Saturday, November 27, 2021

Play it Again:

Tasked with shaping a film out of dozens upon dozens of hours of rehearsal footage, Peter Jackson’s The Beatles: Get Back is a long, shapeless thing running nearly eight hours over three parts. (The shortest episode is just over two hours; the longest is nearly three.) But the picture isn’t aimless. Taken exclusively from contemporaneous documentary footage chronicling the month of practice, writing, and recording that resulted in The Beatles’ final album, Jackson’s project of duration has an aim of scraping away the myth and rumor that has accumulated around this final period in the band’s life. This footage has remained largely unseen, despite being the foundation for director Michael Lindsay-Hogg’s 80-minute doc Let it Be, which has been available only as a bootleg for over four decades now. That film has lots of interesting moments, but is clearly a cramped, cut-down look at this moment—iconic melodies interspersed with fleeting glimpses at tensions between Paul, John, George, and Ringo. Jackson’s inclination toward creating spaces (and runtimes) you can wander around and get lost in—a boon to us admirers of his increasingly lengthy Middle-Earth fantasy sojourns—thus acts as an exhumation and expansion of that older film. In the process, through well-judged editing and a generous willingness to let scenes go on and on, it’s as close as a fly-on-the-wall to genius as we can get. There’s a magical moment late in the first episode where Paul is noodling on a guitar, working over a sliver of an idea with a chord, a bit of rhythm, a half-lyric. George joins in with strumming. Ringo adds some vocalizations, a bit of percussion. Then, all of a sudden, there it is. “Get Back.” One of the most iconic rock songs of all time just…appears. The film is full of moments like this as we see a variety of characters—wives, girlfriends, assistants, technicians, celebrity visitors, and so on—mill about and the band expands and contracts as petty disputes and deep tensions are nonetheless able to be resolved in real love and camaraderie. If there’s a sense that this is a band nearing the end, a jostling of artists and personalities not long for this world, there’s also an exhilaration in seeing the work before our eyes. Jackson, who has sand-blasted the archival grain to give it an unreal immediacy, lets us draw our own conclusions for the most part, correcting the record by restoring the humanity to these totemic figures of rock and roll history. Here they are as people, with silly asides, genuine fears, funny running jokes, honest reflections, exciting ideas, productive collaboration, sly banter, and, of course, brilliant talent. It’s a pleasure to spend time in this room—closed off in this rehearsal space and recording booth for hours on end—and exhilarating to see the film open up as they step up on the roof and play for the awestruck passersby one final concert.

What Todd Haynes is up to with The Velvet Underground is more expansive despite a tighter two-hour time limit. He’s out to tell the history of the eponymous short-lived rock band that infamously sold relatively few albums, but, as Brian Eno would say, ”everyone who bought one of those 30,000 copies started a band." Haynes gets the information across, but he does so in a concisely sweeping cultural biography of an entire moment in the New York City modern art scene of the 60s and 70s. Haynes is no stranger to prodding the lives of musicians in unexpected ways—his infamous Barbie-starring Karen Carpenter biopic Superstar or glam rock roman à clef Velvet Goldmine—or recreating a bygone style—Far from Heaven’s Sirkian colors and modes. Here he expertly puts us in a particular time, and mindset. The movie flows with music, of course, to situate us in the influences, contemporaries, and the work itself from bandmates Lou Reed, John Cale, Maureen Tucker, and Sterling Morrison. We get biographical sketches and plenty of first-hand testimony from those who were there—some newly recorded from living witnesses, others taken from old interviews from those no longer with us. Haynes then layers these audio elements into an all-consuming aesthetic experience. He is constantly giving us two or more things to look at—the screen is split two, four, six, even twelve times over with separate pieces of wonderfully textured archival finds and some fresh interviews shot in generous vintage stocks. We see clips of television, amateur portraits, movies, ads, news and documentary and self-shot primary-source footage, and, above all, lots of avant-garde films from the time. We see excerpts from radical experimental films from Warhol and Mekas and Anger. We hear from critic Amy Taubin and director John Waters and actress Mary Woronov. At every moment, the screen and the sound is alive with possibility—an exciting and absorbing aesthetic experience. It has a similar entrancing effect to a great museum installation or the striking a-g works it lovingly quotes throughout. Less a dull recitation of a Wikipedia entry set to a YouTube playlist, as so many of these artist biographical documentaries become, Haynes is making a work of art. It not only communicates what the music sounded like and where it came from, it generates what it must’ve felt like to hear it emerge from this particular cultural scene. What a transportingly specific movie, worthy of standing proudly next to the very works it deploys to create its effects.

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