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. 9, 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.”
A previous version of this story misstated the date that the Beatles appeared on “The Ed Sullivan Show.” It was February 9, 1964.