When the Cirque Meets the Beatles

All Together Now, a documentary that is meant to chronicle the creation of the Cirque du Soleil show “Love” based on Beatles songs and still running in Las Vegas, stumbled into Ithaca last week for its premier, about a year after its initial release.  The DVD came out a month ago.

You might think that the film’s tardy arrival in Ithaca has first to do with the fact that this university town in the middle of New York state is “centrally isolated,” as the academics and refugees from urban centers and the hardcore suburbs that surround them like condescendingly to put it..  Pound for pound, however, Ithaca punches well above its weight in the movie-going ring.  The Cornell Cinema has an excellent program that this Fall features a number of interesting series: one commemorating the twentieth anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, a couple of different foreign film cycles that present from Argentina, Turkey, South Korea, India, Poland, among other countries.  There is also the more canonic, commercial, or trendy  fare, along with screenings calibrated to the romantic lives of students, and to that not insignificant proportion of the professorate that has a hard time remembering it’s not twenty years old, too:  a run of Hitchcock masterpieces, selections form Sundance ’09, SciFi Classics, and a grouping entitled “Unmade Beds: Messy Love, Hipster Style.”

Cornell is, as the words of the alma mater go, “High Above Cayuga’s Waters.”  Still higher above those waters spreads the Ithaca Mall with its obligatory multiplex where the content of the movies generally fits well with the numbing architecture: here the 3-D movies, blockbusters, occasional diamond in the Hollywood rough, and Metropolitan Opera simulcasts can be consumed.

And in a downtown fighting valiantly against the tidal wave of sprawl that brought Walmart, Home Depot and their corporate cousins to the  wetlands south of the city some five years ago there is the arthouse, Cinemapolis. It has a brand new theatre accessible from the pedestrian zone on State Street through a narrow alley. Formerly this Ithaca institution had two locations, one in the basement of a building downtown whose claustrophobic stairway access screamed “firetrap,” though even that obvious danger could not deter residents heading down for a subterranean night at the movies. The other branch of the outfit was in an old supermarket about a mile from downtown along the banks of Fall Creek just after it spills broadly over the spectacular Ithaca Falls. This outpost of independent and foreign film screening was notorious for its shoddy projection: with the updated seating and technology in the new place, I’m already getting nostalgic for the old venues, where I think back fondly to watching Spike Lee’s Clockers with a good ten feet of the screen action taking place on the ceiling of the theatre, or Robert Altman’s Gosford Park with hardly an empty seat in the house in spite of the bright, jagged line dancing down the middle of the screen all the way through.  The blurs and distortions of the old days will remain fondly in my memory well into the HD age.

In the 1910s Ithaca was home to the thriving Wharton Film Studios that produced a large number of features (most of them now lost), and also the popular serials the Exploits of Elaine, modeled on the Perils of Pauline, and which made abundant use of the spectacular scenery of the region, including the dramatic gorges cut by the many creeks that feed into  Lake Cayuga. The Wharton Studio Building still stands on the lakefront and the Ithaca Motion Picture Project, a vigorous and creative effort dedicated to transforming that structure into a regional film center, has already in its few years of existence been responsible from bringing several wonderful silent films to town, including Merian Cooper’s Grass and F. W. Murnau’s Nosferat, both with original music performed live in the basement of the old Cinemapolis.

It was the Ithaca Motion Picture Project that brought All Together Now to town, along with its director Adrian Wills and the producer Martin Bolduc to field questions after the show.  Who can blame the project’s leaders for being drawn in by the potential of a documentary that might portray the towering, perhaps even foolhardy, human ambitions that could hope put on a massive spectacle in Las Vegas inspired by one of the richest and most influential musical repertories of the last century—the Beatles’ songbook.  The problem with the documentary is that it doesn’t really confront this theme, or provide another even half as compelling. Instead the filmmakers squander too many of the precious 84 minute running time on self-congratulatory summations of the Beatles’ oeuvre and aura by Paul McCartney. He let’s us know what an extraordinary feeling it is to wake up and realize again that he was indeed one of the Beatles and that only four people in the history of the universe could say that. Likewise, Sir Paul confides in us that he is more than satisfied with the Beatle’s catalog: a fully-complete, contained, unified, and finished body of art.  McCartney has a singular knack for reducing aesthetics to a matter of packaging. He let’s us in on other little secrets, such as how he told Ringo Starr as they watched and listened to one of the rehearsals in the cavernous theatre of the Mirage Hotel what a “great band” the Beatles were.

