Exclusive Interview: Vivek Tiwary on ‘The Fifth Beatle,’ The Brian Epstein Story
Ah, the Beatles. The most famous group of musicians in the history of time – certainly the most talked-about. You would think that every possible story about them has already been told, but not many people know about the guy who made them famous, without whom we'd never have heard of the Fab Four. His name was Brian Epstein, and he managed the Beatles. In fact, in the worlds of Paul McCartney, "If anyone was the fifth Beatle, it was Brian."
Epstein's story is a remarkable one – he was a gay man in a time when that was still considered a felony in the United Kingdom, but that didn't stop him from transforming a group of young, rough-and-tumble skiffle guys into the mop-topped sensation that created mass hysteria among young people on a global scale.
Vivek J. Tiwary, the Broadway theater producer who helped bring Green Day's "American Idiot" musical to life, has made the re-telling of Epstein's story an absolute passion project – and it's taken the form of not only an upcoming feature film (complete with Beatles music rights secured somehow!) being produced by Bruce Cohen (of American Beauty and Silver Linings Playbook fame), but also a new, lush graphic novel entitled The Fifth Beatle, with art from Andrew C. Robinson and Kyle Baker, due out on November 19. Tiwary spoke exclusivley with Crave Online about both projects and a lot of the interesting history about the Beatles and Epstein himself. Here is our in-depth conversation. Enjoy!
CRAVE ONLINE: Looking at this book, I'm impressed by how it avoids the trap that comics often fall into when they are based on real people – sometimes the effort to produce an accurate likeness sacrifices the ability to depict action, and makes things feel stodgy and stiff. The artists here don't seem to have sacrificed any of that fluidity and managed to make them look perfectly like the Beatles. What was the approach to the artwork when taking on these crazily famous people?
VIVEK TIWARY: Well, we definitely did a lot of reference work. I've been researching this book for more than half my life, literally. It's a real labor of love for me, so I provided Andrew with a ton of reference materials, photographs. We discussed at length the sort of facial expressions and emotions that I wanted to convey, and I know Andrew just did a lot of research, too. He supplemented the references that I sent him with a lot of his own research. He also did a lot of photo reference for movements – he took pictures of his friends jumping up in the air so he could copy those motions for the cover. Obviously, the Beatles are icons, and it was important to us to get those right.
CRAVE ONLINE: It definitely has the right energy to it for a comic book. So what was the hook for you? What were you obsessed with about Brian Epstein, or was it the Beatles in general that drew you in, and then the more you researched, he piqued your curiosity?
TIWARY: I have been a lifelong Beatles fan.
CRAVE ONLINE: As everyone should be.
TIWARY: Exactly. When I was in business school, which was – not to date myself too much, but – coming on twenty years ago, I was dreaming about doing a lot of the things that I'm doing now, working in the entertainment field. I thought that, if I'm going to work in this field, I should study the lives of some of the great entertainment visionaries. I tend to be a little academic in that way. Thinking that the Beatles and Brian were the team that wrote and then rewrote the rules of the pop music business, that led me to a study of Brian Epstein. I was looking for a business blueprint. I was a young man wanting to get into the business, so I was curious how he got them a record deal, how he convinced Ed Sullivan to book them when British bands just didn't come over to the U.S., how did he come up with the haircuts and the suits, and that is a wonderful and fascinating story, and all of that is in the book. But it was the human side of his story that I knew nothing about when I began this research that really struck a deep chord for me. In brief, he was gay, Jewish and from Liverpool, and in the 1960s, those were three significant obstacles. The Oscar Wilde laws were in place, so it was a felony to be gay, there was quite a bit of anti-Semitism in the UK, and while Liverpool had importance as a port town, there was very little going on in Liverpool culturally. So, for this gay, Jewish man from Liverpool to run around saying 'I found a band and they're going to be bigger than Elvis' was just ludicrous.
I am a first generation American, my parents are from Guyana, South America, and their parents are from India, so I could really relate to that outsider status. You don't see people from my background working in these fields. So the fact that Brian believed and did it, and did it so stunningly, really has been inspirational to me.
CRAVE ONLINE: He couldn't have seen that level of mania coming. He was just gambling, wasn't he?
TIWARY: Well, that's a good question. I suspect that Brian didn't quite realize how big it was going to get, but he did see it. He really said at the time that they were going to be bigger than Elvis, which was an impossibility. People laughed at him. Brian Epstein was not a fan of pop music. He ran a record store, so he was aware of all the pop music that was coming out. He knew Ray Charles when his singles came out and he promoted them at the store, et cetera, et cetera, but he was a fan of classical music. He didn't really listen to pop music – he liked classical and he liked a little bit of jazz, and he also felt that Lennon and McCartney were composers as good as Beethoven and Mozart. He used to say that, because that's what he listened to. He really did believe that, one day, the Beatles would elevate pop music to the stature of art form. Did he know that it would get quite as insane as it got? Maybe not, but probably pretty darn close would be my guess.
CRAVE ONLINE: The really early years of the Beatles are very fascinating, as they were a lot more rough edged, with the blue jeans and the leather jackets, swearing on stage and starting and stopping whenever they wanted. We know the Beatles wouldn't have been the Beatles without Brian Epstein, but as a matter of sheer alternate-reality speculation, what do you think they would've been if Brian hadn't dusted them off, dressed them up and organized them?
TIWARY: It's really hard to play these kinds of what-if games, but there are some realities. No record label wanted to sign them – none. In fact, EMI, who eventually signed the band, passed on them. There were five A&R reps, and they all passed on the Beatles, except George Martin, who was away on vacation. So Brian got a rejection letter, did his research and found out there was one guy who was on vacation, so he contacted that one guy, met with George, convinced him to take a chance on the Beatles, and then got a very sheepish letter from the head of EMI saying like "I know we passed on your band, but it turns out one of our guys was away and he actually does want to give them a shot, so we'll do two recordings." So it's pretty safe to say that, if it wasn't for Brian Epstein, they wouldn't have gotten a record deal. Without a record deal, they wouldn't have gotten the international attention that they got, and without that kind of attention, they wouldn't have had the resources and the ability to push their artistic boundaries – like going to India to study eastern instruments. If they had been stuck in Liverpool, making the money that they made, they wouldn't have been able to do that, so they would be a very different band. I think music was in their blood, so I wouldn't go so far as to say they would've stopped making music or wouldn't have written some of those great songs, but I really doubt that the world would have heard about them.
CRAVE ONLINE: It's really hard to imagine a world without the Beatles. I had a theory when I was younger and dumber that if the Beatles hadn't stepped up and revolutionized music, somebody else would have at some point, but I can't think of who that would've been.
TIWARY: It's impossible to say, because they were the first artists to radically reinvent themselves. If you listen to Sgt. Pepper and you listen to The Beatles, their first record, it's almost like two different bands. An artist didn't do that, and that's another thing that Brian facilitated. Brian had to convince the record labels that that was okay, because record labels didn't want that. When they had a band that was successful, they wanted to churn out more of the same. When Brian said, when they were at the peak of their careers playing stadiums around the world, "they're going to take some off and go to India and study eastern instruments," the record labels thought he was insane! But then they went away and came back and recorded records like Revolver and Sgt. Pepper and Rubber Soul. So Brian was the guy who had the vision and found a way to let them execute it.