The Beatles: Eight Days A Week – The Touring Years is in cinemas across the UK from tomorrow (September 15). Ahead of its release, we caught up with its Oscar-winning director, Ron Howard, to talk all things moptop.
Received wisdom these days is that The Beatles got cool right about where this film finishes – 1966’s ‘Revolver’ and the experimental things that followed. Did you want to present an alternative argument?
Ron Howard: “I think they’re very different [bands]. The prospect of making this film came to me through the team at [The Beatles’ company] Apple Corps. It was described to me as a look at this section of their career, the touring years, and largely, it was motivated by the fact that they had discovered this new footage and these bootleg soundboards that Giles Martin [producer, son of ‘fifth Beatle’ George] felt he could work with. So they were really interested in the live experience and making a movie about just how good they were, how they were the pioneers of the stadium rock tours.”
As a filmmaker, what appealed to you about that prospect?
“I began to see in it what I described to them as an adventure and survival story, and a coming-of-age piece. I set it all down in simple terms: if I was writing this script, I would be very interested in how they navigated those Beatlemania years – the pressures from the outside, the social upheaval. And as you start to understand the intensity of Beatlemania, it stops being cute and starts being real drama. So, making a case for those touring years, I found it cinematically, narratively, interesting. There’s a whole other story that follows, should they ever decide they want somebody to tell it.”
“I would be very interested, but I have no idea whether that’s territory [Apple Corps] want to delve into.”
It must be frustrating, in some ways, making a film about a band getting worse at playing live. In the early days in Liverpool and Hamburg they were vital. By the end, you sense they couldn’t be arsed.
“Well, we did really linger on the newly recovered footage from the early show in Manchester and Washington DC. The Manchester film was great 35mm stuff, and it really shows you that how crackling good they were just before they came to America [in 1964]. They were on fire, just on fire. But yeah, things changed. There’s a great shot of Ringo playing in Japan where he just looks absolutely fucking miserable!”
The Beatles story is both well-told and very, very long, but you told a Beatles story in about two hours. Was that a big challenge?
“Yeah, you start reading the books – I still haven’t read ’em all – you see there are so many interesting ways of looking at this story. This is just kind of running it through my lens, my filter. I realised that the absolute diehards want every detail, that it couldn’t possibly be long enough, but for that other important group, the people who have real affection, appreciation and respect for the music, and know something about Beatlemania but aren’t encyclopaedic – people a little more like me – they wanted a movie watching experience. And they wanted the story to flow, and unfold. And I had to be pretty rigorous about it, and like any other movie, it makes for hard choices.”
Were you a Beatlemaniac as a kid?
“No. I did see them on The Ed Sullivan Show, and my tenth birthday was about 20 days later – March 1 – and in that time I decided what I really wanted was a Beatle wig and Beatle boots. The Beatle boots didn’t ever arrive, but I did get a wig. It soon wound up in the box in the corner and eventually got thrown out with all my baseball cards. I always appreciated them, but I never bought a lot of music. I like the music a lot, but it’s the story I was attracted to.”
We’re used to stadium gigs now, but The Beatles’ stadium gigs didn’t look like the best experience. Some of the footage of the crowds is terrifying, and the sound came from the tannoys…
“Yeah, the tannoy bit… it’s hilarious! And it’s outrageous, and look, within a couple of years after The Beatles quit touring, The Stones, The Who and The Eagles got good at playing stadiums, they learned how to do it. The Beatles didn’t hang around long enough to conquer it. They don’t like to talk about it! But you look at that security and all those people – I mean, it wasn’t safe.”
The last documentary you made, Made In America, was about Jay Z. Who did you find easier to work with: Paul and Ringo or Jay Z?
“All of them were good! I got to interview Jay Z a couple of times. Paul’s very open and Ringo’s funny, and it’s a little bit like fencing, you know, because they can’t help but come back with one of those Liverpudlian zingers. Paul is still driven, still on the road, still creating, the consummate artist, but he’s come to a place of being a little happier talking about The Beatles, and he can relax and deal with it as a really important element of his past. I think that made him better than ever, in terms of talking about it.”
I believe you met John Lennon on the set of ‘70s sitcom Happy Days, where you played Richie Cunningham…
“Yes – his son really wanted to see our set and meet Henry [Winkler, The Fonz]. Henry was desperate to meet John Lennon, too. I had nothing but admiration for John Lennon but I was nothing quite as fervent – for Henry it was a practically religious experience. I just said hello – it was all over in 10 or 15 minutes. Ringo and Keith Moon wandered onto our set a few years later, but they were in a state in which I wouldn’t expect them to remember very much of the experience!”
It’s now 50 years since ‘Revolver’. Why should young people still care about The Beatles?
“Well, the music’s still great! And they’re charismatic and sexy and exciting to look at. And they stand for so much more. I think young people today are five times as sophisticated but there’s kind of a social, intellectual – even philosophical – component to who The Beatles are and what they stood for. Their songs would be one thing: fun, driving, addictive; but underneath there’s almost always a little more there than meets the eye.”
“Well, I appreciated their unwillingness to intellectualise. There’s a bit where Paul’s on the train from New York to Washington DC and they’re interviewing him and he says, ‘It’s not art!’. They say: ‘Well, what is it?’ he says: ‘It’s a laugh!’. Well, that entirely unpretentious approach became a mantra – one they still hold pretty dear. I think that’s just great.”