This is true but tiresome stuff when one imagine the dozens of acrobats and dancers whose idiosyncratic talents, marshaled by director and writer of the show, Dominic Champagne, are pushed to the documentary’s wings in favor of McCartney’s pronouncements. Champagne surmounts the impossible set of labors—conceiving of the show, channeling the seemingly chaotic energies of the Cirque du Soleil, fielding criticism from the disparate egos involve, and getting Yoko Ono to sign on after visiting her in the Dakota Hotel in New York—seems less the product of his own creative spirit than a by-product of the Beatles’ magic.

Ringo Starr is funnier, more eccentric, less keen to shore up an artistic legacy. One sense how much fun he had it in the band and how proud he doubtless is of his contribution (certainly lesser than McCartney’s, but still crucial) without him having to say it. Long shots, as if from distant spy camera, of Ringo and Paul sitting in the Mirage theatre with the Ringo drumming away as the Beatles’ music energizes the circus on stage are so much more endearing the Paul’s pronouncements, though also little scary in the way they peer in on the infinite regression of celebrity.

The film attempts to inject a sense of urgency into the proceedings with the intermittent titles that tick down inexorably towards the deadline of the opening of the show in Vegas: “300 Days until Premier”; “200 Hundred Days” etc. But sadly only the faintest suggestion is offered of just how maniacal was the attempt to cage cart the show into form and then to Vegas for the last 100 day run-up to show time.  But the intensity of this frenzy of circus-making is lost amid the self-panegyrics.  Attempts to focus on individual characters—a South African Dancer, or a long-time Cirque cast member who has just suffered the loss of his father and must often be away from his own family while on the road with the circus—are cursory and lack any narrative trajectory.

Rather than focus on the Cirque du Soleil the filmmaker could have devoted his attention to the parallel circus of the two remaining Beatles, Paul and Ringo, and their former bandmates’ widows, since they represent the estates of their husbands in Apples Corps. That company was founded in 1968 as a way to reinvest the Beatles’ massive profits rather than cede them to the British tax man. But in those days McCartney was uncomfortable with such entrepreneurship, describing Apple as an attempt to mix business with enjoyment and, describing the endeavor as a kind of “Western communism.”

Even the actual legal standing of Yoko’s opinions regarding the Cirque du Soleil confrontation with her late husband’s music are not laid out in the film, though we see a few telling scenes in which the widows object to the circus’s rendering of a song or they haggle over the placement and number of the songs: how many by John, how many by Paul, what about George, who, the film tells, us, was originally responsibly for approaching the Cirque du Soleil about undertaking the project.  In the question and answer period after the Ithaca screening, Director Adrian Wills was asked if there were other more divisive incidents involving Yoko especially.  He rose to her defense by not answering the question, and instead telling us that this was a woman unjustly pilloried by too many. “Love” is the name of the Las Vegas show, and Wills apparently wanted no lovers’ spats spread across the big screen.

Indeed, the root cause of the film’s wrong-headed detour  from of the drama of circus making towards the shrine of Beatle worship gets down to money. Early on, Cirque du Soleil’s founder, Guy Laliberté tells us that this his is the first company in thirty-five years to make a business deal with the Beatles. “This is big,” he concludes. An early cut of All Together Now was shown to Apple Corps, which got behind the project, but demanded “changes.” The filmmaker downplayed the company’s interventions, but it is hard not to sense that he knows what gods to pray to: the Beatles are bigger than the Cirque du Soleil. His film reminds us of this at almost every turn, though everyone in the audience knew it already.

DAVID YEARSLEY teaches at Cornell University. He is author of Bach and the Meanings of Counterpoint His latest CD, “All Your Cares Beguile: Songs and Sonatas from Baroque London”, has just been released by Musica Omnia. He can be reached at dgy2@cornell.edu



DAVID YEARSLEY is a long-time contributor to CounterPunch and the Anderson Valley Advertiser. His latest book is Sex, Death, and Minuets: Anna Magdalena Bach and Her Musical NotebooksHe can be reached at  dgyearsley@gmail.com