Taking on the legacy of The Beatles is a daunting challenge to any filmmaker— even an Academy Award-winner, as Ron Howard confessed to the Hulu panel at Deadline’s The Contenders Emmys event Sunday. But despite some initial jitters, the project went smoothly, he recalled, even expressing surprise that the remaining two members of the Fab Four—Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr—were only too happy to trust him with the story of their rise and further rise. “Ringo’s only thing,” the director joked, “was, ‘Keep the drums in fucking sync, mate.’”
Titled The Beatles: Eight Days a Week — The Touring Years, the doc follows the legendary band’s career from the first performance in 1962 in Liverpool to their last concert in 1966 at Candlestick Park in San Francisco and features previously unseen footage. Howard’s film not only launched the streaming service’s new documentary unit, it was also the first feature to premiere exclusively on Hulu following its theatrical run. Exploring how The Beatles came together, created their music and built their collective career together, the film ends with the band, disillusioned by the pressures of touring, retiring to work exclusively in the studio, where they will make their 1967 masterpiece Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Given a theatrical release both in the U.S. and abroad, Howard’s doc ended up with a respectable $12.2 million, with 76 percent of the gross coming from overseas. Stateside, it grossed $2.9 million.
The film is Howard’s second foray into non-fiction. The first one — 2013’s Made In America — followed a music festival that Jay-Z curated in Philadelphia. “It was fascinating,” Howard recalled, “but it was urgent. It was quick. We sent out a lot of crews. We just went out there and we were able to find some storylines in addition to the great performances. This, though, was a very different situation: the band knew that they wanted to deal with the touring years and only the touring years, and I was asked if I had a point of view about that. So I quickly did a little more reading and a little more listening, and what I initially thought might be a limitation turned out to be a strength.”
With the Jay-Z documentary, Howard used the music doc Nashville, but for the Beatles he sourced a more unlikely inspiration: World War II movie Das Boot (1981), about German sailors trapped aboard a crumbling submarine. Said Howard, “It’s a coming of age story but it’s a kind of a disorientating gauntlet that they’re running. They navigated that, and were influenced by the social revolution of the time — and they also influenced it. So that became my pitch to them. Yes, I was excited by the music, but what I really cared about was understanding what it was like for them to be there, to live through that.”
The finished film only deepened the director’s respect for the British band. “When you look at it from that perspective,” he mused, “you also begin to understand what they achieved – the lasting breakthoughs. First they demonstrated what a global pop phenomenon could be — Beatlemania. Yes, Sinatra was huge, Elvis was huge, but mostly in the US. They were the first ones to really achieve that kind of global status all at once, kinda instantaneously. The way they participated in it and were not afraid to speak their mind [really impressed me]. The Beatles really trusted their principles, whether that was creative, or political, or philosophical, whether it ruffled feathers or was accepted, it didn’t matter. They trusted that inner voice — and it takes real courage to do that.”