Eight Days A Week: how Ron Howard brought the Beatles back to life

Howard’s new film captures the sweat, screams and cultural significance of the band’s touring years. He explains why the Fab Four still fascinates him

The story of the Beatles is like the story of Watergate or the second world war, the civil rights movement or Vietnam: it contains a million smaller stories, a million witnesses, a million angles of approach. Ron Howard’s documentary Beatles: Eight Days A Week – The Touring Years extrudes yet another narrative fragment from the Fabs’ fable and makes it a story all of its own. It concerns the four years the group spent touring first Britain and Germany, then the US and the world; years that made them, and also broke them.

Eight Days A Week strips away layers of myth to give us back the Beatles who made the whole world scream. It also strips away the screaming, too – that wall of sexualised hysteria that was the signature soundtrack to Beatlemania – and permits us to hear what most Beatles audiences of the time barely could: the music itself. In addition, it puts us inside the bubble of their skyrocketing fame, an experience that these four men alone shared, and which only they fully understood.

To hear the Beatles live again is to remember the strength of their musical togetherness, the years of practice, friendship and collaboration that underpinned them. Eight Days a Week also reminds us that from within that constricted, hotel suite-bound, waited-on-hand-and-foot lifestyle, emerged the phenomenal nine-hour monolith of their recorded output, which artists and musicians are still facing down today.

The Beatles: Eight Days A Week - The Touring Years: exclusive clip – video

“I was interested in that bubble they were in,” says Howard (who is exactly as nice, funny and enthusiastic as you’d expect the man who played Richie Cunningham to be). “I began to think of the story as like Das Boot: they’re in it together, they have each other, they know what their objective is, but, y’know, it’s a dangerous world out there.”

Howard and his team, including British producer Nigel Sinclair, found a huge amount of material, using the internet to send out feelers for fan footage of live shows, local TV news clips and bootleg recordings. They found tape that captured the music that screaming fans mostly couldn’t hear. “We were lucky enough to find a number of bootleg soundboards,” says Howard, “so we got them digitized and restored them to flesh out some of the concert moments, to add a lot more detail and bring the viewer in from arms-length, get them up close, intimate.”

Ron Howard.
Ron Howard. Photograph: Jeff Lipsky

The results are stunning. Restored footage of the band playing their first truly great rocker I Saw Her Standing There at the Washington DC Coliseum in 1964, during the short east coast tour after their epoch-making Ed Sullivan Show taping in February, features Harrison and Lennon’s guitars thrashing with an almost proto-punk ferocity, and Ringo going wild behind his kit, his hair scattering sweat drops as the teenagers scream and wail. Throughout the film there are revelatory live moments at Budokan in Japan, in Australia, at Shea Stadium and at Candlestick Park.

Howard and his editors also manage a number of celebrity Beatle-fan coups, like the day when, to their astonishment, they spotted a 14-year-old Sigourney Weaver looming lankily over her fellow teenyboppers in footage of a 1964 show, and then pulled Weaver in to share her memories. Whoopi Goldberg tells a beautiful story of her mother taking her on a “mystery tour” which ended up at Shea Stadium for the Beatles’ biggest live show ever.

When the Beatles appeared on Sullivan, Ronnie Howard, as he was credited then, had already been playing the iconic Opie Taylor on the top-rated The Andy Griffith Show for three years. A year earlier he had starred with Glenn Ford in Vincente Minnelli’s The Courtship of Eddie’s Father. He was nine. The Fab Four hit him right where he lived. “I was already acting and I was going to school, so I wasn’t out of touch,” he says. “I certainly knew enough about the Beatles to watch Ed Sullivan, which was in February. And my birthday’s in March so I asked for a Beatle wig and Beatle boots. They couldn’t find any boots, but they did find this, in retrospect, really nasty-looking Beatle wig, but I was delighted and I wore it all through my 10th birthday.”

As the band became a more complex prospect, Howard’s interest deepened. “I had a teacher who began to use lyrics off Rubber Soul as examples of poetry, to stimulate our imaginations. What I noticed even at that age was: ‘Two years ago they were singing I Wanna Hold Your Hand and She Loves You, but look at them now!’ They were changing with the times, reflecting a huge cultural shift – and leading it.I don’t know if they would have accepted that role if it hadn’t been thrust on them, but it was, and they did, and they excelled in it.” Even if they weren’t aware of it at the time. We both laugh as we recall the film’s funniest moment, when Paul tells an interviewer in 1964, “Culture? This isn’t culture. It’s just a good laff!”

This sense of quantum leaps in creative growth is what hooked Howard to the movie. “What makes it unique, to me, is the cultural pressures. It’s awe-inspiring – and I didn’t quite understand it, though I had a sense of it as a 10-year-old kid. The fact that they were able to be that creatively ambitious, and maintain it, and keep growing at that moment, while they were coping with this remarkably wonderful, but also kind of shocking, reality of their success, is kind of awesome. In a way, that sort of creative integrity is at the heart of the story for me. As a unit, they produced genius-level work and were four intelligent, charismatic but self-effacing artists. That whole approach they had to the music, to the press, their natural wit as a foursome fooling around for the cameras, was totally organic and unique to them and them alone, making them sort of this four-headed beast.”

The band rocking at The Cavern Club.
Under the bridge... rocking at The Cavern Club. Photograph: Apple Corps

Also highlighted is a moment on the 1965 tour when the Beatles refused to accept a segregated audience in Jacksonville, Florida, but in a Beatles way – “Nah, it’s stupid” – rather than in a political fashion. Nonetheless, the gig and the remainder of the southern leg of the tour unfolded in quietly desegregated venues, a little piece of progress not widely noted. “They were forced to do more, to take a position, once they became so huge. There’s a kind of intellectual logic that is theirs alone, that applies to art and, in this case, to life, and they cannot abide not following that logic.”

Whatever the Beatles did, they did first and did best. Where they led, everyone else followed. Eight Days A Week acknowledges all of that, but reminds us that at the centre of it all, for four tumultuous years of live performance, it was all about being four boys in a band. Until suddenly it wasn’t. On the plane to LA after what would turn out to be their last proper gig, in San Francisco, George Harrison was heard saying: “That’s it. I’m no longer a Beatle.” Thereafter, they confined themselves to the studio, only playing live once more, on the roof of their Apple HQ, shortly before their dissolution. For Howard, that decision to knock touring on the head plays into their mystique.

“What I take away from it, as an entertainer and a storyteller myself, is that incredible sense of commitment they had. The fact that they could turn their backs on what made the money – retire altogether from endless touring – to fulfil the creative needs they could all feel were bursting out of them? That blows me away.”

Beatles: Eight Days A Week – The Touring Years is out from 15 September


John Patterson

The GuardianTramp

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