The sublime spectacle of Yoko Ono overwhelming the Beatles


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At the start of “The Beatles: Get Back,” Peter Jackson’s nearly eight-hour documentary on the making of the “Let It Be” album, the group forms a tight circle in the corner of a movie scene. Inexplicably, Yoko Ono is there. She perches within reach of John Lennon, her puzzled face turned to him like a plant growing into the light. When Paul McCartney starts playing “I’ve Got a Feeling,” Ono is there, sewing a furry object into his lap. When the band starts “Don’t Let Me Down”, Ono is there, reading a newspaper. Lennon slips behind the piano and Ono is there, his head hovering over his shoulder. Later, when the group rushes into a recording booth, Ono is there, wedged between Lennon and Ringo Starr, silently unwrapping a piece of chewing gum and working it through Lennon’s fingers. When George Harrison leaves, briefly leaving the group, there is Ono, inchoating moaning into his mic.

At first, I found Ono’s pervasiveness in the documentary bizarre, even baffling. The vast decor only emphasizes the ridiculousness of its proximity. Why is she here? I begged my television set. But as the hours passed and Ono stayed – painting on an easel, chewing on a pastry, flipping through a fan magazine of Lennon – I found myself in awe of his endurance, then mesmerized by the provocation of his existence. and finally dazzled by her performance. My attention continued to drift to his corner of the frame. I saw intimate and long lost footage of the world’s most famous band preparing for their final performance, and I couldn’t help but watch Yoko Ono sitting there doing nothing.

“The Beatles: Get Back” is read by some as an exculpatory document – proof that Ono was not responsible for the destruction of The Beatles. “She never has an opinion on what they’re doing,” Jackson, who designed the series from over 60 hours of footage, told “60 Minutes.” “She’s a very benign presence and she doesn’t interfere at all.” Ono, also the show’s producer, tweeted an uncommented article claiming that she was just doing “mundane chores” while the group got down to business. In the series, McCartney himself – from the perspective of January 1969, more than a year before the group’s public disbandment – laughs at the idea that the Beatles would end up “because Yoko was sitting on an amp.”

His presence has been described as gentle, calm and unassuming. Indeed, she is not the most intrusive intruder on the set: it is Michael Lindsay-Hogg, the unfortunate director of the original documentary “Let It Be”, who keeps urging the group to organize a concert in an old amphitheater in Libya or perhaps at a hospital for children with minor and reassuring ailments.

And yet, there is something depressing about Ono’s redesign as a low-key, low-key person. Of course, her studio appearance is overwhelming. The fact that she’s not there to directly influence the band’s recordings only makes her behavior more ridiculous. To deny this is to deprive her of her power.

From the start, Ono’s presence seems intentional. Her vaporous black outfit and flowing, parted hair make her look like a tent; it is as if she was setting up a camp, digging a space in the group’s environment. A “mundane” task becomes special 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 documentary’s shaggy execution time reveals Ono’s provocation in all its intensity. It’s like she’s putting on a marathon performance, and in a way, she is.

Jackson called their series “documentary about a documentary,” and we’re constantly reminded as we watch the band produce their footage for the camera. Ono was, of course, already an accomplished performance artist when she met Lennon, seven years her junior, at a gallery exhibition in 1966. She was a pioneer of participatory art, a collaborator of musicians. experimental like John Cage and a master of shy appearances. in spaces where she wasn’t meant to belong. In 1971, she staged an imaginary exhibition of ephemeral works at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. In the catalog, she is pictured in front of the museum holding a sign reading “F”, recasting it as “Museum of Modern [F]art.”

The idea that Ono condemned the group has always been a duck that smacked of misogyny and racism. She was cast as Hell’s Groupie, a sexually domineering “dragon lady” and a witch who hypnotized Lennon into pushing guys away for a woman. (In 1970, Esquire published an article titled “John Rennon’s Excrusive Gloupie” which promised to reveal “the Yoko Person Onos”, featuring an illustration of Ono towering above Lennon, who is depicted as a cockroach on a leash. ) These insults were spiraling. in a tireless pop culture meme that has haunted generations of women accused of infringing on male genius.

Ono didn’t “break the Beatles”. (If Lennon’s estrangement from the group was influenced by his desire to explore other pursuits, including his personal and creative relationship with Ono, that was his calling.) But she imposed herself. In the documentary, McCartney politely complains that his writing with Lennon is disturbed by Ono’s ubiquity. For her part, she was vigilant to escape the typical role of the artist’s wife. In a 1997 interview, she commented on the status of women in rock in the 1960s: “My first impression was that they were all wives, sort of sitting in the next room while the guys were talking,” she declared. “I was afraid to be something like that.” Later, she dedicated her barbed song from 1973, “Potbelly Rocker”, to “women of nameless rockers”.

In her 1964 text project “Grapefruit”, a sort of cookbook for staging artistic experiences, she asks her audience “not to watch Rock Hudson but only Doris Day”, and in “The Beatles: Get Back, ”she skillfully redirects him away from the group and toward herself. Her image contrasts with that of other Beatles partners – white women modeled in chic outfits who occasionally throw themselves into kisses, nod encouragingly and quietly walk away. Linda Eastman, McCartney’s future wife, lingered a bit longer, walking around and occasionally photographing the group. Eastman was a rock portrait painter, and one of the film’s most compelling moments shows her in deep conversation with Ono – as if to prove Ono’s point of view, this is a rare interaction on set without recovered audio.

Ono just never leaves. She refuses to stand aside, but she also resists the staging of stereotypes; she does not appear either as a passionate naive or as a needling thug. Instead, she seems engaged in a sort of passive resistance, defying all expectations of women entering the realm of rock genius.

Barenaked Ladies’ song “Be My Yoko Ono” compares Ono to a ball and chain (for the record, Ono said of the song, “I loved it”), but as the sessions progressed, it assumes a quality of weightlessness. She appears to orbit Lennon, eclipsing her group mates and becoming a physical manifestation of her psychological distance from her former artistic center of gravity. Later, his performance would gain 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 crash, Lennon arranged for a bed to be. delivered to the studio; Ono went inside, requisitioned a microphone, and invited friends to visit him at his bedside. It’s a lot of things: grotesquely codependent, terribly crass, and iconic. The more the presence of Ono is contested, the more its performance intensifies.

All of this was used to roughly transform Ono into a cultural villain, but it would also later establish him as some sort of folk hero. “It all comes down to YOKO ONO,” drummer Tobi Vail wrote in a zine linked to his riot group Bikini Kill in 1991. “Part of what your boyfriend tells you is that Yoko Ono broke up the Beatles, ”she wrote. This story “makes you the opposite of his group.” He relegates women to the public and ridicules them for trying to make their own music. In Hole’s 1997 song “20 Years in the Dakota”, Courtney Love invokes the powers of Ono against a new generation of whiny fanboys and says that riot grrrl is “forever her debt”. Vail called Ono “the first punk rock singer of all time.”

In Jackson’s film, you can see the seeds of this generational shift. One day Eastman’s young girl, Heather, a short-haired munchkin, is whirling aimlessly around the studio. Then she sees Ono singing. Heather watches him with wincing intensity, walks over to the microphone, and moans.


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