It might be difficult to imagine, nearly 50 years after the Beatles broke up, that there would be anything new to say about one of the most celebrated and documented bands of all time. But Ron Howard insists that there is. The director’s latest project, The Beatles: Eight Days a Week—The Touring Years, is a 100-minute documentary examination of the five-year period in which the Fab Four toured and played live, first as a staple in Liverpool’s Cavern Club, then through the chaotic global whirlwind of Beatlemania, all the way through to their last concert at San Francisco’s Candlestick Park in 1966.
To shine new light on these formative years in pop music history, Howard and a team of collaborators interviewed the surviving Beatles, talked to the widows of their deceased bandmates, and combed through the archives of the group's company, Apple Corps, and various media outlets for footage of the four lads playing live. They also dug much deeper. Thanks to a crowdsourced, archival research project that first began in 2003, Howard and producers at White Horse Pictures were able to include never-before-seen footage shot by fans and other amateurs around the world during the Beatles’ years on the road.
This new footage, combined with the meticulous restoration of the audio, enabled Howard and his team to shine new light on the first half of the Beatles’ career and, Howard hopes, delight fans with new visual details and sonic clarity when the documentary arrives in theaters on September 16 (and lands on Hulu the following day). Fast Company talked to Howard about directing Eight Days a Week and what it was like to work with his boyhood idols.
Fast Company: How did you get involved in this project? What attracted you to it?
Ron Howard: I had worked on a movie called Rush, a Formula One racing story. Involved in that production was a guy I got to know well, Nigel Sinclair. I learned that he had done [the George Harrison film] Living in the Material World as a producer. I sort of stumbled into doing this Jay Z documentary about his music festival in Philadelphia, Made In America. Nigel saw that documentary and said, "The Beatles are thinking about making a documentary about their touring years. Is that something you’d want to think about?" I immediately thought, this would be a great way to meet Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr, whom I had crossed paths with, but never really had a conversation with. I was a fan first and foremost. And then I thought, no, there’s a real responsibility involved here! I need to delve into the story and really understand it.
I thought that their idea of focusing on the touring years was really ingenious because the Beatles' story in total is epic and sprawling. But this has a narrative. As a director, I immediately identified it as sort of an adventure story. I felt like it was almost a survival story for these guys. They launched themselves into this, and the world reacted in a way that nobody could have predicted. It created all kinds of challenges for them. The way they navigated those challenges is revealing, moving, and impressive.
And you did get to meet and talk to Paul and Ringo, as well as Yoko Ono and Olivia Harrison. How did the surviving Beatles and their families contribute to the creative process?
They gave me the final cut, just like I have on my feature films, which was, I thought, a huge show of respect. I spoke to each of them and met with them first, at length. They had a chance to vet my ideas and decide whether they wanted to get behind this approach. Yoko and Olivia knew all the stories about the very beginning, but we’re not telling the part of the story where they’re present. Still, they each had a point of view and a tremendous amount of knowledge. They’ve seen cuts and offered up some comments, and I’ve agreed with some and not others. They’ve been fine with that. They really encouraged me to tell the story as I was seeing it. And I think they’re happy with the result.
What did you learn from this discussions? Did they help shape the narrative of the film?
Lots of things. I had a sense that it was this intense adventure story. I equated it to Apollo 13 or even Das Boot. They lived through this incredibly intense period, where they’re under all this scrutiny, all this pressure. The logistics are wild and, in some instances, a little threatening to their health and well-being. Out of necessity, they’re inventing the stadium concert tour. It was because the police kept saying, "If you play a place that holds 8,000 people, it means we’re going to have 38,000 people outside. You’ve got to play in bigger places." So they sort of invented the arena tour before technology could support it, really.
Was there anything that surprised you?
The biggest surprise for me was the kind of brotherhood that Ringo talks about. Paul talks about the connection that he and John had creatively and as friends and how important that was, how they worked together. The artistic growth is another thing that I was able to understand better. They didn’t wear it as some kind of badge of honor. It was just kind of who they were. As a group and as four individuals, they just had a creative integrity that is impressive and laudable. You begin to see that that’s why they’ve endured so brilliantly.
