The Beatles today live on through their famed recording catalog, but during the first half of the ‘60s, fans around the world also knew them as a live, touring act. While hundreds of thousands saw them perform during Beatlemania’s peak, there are only four people who knew what it was like inside the bubble — the Beatles themselves. Director Ron Howard sought to portray that experience in his documentary, “The Beatles: Eight Days a Week — The Touring Years,” a massive research project that took its own long and winding road to get to movie screens on Sept. 16, one day before a streaming launch on Hulu.
“To me, it was a natural ensemble/adventure/survival story, much like ‘Apollo 13,’” the director says. “It was a real chance to track these four guys, this brotherhood, and learn about their experience by understanding how they navigated the challenges.”
The project actually got its start in 2003, when Matthew White, then an archivist at National Geographic in London, came upon footage Nat Geo’s photogs had shot of an emergency landing the Beatles made in Anchorage, Alaska, in 1966. “It demonstrated that, wherever the Beatles went during those tours, there were cameras everywhere,” White says.
He pitched the idea of a feature film based on amateur media to the Beatles’ Apple Corps, which was indeed interested. White employed researchers in Asia, Europe and America, to find out what existed, eventually forming One Voice One World in 2007 with a few partners.
In 2012, Apple approached One Voice willing to finance a more substantial research project, which White set up with 30 researchers around the world, based at the University of Maryland’s McKeldin Library, making use of crowdsourcing technologies to find both fan materials and professional footage and audio. By the end of that year, he and researcher Erik Taros brought their findings to Apple, spending three days watching it all, resulting in the decision to make a feature film.
Meanwhile, producer Nigel Sinclair was busy completing “Living in the Material World,” Martin Scorsese’s HBO documentary about George Harrison, and was approached by Apple chief executive Jeff Jones about the Beatles touring-film idea. Sinclair assembled a production team, based at his White Horse Pictures office in Beverly Hills, including producer Nick Ferrall, editor Paul Crowder and writer Mark Monroe. Crowder and Monroe had met in the 1990s, when both were working on VH1’s “Behind the Music” series, and ended up working with Sinclair together on “The Last Play at Shea” (2010) and “Amazing Journey: The Story of The Who” (2007), both of which Crowder co-directed.
Though Howard’s only exposure to documentary work came in 2013’s Jay Z doc, “Made in America” Sinclair, having had a fruitful experience with Scorsese, approached Howard while the two were making “Rush” in 2013. “If you look at Ron’s body of work, he’s very much interested in groups of people in challenges — the most famous being astronauts in a capsule,” the producer says. “The real story of the Beatles is as a collective energy, and how they were able to move from one portion of their life into another, and not only survive, but thrive. And Ron knows how to tell a story like that in an engaging way.”
In mid-2013, White showed the White Horse team materials from more than 1,000 sources One Voice had gathered thus far, prompting White Horse to take it a step further.
Ferrall says: “We announced in July 2014 and we decided to relaunch the campaign of calling out to fans to submit their home movies,” launching a website with an email and phone number to which fans could respond. The result was a massive outpouring of materials.
“The advent of mass social media allowed us to reach out to fans in a new way,” Sinclair says. “And because of the power of the Beatles brand, everything you announce goes where it needs to go.” Fan participation was key. “For them, it was an expression of, ‘the Beatles are mine, and I want to be part of this.’”
Countless rare clips, photos, and audio soon arrived. Among them were items, for example, from the Fabs’ very last concert Aug. 29, 1966, in Candlestick Park: two pics of the Beatles seen through the windows of a Loomis armored truck, and a roll of film, shot by a young girl with a Super 8mm camera, of the group leaving the stage. “This film sat under this woman’s bed for 50 years, and she got it out and sent it to us,” Crowder says.
The editor would make use of fan footage in a unique way, skillfully placing it amongst professionally shot footage, to give a sense of not only what it was like for the Beatles at the shows, but what the fan experience was from the audience, something Howard was keen to provide. “It makes you feel, ‘I’m in the crowd,’ like you’re right there, as opposed to watching it on TV,” the editor says.
|“It was a real chance to track these four guys, this brotherhood, and learn about their experience by understanding how they navigated the challenges.”|
While the initial approach to the film was to walk fans through the Beatles’ touring years, concert by concert, regular pitch and review sessions with Howard, Crowder, Sinclair, and Monroe produced an undeniably more fascinating story. “Our window through which we’re viewing the story really starts when their manager, Brian Epstein, puts them in matching suits in 1963,” Monroe explains. As McCartney says in the film, “It suddenly made us one person — a four-headed monster.”
“Once the suits came on, an inertia took over, and they go with it,” Monroe says.
One of the most remarkable parts of the tale is that, while the Beatles were forced to play the same 10-song playlists at their brief 30-minute shows (as was the norm at the time), they had incredible bursts of creativity upon arriving at EMI’s Abbey Road Studios to make records. “In this contained universe of touring, with the suits, playing 33 minutes of songs, their life was very circumscribed,” Sinclair says.
As Beatlemania progressed, the Beatles often found themselves dealing with social issues, such as segregation. As detailed in the film, the group refused to play at the Gator Bowl in Florida unless the concert was desegregated and black fans could sit among their white counterparts — something they even had written into their contract rider for the event.
“You’re witnessing a massive cultural shift,” Monroe says. “A year before, in 1963, I don’t think a single person in the world would imagine that people would even want to know the opinions of a pop star.”
Adds Howard: “They were forced to react to these issues and take a position, both as artists and also as generational leaders. Whether they liked it or not, they were thrust into that position.”
That segment is told through archival interviews and recollections from witnesses who lived through Beatlemania. In this case, historian Kitty Oliver, one of just 15 African-Americans who attended the Gator Bowl show. Others include Whoopi Goldberg, Elvis Costello, and Sigourney Weaver, all of whom share very personal experiences about attending Beatles shows.
“We interviewed 50 people for the film and they all needed to have a personal experience to share,” Sinclair says. “Famous or not, that’s the connection point.”
Between social pressures and, more importantly, the creatively unsatisfying experience of playing the same 10 career hits to audiences that could no longer hear them, the Beatles eventually gave up on touring. The choice to leave the stage — the place which not only gave the Beatles their identity in the world, but also most of their income (due to a poor royalty rate with EMI) — was one that launched a different era in popular music, Howard says. “The courage it took to leave the road, and put that behind them, was actually the thing that allowed the whole idea of the studio album, as art form, to really take flight. And they were instrumental in that happening, by becoming a studio band.”
The film ends with the Beatles’ last true live performance — in January 1969 atop the roof of their Apple offices in London, as filmed for their last movie, “Let It Be” (never-seen outtake footage of which Crowder was able to use to create the scene). The group is seen playing “Don’t Let Me Down,” John Lennon’s plea, nominally to a woman, but, in this context, to his bandmates.
“It has a poignancy and an urgency that’s kind of a swan song to those suits, and what it took to survive the hurricane,” Monroe says. “Stopping touring was inevitable. They stopped doing this thing that made them famous, and turned to this thing that made them happy.”