When myth and music make it to the movies - Hindustan Times
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When myth and music make it to the movies

ByAnuradha Vellat
Mar 04, 2024 09:28 PM IST

The complexity of the band and a flare for counterculture make it a herculean task for director Sam Mendes to capture the essence of Beatlemania

At various points in the documentary series The Beatles: Get Back, The Beatles, also known as the Fab Four, are seen sitting in perfect harmony, wearing their iconic mop-top hairdos and taking on reporters. One reporter asks George Harrison: “George, do you think all this success is a one-night stand?” He responds, “I mean, it can’t go on the way it has been going on.” Another one asks: “Does any of you have any ambition left at all?” And he says, “Yeah, I wanna be an astronaut.”

The Beatles, foreground from left, Paul McCartney, George Harrison, John Lennon and Ringo Starr on drums perform on the CBS "Ed Sullivan Show" in New York on Feb. 9, 1964. (AP) PREMIUM
The Beatles, foreground from left, Paul McCartney, George Harrison, John Lennon and Ringo Starr on drums perform on the CBS "Ed Sullivan Show" in New York on Feb. 9, 1964. (AP)

The complexity of the band and the idiosyncrasies of its members accompanied by cryptic lyrics and a flare for counterculture only make it a herculean task at hand for director Sam Mendes — to capture the essence of Beatlemania in spirit and in cinema. Ever since Sony Pictures announced that Mendes would direct and produce a biopic each on the Fab Four, upping the hopes of fans on the internet and elsewhere, the world of Beatlemania has been on the edge.

This is the first attempt at a biopic on each of The Beatles — and the stakes are both commercial and sentimental, the legacy of Harrison, John Lennon, Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr. It comes with consent from the surviving members — McCartney and Starr — and the families of Lennon and Harrison.

Even at the peak of their musical careers in the 1960s, surrounded by the press and fans, The Beatles were eerily familiar with the perils of stardom. Perhaps it was an awareness brought on by the brave new world that individualised the band and its members. They dealt with their art, and political and personal lives with the same gusto.

The glory they attained was not a matter of chance for The Beatles. It came with reimagining the individual in a society that thwarted any semblance of it, one that was only loyal towards a collective sense of statehood. It was little after the mid-20th century that The Beatles took over the English rock scene — something they continue to dominate decades later. The band played a role in jolting the UK out of its uppity stupor while invading the music industry in other parts of the world.

Get Back, the three-part documentary TV series directed and produced by Peter Jackson, came out in 2021. Comprising edited versions of 60 hours of film footage and 150 hours of audio, the series — most of which is the making of The Beatles’ 1970 studio album Let It Be — acts like a premonition. It is disconcerting for a fan to watch the undoing of a heroic band, to witness a tangible hostility between its members.

But unlike a documentary, a biopic makes room for explanations for the hostilities. Just like it makes room for the love and the friendships. A biopic is not a product of yesteryears in which its protagonist flourished but one that is made decades later, influenced by the politics and cultures of the contemporary. Biopics seek to canonise the icons they depict in an attempt to uphold a larger sense of unity among the viewers, subsequently reconstructing what is out there as public history.

However, for Mendes, the challenge will be to replay and recast some of the same events from the perspectives of four luminaries — to produce a work of cinematic realism shrouded by what is understood as the “Rashomon effect” — one that possibly serves contradicting versions of a given incident.

In popular culture, Lennon’s has been the most dramatic life of the four while Starr’s has been the least. Starr is better understood as the most innocuous member of the band even though his personal life was as tumultuous as the others.

Notably, small-scale biopics have been made on Lennon and the band previously (Nowhere Boy in 2009 and Backbeat in 1994), but they caused barely a ripple. Biopics on musical legends such as Freddie Mercury (Bohemian Rhapsody in 2019) were a commercial success because they depicted “safer plots”, as many fans pointed out.

Mendes is a master storyteller who uses tools of symbolism and cinematography — cases in point are his directorial debut American Beauty (1999) and his war film 1917 (2019). His strength has been the focus on developing characters over advancing his plots, something that may come in handy in the case of The Beatles. In the four films to be made by Mendes, it will be interesting to see each main character become a supporting character as the story shifts from one protagonist to another. It will also be interesting to witness a shift in what might be a layered fandom alongside a shift in a layered stardom. May we recommend Mendes watch Todd Haynes’ I’m Not There for starters?

The views expressed are personal

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