There are a few broader historical threads woven throughout the story, it being the 1960s and all. We’ve all heard about the Beatles' opposition to the Vietnam War, but most people probably didn’t realize that they refused to play segregated venues in America.
That’s another thing I didn’t know and didn’t come up in my conversations with Paul or Ringo or Yoko or Olivia. They just took that segregation stand as an obvious choice. To this day, they don’t really recognize what a courageous stance it was. It was great to find [civil rights historian] Kitty Oliver and be able to interview her. That came very late in the process. I knew they took a position on Vietnam as a lot of artists did, but I didn’t know that a year or two before that, they had taken that kind of controversial stand in Jacksonville.
It’s interesting that so much of the archival material is unreleased, amateur footage. Tell me about the process of acquiring and working with this raw material.
Did you hear about the footage that had never been exposed? It was from a lady that had been at Candlestick Park. There was very little surviving footage from Candlestick Park. Right before I came on board, this lady called in and said, "I was at Candlestick Park. I think I shot some footage. I don’t think I ever got it developed. Do you guys want it?" That turns out to be one of our most important scenes. And that footage really means a lot. No one knew it was going to be the momentous last performance by the Beatles.
All this additional footage fleshes out the personal moments and concert moments. I knew that that was a great building block. And that’s really why they decided to make the movie. It was kind of up to me to find the story in it. I knew that you would see the Beatles better, hear the Beatles better, and therefore connect with them, both backstage and in performance, in a way that you hadn’t before—especially people who will see it in a movie theater or on a good system.
It’s also very important to me to be able to tell this story and reveal more about the band and more about the world that the band was navigating. For people who know the music and think they know the story, there’s so much more there. I fall into that category. I was a fan. For my 10th birthday, I got a Beatle wig, which was only a month after they played on Ed Sullivan. They were that kind of a sensation. My kids like the Beatles a lot, but they don’t know much about them. When I showed them a cut of the movie, they were blown away because they had no idea how seismic it all had been and how complex the journey was. Emotionally complex, socially complex, artistically complex.
Much of the footage had to be restored—as did the audio, which was famously noisy thanks to screaming fans. I know Giles Martin, son of the late Sir George, was a big help there.
It was great having Giles Martin on board. What a gentleman. I had met him at Abbey Road. I was scoring the movie In the Heart of the Sea at Abbey Road when this came together, and I learned I’d be making this documentary. I was there for weeks and was getting the Beatles tour of Abbey Road studios almost everyday in some way, shape, or form.
Other than managing and restoring all that footage and audio, what was the biggest challenge in making this movie?
The story is so sprawling. I think the biggest frustration was that there was so much great material. How do you focus it and deliver it in a way that really respects people’s time, but really inform—in a tight, fun, fluid way—a clear sense of what that journey was like and what it meant to these four remarkable individuals?
There were montages that we could have easily built out into 20-minute sequences and quick acknowledgements that could have been scenes. There were some interesting people that didn’t make the feature version at all. We do have DVD extras with some of the other interviews, because we had some brilliant people talking about the Beatles.
It sounds like this project was a pretty special one for you, personally.
It was. And very daunting. But I knew we had these building blocks, and that this was coming from Apple. They’re very thorough and professional. Very thoughtful about everything that they do around the Beatles, obviously. I knew they wouldn’t say yes to my ideas if they didn’t believe it was a good direction. It was very important to me to have those conversations with the people who lived it.
I also think it’s a good time to make the movie because we have this new perspective. We can look at that and say, "Wow, look how much as changed and look how much has stayed the same." We can take measure of what they meant to us then and what they mean to us now. I wish that George and John were with us and could be a part of it. We tried to cull their interviews and make them as much a part of it as we possibly could.
It was great to get Paul and Ringo at this point in their lives. They’ve been so active and productive, and yet I think maybe they’re reaching a point where they have a perspective of wisdom and another level of appreciation of what that experience was, which I think our film benefits from. Especially the second interviews. We did one interview and then waited a few months and showed them a few sequences that were cut together so they could see the tone of the movie and the way that we were trying to delve into the characters and personalize the journey of those years. They were really responsive in their second interviews and even more forthcoming. It was a very gratifying experience.