Thoughts About The Beatles Documentary

I found out about the Beatles documentary from a podcast episode. The host was talking about a clip showing the Beatles legend, Paul McCartney, composing the song “Get Back.” The stunning part of this video was that he had started from nothing. He was idly strumming chords on his guitar, early in the morning. Ringo Starr and George Harrison were sitting across from him; they appeared disheveled, tired, and sleepy. The final Beatle, John Lennon, was nowhere to be seen. I watched this video a few times; hoping to get a glimpse of something around McCartney which gave him the inspiration to come up with the melody. I wonder if other viewers were watching the video looking for a similar kind of revelation. But there was nothing. McCartney had created the song out of nothing; like a vaguely remembered dream converted into a beautiful melody. I learned more about what the documentary was and where the footage had come from. (Admittedly, I went through this information gathering process in a frenzy.) This past week, some theater chains in Japan capitalized on the mania of Beatles fans by airing a 1-hour special, The Rooftop Concert, for a limited period of time. I watched the special, and here are some thoughts about my experience.

Watching the special was a jarring experience: It shows London in the late 1960s in high-definition, color video.

Until now, all of the footage I have seen from before 1990 has been grainy and monochrome. Color movies have been around since the 1940s; but I had not seen any documentary which was shot in color and high resolution until now. The reason I attributed for this is that all of the media that we consume from the 20th century was recorded off a TV screen, possibly originally recorded on tape using the VCR and later digitized. The resolution supported by satellite TV sets back then was much lower than our modern standards of “High-Definition.” So, the only way to get higher quality footage would be to go back to the original tapes with raw footage; digitize those tapes; re-edit the documentary in the same manner; and release the HD digital version of the same documentary. It does not make much economic sense to do this for most documentaries.

For the first couple minutes, we see footage from around London. I was tempted to believe that this was a period movie. This temptation is strong almost throughout the hour-long performance. It is especially strong when either spectators or the view on the street is shown. On the street, people are shown standing around during their lunch hour and listening to the performance on the roof of a building on Savile Row, the street on which the Beatles had a studio where they recorded their albums.

I was so used to seeing the Beatles perform through videos on YouTube that the scenes which included them were the most comforting of the bunch. They perform 6-7 songs on the roof of their building. There is much drama surrounding three police officers who are trying to get them to turn down the racket, owing to noise complaints from other residents and businesses in the vicinity. There are some “taking the crowd’s temperature” interviews happening on the street. Questions are posed to the spectators who are standing around listening.

The hour-long special used IMAX technology, which meant a larger than normal screen and particularly sharp, surround-sound audio. This made the whole experience a lot of fun. I had resigned myself to being able to listen to bands from the 20th century only on domestic audio equipment. The full version of this documentary, about 8 hours long, has already been released on Disney+ (or Hotstar, if you are in India). So, I caught myself thinking about whether it was worth going to the theater to watch something that was already available to me online, on demand. However, just as quickly, I realized that I was comparing two completely different experiences. (Irrespective of how good or bad a movie is, I have never regretted watching it in the theater. So, your mileage might vary.)

I was taken aback by how familiar London looked. I have never been there myself, and all my prior knowledge of it has been through either news footage or TV shows set in Britain. Particularly familiar was the attire of everyone on the street. Even the cars that were on the street and mundane details like the glasses that people were wearing: Everything just seemed familiar and period appropriate.

I could not explain this familiarity, or my heightened sensitivity to it, because my understanding was that fashion has changed significantly since the 1960s. One possible explanation is that our expectations of each period have been conditioned by frighteningly accurate portrayals. This conditioning has made real historical footage neither surprising nor disorienting, as they simply serve to confirm one’s prior expectations of the period being depicted.

The questions on the streets brought out a very interesting phenomenon, to whose existence I had not paid the requisite attention. The Beatles were not universally liked. They were very popular, but many people thought that their music was too similar to pop music; too simple; “very indulgent,” as Bob Dylan quipped. Liking the Beatles was a slightly rebellious act in the 60s, I presume. Only slightly because their lyrics were wholesome and there was little of disrepute or “Satanic influence” there that someone could reasonably complain about. Indeed, two adults say that they have not heard the Beatles themselves, but that their children buy their records. Liking pop music, ironically, is always frowned upon by someone. There were two elderly people who were unhappy about the racket. One of them complains about having been woken up from her sleep. That, I thought, was a funny touch.

The drama with the policemen leaves one feeling conflicted. They were doing their job in trying to stop the performance. When the policemen reach the roof and are standing behind the band, as the band is performing, McCartney turns back and looks at them multiple times. His demeanor clearly shifts after the first time he looks back and notices that the police are trying to shut them down. This renewed perception of the performance as an act of rebellion seems to energize him. He starts smiling, and is clearly willing to taunt and defy the policemen, should it come to that. As their last song, Get Back, comes to an end, he adds a few impromptu lines about how the police don’t like them performing on the roof and might even arrest them for it.

I have one final thought about the 1-hour special: The questions that were asked on the street were cringe worthy. The conversation always seems to run something like this:

Or, like this (probably worse):

Every time the interviewer said “The Beatles,” I cringed. I think that this idea to ask people on the street about the performance was the documentary producers’. Perhaps, they wanted to show that the band was well-liked, and that this stunt would pay-off big time. However, for a band as popular and well-known in the 1960s as them, I thought that it was superfluous to repeat this conversation several times and get people to approve of their music. At times, it felt like pandering to a future audience; an indirect way of saying “The Beatles were a big deal back then. We knew that. You should know that too, viewer in the future.” I did not get any kind of wholesome message. The producers could have been secure in the Beatles’ position as a genre-changing musical force.