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Scaled Back

Musicians have found creative alternatives to touring that have resulted in new listening experiences.

by Vince Farinaccio

It would be an understatement to say that the pandemic derailed nearly everything last year, pressing the pause button on daily routines and weekly rituals and prompting us to discover new ways to enjoy at home what we used to experience elsewhere, such as movie theaters and concert venues.

A year ago, online opportunities arose to access new films, classic cinema and even theater events at home, but the availability of what became known as online “lockdown concerts” were in abundance and allowed working musicians an opportunity to reach their audiences and maybe pick up a small fee while tethered to their homes.

Singer/songwriter Norah Jones was one of a series of artists releasing downloadable material from online appearances during 2020. As with so many of these home recordings in which the musician is removed from any interaction with his/her audience, the songs Jones performed in her living room solo or with minimal accompaniment captured an intimacy that couldn’t be duplicated in a several-thousand-seat venue.

Other artists chose to refashion time normally spent on the road into an opportunity to record new projects. Elton John’s recent “Lockdown Sessions” is one example, but it was preceded by Paul McCartney’s McCartney III, recorded during the early months of the pandemic and released last year. It features, as his previous McCartney albums, the ex-Beatle playing all the instruments.

Beatles fans probably saw McCartney III as a bit of solace for the delayed release of a series of projects temporarily halted by COVID-19: 50th anniversary editions of Let It Be, the Beatles’ swan song; Plastic Ono Band, John Lennon’s first solo album; and All Things Must Pass, George Harrison’s acclaimed solo set, in addition to Peter Jackson’s documentary The Beatles: Get Back, assembled from footage shot in January 1969 during sessions that gave us both the film Let It Be and the soundtrack album of the same name.

The first three of those 50th anniversary editions were released this year, the 51st anniversary year for each. The Get Back documentary, originally scheduled for release in theaters in September 2020, was rescheduled for August of this year, at least until plans once again were revised and it was announced that the film’s theatrical opening had been cancelled in favor of a nearly eight-hour version that aired in three installments on the Disney+ streaming service during Thanksgiving weekend.

It’s easy to miss the irony of the latest decision regarding the release of Get Back, especially after 50-plus years. In 1969, when the Beatles entered Twickenham Studios and, later, Apple Studios under the gaze of a camera crew, the purpose behind this endeavor was to capture rehearsals of new material as well as a concert performance at an exotic location somewhere in the world. Once edited together, the film would be offered as a television special about the creative process of the Beatles.

The first part of the plan to be jettisoned was the live performance in some exotic location. The roof of the Apple building, neither striking nor colorful, would serve as the setting for the live show. In 1970, as work began on the TV special, the decision was made to blow-up the 16mm footage to 35mm and offer the documentary as a theatrical release titled Let It Be, a movie that has received no official screenings or home video releases since the 1980s.

So, we might ask, what happened to the shorter theatrical cut of the Get Back film? It’s reserved for a select few, it seems. In an October profile of McCartney in the New Yorker, David Remnick reports on a party held at the ex-Beatle’s East Hampton home. He describes the moment when the host and invited guests from the entertainment world took their seats on “folded chairs [that] were set up in front of a large screen” to view “a special hundred-minute version of The Beatles: Get Back…”

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