin putting it all together.
“You have a band who are the greatest legend in human history, in terms of entertainment, that retired in 1970,” said Sinclair. “Two of them passed away, and two of them are alive, with a considerable and appropriate point of view about the legacy. You have the two widows, who fairly represent their late husbands, and you have Apple, which is unbelievably clever at preserving the mystique and magic, equal to the music. There are so many different moving parts here.”
Howard, an Oscar-winning narrative filmmaker, opted to look at their touring years as a sort of ensemble-adventure-survival story.
“I wanted to take the audience and put them alongside the Beatles as best as I could in a documentary format, where I can’t create scenes,” he said. “Along with it comes a lot of insight, a lot of surprises about the intensity of those years, and what it was like to be at the center of the Beatlemania moment. I also wanted to give audiences context from the outside, a sense of what the pressure was on those guys. And last was to give the audience a sense of the perspective from the fan. That’s why we collected some cool fan interviews, but also used some rare footage that we got from fans, and cut it into some of the concert footage from television to give the feeling of what it might have been like to have been there and experience it at its height.”
Nicholas Ferrall, head of production for White Horse, and one of the film’s executive producers, followed the footsteps of One Voice One World in finding new footage.
“When we launched this project in 2014, we also launched a website and asked fans to submit home videos or anything they might want to donate to the film,” said Ferrall. “The rest of it was putting all the existing footage — interviews, live concerts, photos — in a practical layout so we could look at it in an ordered way and make sense of it. Then we went out and interviewed people.”
Two of those people were McCartney and Ringo Starr, who Howard spoke with on-camera first in January 2015, then in follow-up sessions in May 2016.
“I had some help preparing the questions, and the first interviews were great,” said Howard. “By the time I came back for the second interviews, they had seen some edited sequences, and they really opened up after they saw the approach I was taking. They realized that it was a human interest story around the music and the band, and not just a collection of events and straight concert footage. So they were even more forthcoming at that point, which was really gratifying.”
Howard, 62, laments that he never saw the Beatles perform live, but he still remembers catching the Sullivan broadcast.
“That show was three weeks before my 10th birthday,” he said. “So within those three weeks, the gifts I decided I wanted were a Beatle wig and Beatle boots. My parents couldn’t find Beatle boots, but they did find a Beatle wig, and I happily and proudly wore it through my 10th birthday party, and had a blast.”