Get Back to Setting: The Beatles on Location

George Martin: “Location isn’t really a main problem at the moment”

Paul McCartney: “Breathing is, actually.”

Sure, Get Back is amazing on many levels but, setting-wise, you’re stuck in one big and then one small plain room for most of the 8 hours of the hit new doc series – (Peter Jackson’s [Lord of the Rings] re-cutting of the Beatles footage that was shot for Let It Be [1970, directed by Michael Lindsay-Hogg]. So, it’s ironic that discussion of setting turns out to be one of the major narrative threads (perhaps eclipsing even whether and how to keep George in the band) of the documentary. It’s a great opportunity for us, interested in the issues around production, to unpack one of the fundamental questions for any shoot: where is it going to be set?  

Okay, the 8 hours of Get Back also happens to include a handful of jaw-dropping revelations and myth-dismantlings (check out a great piece on Yoko Ono’s presence ) that ripple and splash from the astonishing privilege of eavesdropping (with two 16mm cameras capturing everything for weeks, an omnipresence akin to Yoko’s) on the four most iconic musical artists of our time improvising works (nice essay on that here) that most of us know by heart. But, aside from interpersonal sniping and the (constant) refreshing of tea and toast, the major distraction from the Beatles’ creative process is Lindsay-Hogg’s persistence in pitching the band on his concept of the ideal setting for their live performance. 

The director seems almost desperate that they should play in the ruins of a Roman amphitheater outside of Tripoli, Libya, “can’t you see this at night, torchlit in the desert?”

His investment in this idea is so strong that he seems to ignore the band’s polite reminders that George and Ringo prefer not to travel abroad and that the band’s actual audience is primarily in the Americas and UK. 

To me, this discussion – and its’ development as it threads through the doc’s coverage of the weeks preceding the eventual performance – is a fascinating high-stakes version of the issues around the choice of setting for any production; how does a setting reflect the brand? How does it connect with the target audience? How does it work practically, in terms of production (sound, light, etc.)?

In Get Back, those issues are writ large. What is the best setting for the world’s most famous band delivering a rare (the Beatles stopped touring in 1966) live performance? Lindsay-Hogg apparently thinks that their global iconic status demands a transhistorical iconic backdrop, perhaps linking the band’s dominance of the pop charts to Roman world conquest. The band is both weary and, considering the near-disasters of their last live shows – Manila is mentioned a few times – perhaps leery of spectacle and concerned about the connection to their audiences. Lindsay-Hogg suggests that they can import their audience to Tripoli on a cruise ship. Lennon’s response: “Then we’re stuck with a bloody big boatload of people for two weeks!”

There’s an interesting glimpse of the band’s sense of their brand which might be described (and certainly supported by the series) as irreverent, playful and approachable.  Lennon and McCartney imagine playing in a local ballroom or a nightclub with “smoochie low lights and ten people” while Lindsay-Hogg argues that these visions don’t match their global audience and stature.  

Acoustics are a big issue from the beginning. The soundstage they’re working in, is originally ruled out by the band because of its terrible sound. At one point, Lennon turns the argument into a song, strumming his guitar and singing, “I’d like to say, I like the intimate idea rather than the large one simply because we should concentrate on the sound, concentrate on the sound…”

This discussion about setting is fascinating in light of the location that is eventually chosen; outdoors, on the rooftop of Apple Records on a busy corner in London.  The band eventually chooses a setting that is irreverent (and, technically, illegal), playful and approachable (in a sense, they’re playing on the street) as well as being visually compelling – if not at all production-friendly.

And what about acoustics?  The soundstage they’re working in, originally considered as the location for the performance, is quickly ruled out by the band for its terrible sound.  At one point, Lennon turns the argument into a song, “I’d like to say, I like the intimate idea rather than the large one simply because we should concentrate on the sound, concentrate on the sound…” 

This discussion about setting is fascinating in light of the setting that was eventually chosen; outdoors, on the rooftop of Apple Records on a busy corner in London.   The band eventually chose a setting that was irreverent (and, technically, illegal), playful (the responses from passerby is one of the highlights of both films) and approachable (in a sense, they’re playing on the street) as well as being visually compelling – if not at all production-friendly. 

All of these considerations, perhaps writ slightly smaller, are at play when choosing a setting for your video. Check out our discussion of Setting in this episode of Corporate Film School.

Published in December 13, 2021
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