[11 March 2010]
The documentary film All Together Now traces the development of the collaborative Love project from its inception through its 2006 debut. What began as a conversation between George Harrison and Cirque du Soleil founder Guy Laliberte expanded into a massive undertaking that required years of preparation and unprecedented artistic partnerships between Cirque, Apple Corps and the Mirage Hotel.
Harrison was a fan of the unique artistry of the Cirque du Soleil performances and envisioned a bold and original rebirth of the Beatles’ catalogue. His death in 2001 provided an additional sense of purpose, although representatives for all four Beatles would need to agree on concept and execution. Director Adrian Wills follows the timeline and inserts the viewers into the process by letting them observe activity and conversations between principals rather than rely on first-person narrative. It’s a wise choice for such voyeuristic subject matter.
The pulse of the documentary is the immense amount of challenges faced by everyone involved. For Cirque du Soleil, this presentation was much more of a musical stage show than their previous productions, as well as being the first time working without a live band. Not only would the synchronization between acrobatics and music have to be exact, but they would have to rely upon the engineers to loop the recorded music if there was an accident or a technical glitch. Several of the performers were stage actors or dancers working in a completely new environment, admittedly working on blind faith until the rehearsals were finally moved to the working stage in Las Vegas.
The theatre itself was a massive undertaking; besides the elaborate stage and rigging there needed to be impeccable sound to truly envelop and involve the audience. The final design incorporated over 6,300 speakers and construction ran over one $100 million.
Naturally, one of the biggest decisions revolved around how to utilize the Beatles music in the show. There had been many Beatle-oriented projects ranging from tribute bands to stage shows like Beatlemania, but the creators wanted to create a new dynamic that would go far beyond merely playing a set of Beatles songs in period costumes. When the idea of deconstructing and reassembling recorded tracks came up, the call went out to George Martin; as Ringo said “he knows where all the skeletons are buried”.
George, in turn, enlisted his son Giles, a successful producer in his own right but more importantly a pair of trusted ears to aid George’s failing ones. In one of the introductory scenes, Giles talks about the incredible responsibility of working with such hallowed material; expecting any unwelcome changes to be received with derision.
Extrapolating that pressure, it’s fascinating to watch the Cirque du Soleil directors assimilate the suggestions they are receiving while delicately retaining artistic control over the visual performances. Both Martin and the Cirque du Soleil producers were keenly aware that despite the absence of two of the Beatles, their representatives would be no less protective of their territory. Although the initial selections showed an appropriate balance of songwriting (John and Paul having the lion’s share, a few from George and one from Ringo), Olivia and Yoko are shown questioning issues like the time period the songs were selected from and the actions of the characters in the show. Cautious and nervous, both are eventually happy with the outcome. By contrast, Paul and Ringo are unabashedly enthusiastic and always prompting the creators to go further and wilder.
What’s fascinating about the musical mix is that it works with or without the visual, an exciting and refreshing reboot of some of the most familiar pop music of the last half century. Even though we see several variations of performance while watching the Cirque du Soleil piece together the show from early warehouse drafts to full dress rehearsals, the music never fails to synchronize with the activity onstage. On one hand it’s odd to see another person’s visual interpretation of a song that originally gestated in your mind, but unlike a promotional video, this is so abstract it is more of a hallucinogenic dreamscape than a suggestive manipulation of the song’s intent.
Other short but effective segments follow individual contributors, like the costume director, a prop master (the show features over two thousand) and a special project engineer. This engineer who had the enviable job of spending over a year sifting through the actual Beatle studio rehearsal tapes to construct a montage of song construction and band banter that would play as images and silhouettes were projected on screens.
We also get a couple of short takes of Giles Martin and engineer Paul Hicks discussing their own challenges to reinvent the music itself. Although expanded upon in an additional feature, perhaps more time could have been spent showing the trial and error of piecing together the musical medley. How fascinating (and frightening) it must have been to deconstruct this classic material and then reassemble the various pieces together.
Some of the best scenes show George Martin simply listening to and absorbing the music, which must have been a surreal experience for the man who perhaps knows it better than the Beatles themselves. But when input was required he was up to the challenge, recording new strings to accompany a demo version of “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” and making the same spot-on decisions that the Beatles trusted him to make 40 years earlier. McCartney remarks that the initial process was so rushed and hectic that songs were merely scraps of paper that were assembled in a few hours; now the phrase “bigger than life” would be inadequate.
As time moved on, the production became more three dimensional as props, lighting and set transitions were fulfilled; so complex was the show that the dress rehearsal was a full seven weeks prior to the opening night. After meticulous tweaking and tightening, the show is finally ready and during the last third of the film we get to see several excerpts from opening night. Even with brilliant camerawork and surround sound, it’s impossible to capture the experience on DVD as the attendees were literally immersed in the presentation, bathed in light and music and occasionally physically engaged by billowing curtains or falling rose petals. Yet even watching as a detached observer, it’s a stunning presentation, sequences brilliantly edited and sonically immaculate.
Naturally there are only excerpts from the production, not a full program, but there are enough scenes to validate the extraordinary complexity and precision of Love. One’s emotional heartstrings are plucked as a ballerina soars above in “Something”, while the infectious beat of “Drive My Car” or “Back in the USSR” is palpable. “Octopus’ Garden” is a visual highlight, with black lights and screens illuminating a sea of dancers emulating jellyfish and eels; the simulation of an automobile shattering into pieces is the centerpiece of “A Day in the Life”. The camera occasionally cuts away to show the reactions of the Beatles camp as they watch from their seats and their smiles can’t help but bring one to yours.
Three short bonus features are included on the DVD along with a brief trailer.
Changing the Music (22 minutes): Giles Martin and Tony Hicks follow Guy Laliberte’s challenge to avoid replication of past tributes by stripping the original master tapes down to tracks, digitizing them, and re-assembling them. A fascinating segment that I wish were longer, it includes a great anecdote about why the original recording of “Strawberry Fields Forever” faded out and then back in.
Music in the Theatre (nine minutes): Sound Designer Jonathan Deans discusses the challenge of turning the theatre into a perfectly balanced aural experience.
Making Love (ten minutes): Theatre and Set Designer Jean Rabasse explains how the visual concepts came together and how and why different choices were made.
Anyone watching the film will come away with a profound respect for both the technical achievement and the loving care that all involved had for the production. And while advertising the show was not the purpose of the film, don’t be surprised if you have an urgent need to jet to Las Vegas on the very next plane.