Late in 2013, Beatlemania is still going strong, having not only outlived the group by 42 years, but threatening to outlive us all. On the film festival circuit and on art house screens around the world, a recent documentary about the band’s fan former club president Freda Kelly, Good Ol’ Freda, celebrates some of the few remaining untold stories of Fab lore. Elsewhere, there’s Tune In, volume one of top Beatles historian Mark Lewisohn’s biographical trilogy All These Years, and Patti Smith writes the preface to Philippe Margotin and Jean-Michel Guesdon’s All The Songs: The Story Behind Every Beatles Release.
The surviving Beatles themselves have also kept busy. Paul McCartney’s multi-media rock show was a top concert draw this summer and Rolling Stone magazine praises his new top 10 album, New, as being “energized and full of joyous rock & roll invention.” Even Ringo Starr is set to promote a book of his photographs entitled, duh, Photograph, with a brand new tour from his ever-changing All-Starr Band.
All of this to say that it seems like there’s never a bad time to tell a Beatles story, and so it is no surprise that this November sees the publication of The Fifth Beatle, about the band’s ill-fated manager, Brian Epstein, the early Fab believer and famously closeted gay man who died after an overdose of the sleeping pill Carbitral at his home in London on August 27, 1967, at the tragically young age of 32.
What is surprising, perhaps, is that The Fifth Beatle is a comic book.
To be fair, this extensively researched and beautifully rendered graphic novel is just the tip of the iceberg in a multi-media plan that has taken over six years to bring to market. In fact, says Vivek J. Tiwary, the Tony Award-winning Broadway producer (Green Day’s American Idiot, A Raisin in the Sun), who wrote the book with top comic illustrators Andrew Robinson and Kyle Baker, The Fifth Beatle, which is currently being developed into a feature length animated film, actually began 21 years ago when he was a business student at Philadelphia’s Wharton School.
“That’s when I first began dreaming about doing the things I’m doing now,” says Tiwary, on the phone from the Broadway offices of his Tiwary Entertainment Group. “I tend to be a little academic and a little nerdy, so I thought, if I’m going to be an entertainment entrepreneur, I should study the lives of the great entertainment visionaries. The Beatles and Brian Epstein kind of wrote, and rewrote the rulebook for the pop music field, I thought I should study the life of Brian Epstein.”
As Tiwary became familiar with the details of Epstein’s story, through interviews with Epstein’s inner circle, including business partners Nat Weiss and Sid Bernstein, and Epstein’s personal secretary Joanne Peterson, he began to identify with the story of an underdog outsider, the man least likely to succeed, who somehow managed to make it to the top. Tiwary says he saw parallels to his own life, as a young and self-identified “brown person” making his mark as a producer on Broadway, the so-called “Great White Way.” Tiwary still recalls feeling a chill in the air at the 2004 Tony Awards, where he was nominated for producing a revival of A Raisin in the Sun.
“A lot of people were kind of like ‘Who is this brown kid, and how did he crash our party?’ you know? You don’t see brown and you don’t see youth among the ranks of Broadway producers and I was both. And I believe that I may still be the only producer of color on Broadway.”
Tiwary admits that Epstein’s outsider status within the English music business resonated deeply with his own personal experiences on Broadway.
“Brian’s specific obstacles were that he was gay, and Jewish, and from Liverpool,” says Tiwary, “but at the start of the 1960s those were three tremendous obstacles. There was snobbery towards Northerners, and this may seem strange to hear now, but there weren’t Jewish people in the U.K. entertainment industry. The music business there was run by people like Sir Lew Grade, who were old, white, Catholic knights of the British Empire, they weren’t Brian Epstein from Liverpool.”
The Fifth Beatle chronicles the life of Brian Epstein from 1961, when his fortunes finally fell into place, until 1967, when it all fell apart. Tiwary, Robinson, and Baker all agreed that for the transitional times in which Epstein lived was best expressed through changes in color palette from gray monochrome to exuberant color.
“In 1961,” explains Tiwary, “Liverpool was very dark, industrial, rainy and a little depressed, but by the time the story ends, in 1967, we’re in London and it’s the dawn of the psychedelic era, with the summer of love on the horizon. So what I decided was that this was a story that charts the progression from black and white to Technicolor, or to put it in Beatles film terms, A Hard Day’s Night to Yellow Submarine. When you think about it in those terms, very visually, that said to me “graphic novel” and even animated film. So we set about developing both, simultaneously. For many reasons, some of them obvious, it was easier to put together the book first.”
A graphic novel wasn’t exactly a stretch for Tiwary, who admits he probably learned to read by reading comics and has served on the board for comic book company Valiant Entertainment. It was through his connections to the comic book world that he was met Andrew Robinson. He says he knew right off the bat that Robinson was the right man for the job.
“He’s a huge Beatles fan,” says Tiwary, “but he was also very excited to take on a graphic novel that was not in a super hero space. I think he was eager to show the world that he’s not just a Batman, Superman, or Star Wars guy. Not that there’s anything wrong with Batman, Superman, or Star Wars!”
While the book is set to hit the stands on November 19th, Tiwary is already excited about two major coups for the film version. Although no director has been named at this writing, Tiwary has recruited Academy Award winning producer Bruce Cohen, (American Beauty, Milk, Silver Linings Playbook) to co-produce the film, and recently confirmed that The Fifth Beatle will be the first non-documentary feature film about The Beatles to obtain the rights to use original Beatles songs.
“We’ve secured the sign off from Paul, Ringo, Yoko, and Olivia Harrison,” says Tiwary, “and that paved the way for doing a deal with Sony ATV, which is a long winded way of saying we have access to Beatles music for the film, which changes everything. Previous films, such as Backbeat or Nowhere Boy, had no Beatles music in them. We are literally the first to have ever gotten those music rights.”
It remains to be seen if the public, Beatles fans or not, will accept a feature film where the hero is doomed from the start. Epstein’s well-publicized death presents not only a huge spoiler but also a bummer note to anyone looking for a happy go lucky film about the summer of love. But perhaps, like Gus Van Sant’s Milk, Epstein’s struggle could serve as a gay rights parable, albeit one with Beatles songs. Tiwary, for his part, remains certain that the Epstein story is an inspiring underdog’s tale.
“You know,” says Tiwary, addressing Epstein’s closeted sexuality, “even worse than any anti-Semitism Brian might have encountered, it was actually illegal to be gay in Britain in the 1960s. He would have been thrown in jail. At the emotional core of the movie, here’s a guy who helped to spread an incredible message of love to the entire world and yet he himself died lonely at the age of 32 never having met a life partner. So it was no doubt a tragic story, but it’s also an underdog story. When describing the film version, I say that, yes, technically it’s a music biopic but it’s far less like Walk the Line or Ray and it’s much more like Rocky, although unlike Rocky, it has a pretty tragic ending.”While Tiwary is certain that both his book and film will be a “special treat” for Beatles fans, and will reveal an untold side of a well-known story, at its core, The Fifth Beatle isn’t really about the Fab Four.
“It really is about Brian Epstein,” says Tiwary, “and in the same way that you don’t have to be a fan of boxing to be a fan of Rocky, you don’t really have to be a Beatles fan to appreciate Brian’s story.”