Nothing is Real: The Reanimation of the Beatles

Will the avatars become the new icons?

In “Love,” the Cirque du Soleil Las Vegas spectacular based on the Beatles’ music, there’s a brief scene as odd as it is affecting: a shadow-play “conversation” between the group members, pieced together from snippets of recording studio banter.

Though the moment is fleeting, it’s clear from the shadow projections which Beatle is which – a sign of just how ingrained the images of John, Paul, George and Ringo are in many of us. While touching – it’s the Beatles’ “cameo” in the show they inspired – there’s a certain eeriness and sadness attached even as the audience wants the illusion to go on.

Last week’s release of The Beatles: Rock Band and news that “Yellow Submarine” is set to be remade by Disney using 3-D performance capture technology, mark two giant steps in not only the continuing revival of the group, but its reanimation.

But for generations that didn’t grow up steeped in Fab Four lore, will the Beatle avatars become the new icons?

Even when the group was together, there were attempts to capture the magic in other forms, such as in the goofily fun 1960s Saturday-morning cartoon, and, of course, in the trippy 1968 animated feature “Yellow Submarine.” The 1970s Broadway show “Beatlemania,” which featured lookalikes playing the group’s songs, promised “an incredible simulation.”

Some three decades later, technology is providing the means to make good on the “incredible simulation” pledge. Rock Band, whatever one thinks of video games, does as good a job as can be expected in capturing the group members at different point in their journey as a band.

The “Yellow Submarine” reboot is being directed by Robert Zemeckis, who first used the performance capture technique in the at times exhilarating “Polar Express” (let’s hope they techies since have made strides toward putting a little life in the characters’ eerie eyes). Zemeckis has an obvious kinship to the Beatles: he used what’s now ancient screen wizardry to insert John Lennon into 1994’s “Forest Gump,” and he directed the charming 1978 comedy “I Want to Hold Your Hand.”

Other than providing the music (no small contribution, of course), the Beatles had little to do with the original “Yellow Submarine,” other than mugging for the camera in a short live-action coda. It’s unclear whether Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr will lend their bodies or voices to the remake, though the prospect seems unlikely.

But if recent patterns hold, the duo – and the families of Lennon and George Harrison – no doubt will be intimately involved in overseeing the project, as they were in the creation of Rock Band.

More than money, the tight control exerted over the Beatles’ property is about protecting and extending their legacy. Even with the release last week of the remastered Beatles CDs, the music promotion game has changed. McCartney recently said his motivation for allowing Rock Band to go forward was making sure "our music is getting played."

McCartney just wrapped an incredible U.S. tour. Starr most recently hit the road last year. Both are still making music, but are pushing 70. They clearly realize new platforms are needed to keep the Beatles’ music alive without them.

If Rock Band seems like a natural way to reach teens, the “Yellow Submarine” remake appears aimed at attracting younger kids – much like the original film, which hooked many of us too young to remember the Beatles as a group.

The images these and future generations retain of the band, whether as animated videogame figures, CGI-like movie characters or as flesh-and-blood humans who revolutionized music, remains to be seen. As Harrison liked to say, in a quote featured on the poster for the original “Yellow Submarine”: “It’s all in the mind, y’know.”

Or as Lennon told us in “Strawberry Fields Forever”: “Nothing is real.”

Still, in whatever form it’s delivered, we’ll always have the music – which is a lot more satisfying and lasting than grasping at shadows.

Hester is founding director of the award-winning, multi-media NYCity News Service at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism. He is the former City Editor of the New York Daily News, where he started as a reporter in 1992. Follow him on Twitter.

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