At the beginning of “The Beatles: Get Back,” Peter Jackson’s nearly eight-hour documentary on the making of the album “Let It Be,” the band forms a closed circle on the corner of a movie set. Inexplicably, Yoko Ono is there. He perches within reach of John Lennon, his bewildered face turned toward him like a plant growing toward the light. When Paul McCartney begins to play “I Have a Feeling,” Ono is there, sewing a furry object on his lap. When the band starts with “Don’t Let Me Down”, Ono is there, reading a newspaper. Lennon slides behind the piano and Ono is there, her head hovering over his shoulder. Later, when the group squeezes into a recording booth, Ono is there, wedged between Lennon and Ringo Starr, wordlessly unwrapping a piece of gum and moving it between Lennon’s fingers. When George Harrison leaves, briefly leaving the band, there is Ono, crying incoherently into his microphone.
At first, Ono’s omnipresence in the documentary struck me as strange, even disconcerting. The vast ensemble only emphasizes the ridiculousness of its proximity. Why is she there? I pleaded with my television. But as the hours passed and Ono stayed, painting at an easel, chewing on a cake, flipping through a Lennon fan magazine, I was blown away by his endurance, then fascinated by the provocation of his existence, and finally dazzled by his performance. . My attention kept drifting to his corner of the frame. I was seeing intimate and lost images of the most famous band in the world preparing for their final performance, and I couldn’t help but see Yoko Ono sitting idly by.
Some are reading “The Beatles: Get Back” as an exculpatory document, proof that Ono was not responsible for the destruction of the Beatles. “She never has opinions about the things they’re doing,” Jackson, who made the series from more than 60 hours of footage, told “60 Minutes.” “It’s a very benign presence and doesn’t interfere in the slightest.” Ono, also a producer on the series, tweeted an article without comment claiming that she is simply doing “mundane chores” while the band gets to work. In the series, McCartney himself, from the perspective of January 1969, more than a year before the band’s public disbandment, scoffs at the idea that the Beatles would end “because Yoko sat on an amplifier.”
His presence has been described as gentle, calm, and unimpressive. In fact, she’s not the most nosy intruder on the set: that’s Michael Lindsay-Hogg, the unfortunate director of the original documentary “Let It Be,” who keeps urging the band to put on a concert at an old amphitheater in Libya or such. Once in a hospital for children suffering from minor calming ailments.
And yet there is something depressing about modifying Ono as a quiet, inconspicuous bulge of a person. Of course, his appearance in the studio is annoying. The fact that she isn’t there to directly influence the band’s recordings only makes her behavior more ridiculous. To deny this is to take away its power.
From the beginning, Ono’s presence feels purposeful. Her floaty black outfit and flowing hair parted in the center give her a tent-like appearance; it’s like he’s setting up camp, making room in the band’s surroundings. A “mundane” task becomes peculiar when you choose to perform it in front of Paul McCartney’s face as he tries to write “Let It Be.” When you repeat this for 21 days, it becomes amazing. The shaggy runtime of the documentary reveals Ono’s provocation in all its intensity. It’s like he’s putting on a marathon performance piece, and in a way, he is.
Jackson has called his series “a documentary about a documentary”, and they constantly remind us that we are watching the band produce their image for the camera. Ono, of course, was already an accomplished performance artist when she met Lennon, seven years her junior, at a gallery show in 1966. She was a pioneer of participatory artwork, a contributor to experimental musicians like John Cage. and a teacher in appearing shy. in spaces where it wasn’t supposed to belong. In 1971, he would present an imaginary exhibition of ephemeral works at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. In the catalog, she is photographed in front of the museum with a sign that says “F”, which makes it the “Museum of modernity [F]Art.”
The idea that Ono condemned the gang was always a hoax that smelled of misogyny and racism. She was cast as the groupie from hell, a sexually dominant “dragon lady” and a witch who hypnotized Lennon into rejecting boys for some woman. (In 1970, Esquire published an article titled “John Rennon’s Excrusive Gloupie” that promised to reveal “Yoko’s Nobody Onos,” with an illustration of Ono hovering over Lennon, who is depicted as a cockroach on his leash) . into a tireless pop culture meme that has haunted generations of women accused of meddling with the male genius.
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Ono did not “disband the Beatles.” (If Lennon’s estrangement from the band was influenced by his desire to explore other pursuits, including his personal and creative relationship with Ono, that was his decision.) But she intruded. In the documentary, McCartney politely complains that his composition with Lennon is interrupted by Ono’s omnipresence. For her part, she was attentive to the possibility of escaping from the typical role of the artist’s wife. In a 1997 interview, she commented on the situation of women in rock in the 1960s: “My first impression was that they were all wives, as if they were sitting in the next room while the guys talked,” she said. “I was afraid of being something like that.” Later, he would dedicate his 1973 spiked song “Potbelly Rocker” to “nameless rocker’s wives.”
In his 1964 text project “Grapefruit”, a kind of recipe book for staging artistic experiences, he instructs his audience to “look not at Rock Hudson but only at Doris Day”, and in “The Beatles: Get Back” , skillfully redirects the eye away from the band and towards herself. Her image contrasts with that of other Beatles associates: modest white women in stylish outfits who occasionally swoop in with kisses, nod encouragingly, and sneak off discreetly. McCartney’s future wife, Linda Eastman, lingers a little longer, occasionally circulating and photographing the band. Eastman was a rock portraitist, and one of the most fascinating moments in the film shows her in deep conversation with Ono, as if to prove Ono’s point, it’s a rare interaction on set with no recovered audio.
Ono just never goes away. He refuses to stay on the sidelines, but he also resists acting on stereotypes; She doesn’t seem like a loving naive nor a nosy busybody. Instead, she seems to be engaged in a kind of passive resistance, defying all expectations of women entering the realm of rock genius.
The Barenaked Ladies song “Be My Yoko Ono” compares Ono to a ball and chain (for the record, Ono said of the song, “I liked it”), but as the sessions progress, it takes on a weightless quality. She appears to orbit Lennon, outshining her bandmates and becoming a physical manifestation of her psychological distance from her former artistic center of gravity. Later, his performance would grow in intensity. The “Let It Be” sessions were followed by the recording of “Abbey Road,” and according to the studio engineer, when Ono was injured in a car accident, Lennon arranged for a bed to be brought into the studio; Ono bundled up, grabbed a microphone, and invited his friends to visit his bed. It’s a lot of things: grotesquely codependent, terribly rude, and iconic. The more Ono’s presence is challenged, the more his performance intensifies.
All of this was used to turn Ono into a cultural villain, but it would also later establish her as something of a folk hero. “It all comes down to YOKO ONO,” drummer Tobi Vail wrote in a magazine related to his band Bikini Kill in 1991. “Part of what your boyfriend teaches you is that Yoko Ono broke the Beatles,” he writes. That story “makes you the opposite of his band.” He relegates women to the audience and ridicules them for trying to make their own music. In the 1997 Hole song “20 Years in the Dakota,” Courtney Love invokes Ono’s powers against a new generation of whiny fanboys and says that riot grrrl is “forever in debt.” Vail called Ono “the first punk rock singer in history.”
In Jackson’s movie, you can see the seeds of this generational change. One day, Eastman’s little daughter Heather, a short-haired munchkin, wanders around the studio aimlessly. Then see Ono singing. Heather watches her with intense intensity, goes to the microphone and wails.