A new documentary gets to the heart of The Beatles via home movies made by fans. Film critic Tony Earnshaw reports.
Ron Howard was nine years old when he and 70m other Americans saw The Beatles play on the Ed Sullivan Show. It was February 9, 1964. The Beatles were about to take America by storm. Just over two years later the band would abandon touring and live performing. But in that brief window of time they would conquer the world.
“Like most of America, I saw The Beatles on the Ed Sullivan Show,” he remembers. “My birthday is March 1 so for my 10th birthday I asked my parents for a Beatle wig and Beatle boots. They couldn’t find the Beatle boots but I got a Beatle wig. I proudly wore it throughout the whole party.”
For two frantic years, from January 1963 to January 1965, The Beatles were almost constantly on the road. It all came to an end on August 29, 1966 with a concert at San Francisco’s Candlestick Park. Three years later, on the penultimate day of 1969, John, Paul, George and Ringo would play their legendary rooftop concert in London. Then they passed into pop music history.
Fifty years on and Howard accepted his second documentary as director, having previously made a film on rapper Jay Z. The appeal of the project was in the wealth of fan-recorded footage of The Beatles’ tours and the opportunity to stitch it together.
“As I looked at those touring years, I began to see it as a kind of adventure, a survival tale of this incredible journey they were on,” says Howard. “I thought that was the story I could tell [and] in a way that would reflect the culture of the times. At the same time, we could explore the dynamics of The Beatles as a band - a brotherhood of sorts - but also as individuals, because they definitely grew, evolved and changed.”
The roots of what would eventually become The Beatles: Eight Days a Week – The Touring Years began in 2002 when a call went out around the world for fan recordings. A decade later work began on the first authorised Beatles documentary, with Paul McCartney himself approving the involvement of Howard.
A former child actor who became a TV heartthrob in Happy Days before segueing into directing movies such as Splash, Apollo 13 and Frost/Nixon, Howard had experienced something of being a celebrity. Beatlemania was, he confesses, on an altogether different level.
“When Happy Days was at its absolute height, we were kind of like a boy band and we would occasionally make personal appearances. There would sometimes be thousands of people and rocking limos, and grabbing of clothes and all that stuff. We used to say ‘Beatlemania!’ and laugh about it. But then I started working on this film and realised the unimaginable chaos these guys experienced.”
Modern Beatlemania was to come to Howard’s aid via social media. Not content with the largely Super 8 film that they had, the film’s producers put out an appeal to the 42m followers of The Beatles’ Facebook page. The result was a deluge of amazing and unseen material.
One call was to change the direction of the film. A woman said she had been in the crowd at Candlestick Park on August 29, 1966. With her Super 8 camera she captured the Fab Four singing their final song at their final gig at their final concert venue.
“I’ve got this film footage under my bed that I’ve not looked at since 1966. Would you like to see it?” she asked. One can only begin to imagine the reaction…
The film, and other footage like it, was digitised, colour-corrected, and audio boosted to enable the band to be heard above the din of the cheering, screaming crowd.
Giles Martin, son of legendary producer George Martin, observes: “It’s probably better than if you were there.”
Ron Howard says working closely with the band, albeit from a distance of half a century and via audio and video, gave him an altogether different perspective on who they were.
“We’ve all loved hearing their records over our sound systems, but there they are live and they’re great!” he enthuses. “And the energy of it is infectious. It just makes you smile. I think the next big surprise to me was just how funny they were. In interviews or just talking, they’re smart and funny and very entertaining.”
John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Ringo Starr were at the heart of seismic musical change in the 1960s. As the Vietnam War raged and society lurched toward a more permissive era their musicianship provided a soundtrack to a rapidly changing world.
Yet they were still only in their twenties. In the summer of 1966 Lennon was 25, McCartney was 24, Harrison was 23 and Starr was 26. Fifty years later only McCartney, 74, and Starr, 76, survive. Lennon was shockingly murdered in 1980 and Harrison died of cancer in 2001. For Howard interviewing even half of the Fab Four was nerve-wracking.
“I was anxious - I’m not a journalist - but the conversations really flowed. I think they have a renewed sense of appreciation for what the band was and what The Beatles meant.
“They’ve both achieved so much since then and there’s so much water under the bridge, so much life having been lived and two friends lost, that I think they feel at liberty to look back in a very clear-eyed way with a great sense of satisfaction.
As I looked at those touring years, I began to see it as a kind of adventure, a survival tale of this incredible journey they were on.Ron Howard
“And so they were digging hard to retrieve memories. For a long time they said, ‘well… that was then.’ The movie benefits from that.”
The Beatles: Eight Days a Week – The Touring Years is on nationwide release.