Everything old is new again, or at least worthy of deeper exploration. Consider two of this year’s biggest awards contenders, one at the Oscars and the other at the Emmys, thanks to a pair of backward-looking examinations of some of pop culture’s biggest modern obsessions: The Beatles and “I Love Lucy.” On the surface, “The Beatles: Get Back,” Peter Jackson’s six-hour saga of bedraggled young Beatles on deadline in 1969, and “Being the Ricardos,” Aaron Sorkin’s take on the comic mastermind Lucille Ball as she works in the mid-1950s alongside her great enabler Desi Arnaz might not sound simpatico, but both offer compelling explorations of creation.
The first is a 2022 documentary Emmy contender, while the second has given three Oscar winners a second shot at a gold statue. Almost as a reward for taking on the role of a wildly gifted comedienne, Nicole Kidman also scored a Golden Globe Drama win, as well as Critics Choice and SAG nominations, while Javier Bardem also landed Globe and SAG nominations, and. J.K. Simmons, as the fraught supporting figure of William Frawley (“I Love Lucy”), was a surprise Oscar mention.
“Get Back” and “Being the Ricardos,” while entertaining enough on their surface merits, also provide a devotion to fully investigating that grand discipline, the Artistic Process. And both works depend on a quartet — there’s no real Lennon and McCartney without George and Ringo, and no real Lucy and Desi without — yes, Fred and Ethel Mertz.
“Being the Ricardos”
How oddly immersive it feels to embrace the Eisenhower-era ethos of “Being the Ricardos.” Some resist writer-director Sorkin’s opening move in which (per his script), “We meet — individually — three people who are the older versions of three characters we’ll meet shortly.”
We enter into what “I Love Lucy” writer Madelyn Pugh (Alia Shawkat) calls “a scary goddamn week” of TV production. Ball and Arnaz, Pugh advises, “Were either tearing each other’s heads off or tearing each other’s clothes off.”
©Amazon/Courtesy Everett Collection
Almost immediately, we see the latter activity curtailed by an overheard broadcast from radio personality Walter Winchell (whose reach across the cultural spectrum beggars that of say, Joe Rogan), rat-a-tat’ing that Lucy, most popular of television stars, was a member of the Communist Party. Sorkin, in a strategic manipulation of the actual historical timeline, throws in Ball’s pregnancy and Arnaz’s reported infidelity, setting in motion a combative week for a program that at its peak in 1953 garnered a record 44 million viewers. That’s 71 percent of the U.S. population.
What follows works best when it focuses upon the toil, sweat, and tears of making a weekly show that meets Ball’s exacting standard. Occasional cad he may be, but Arnaz has her back, creatively, from the opening minutes. Early, in the first reel, the young Pugh snidely pushes back on Lucy’s controlling gambits.
“That was gutsy,” Arnaz advises (in Bardem’s subtle mix of amusement and cloaked machismo), but soon enough he braces Pugh:
Madelyn Pugh: “I’m sorry, she was jumping on every stage direction in the script.”
Desi Arnaz: “It’s her process.”
That last word has reverberated in Sorkin’s craft since he famously burst onto the scene with the 1989 stage play (and 1992 Rob Reiner film) “A Few Good Men” (which he’s now adapting as a TV movie). He has shown us more than a few busy dramatic ensembles as both writer and director, including “West Wing,” “Sports Night,” “Moneyball,” and 2020’s Oscar-nominated “The Trial of the Chicago 7.”
As Ball took on more power to block scenes and kibitz on direction (even as Arnaz became a producer devoted to detail and technical innovations that forever changed TV production), Ball stuck to her precepts and effectively ran the show creatively. “That’s when,” she confessed to protégé Carol Burnett in Amy Poehler’s recent documentary “Lucy and Desi,” “They started putting the ‘s’ at the end of my last name.”
Alternating scenes of the titular couple’s domestic woes against the show’s work sessions, Sorkin breaks down a week’s conflict. In several darkly funny vignettes, we see the comedian acerbically calling the shots for Season 2, Episode 4 (“Fred and Ethel Fight”) over ineffectual resistance from producer Jess Oppenheimer (Tony Hale) and a befuddled guest director. Getting the show up trumps all emotions; we’re somehow relieved when Ball’s delayed reaction to a storied grape-stomping scene — “I do physical comedy,” she reminds a colleague — is a definitive “I can see it.”
Even sisterhood is sometimes transactional in the script. Lucy steers Nina Arianda’s Vivian Vance away from her understandable pushback against Ethel being tagged as unattractive, but they both share a trouper’s focus on the art of comedy, with Lucy asserting “It will be funny by Friday,” and Vance in turn bucking her up: “It’s got to be bad before it gets good.”
As the story’s three unfolding issues are carefully kept spinning by Sorkin, we sense the Communist accusation will be addressed late in the story, and the marriage problems and pregnancy still later. Almost as if eavesdropping, we watch a show make it from script stage through blocking and rehearsal — until Lucy, artistically dissatisfied and fretful with her other problems, blows the whistle on what’s not working.
A crucial flaw, in Lucy’s view, is a bit where Fred and Ethel jockey for space on a bench seat at the Ricardos’ dinner table, and the story’s late middle act shows Lucy strong-arming the whole creative team to the point where the beleaguered director tries to invoke authority. A sweaty Oppenheimer tries to sweep past the scene-blocking controversy after Ball demands fixes. “Ten minutes, we come back to Scene A,” an assistant director says to oblige Ball at the break, and hearing the director’s quick “No, we don’t,” the A.D. amends with “Maybe we don’t, it’s hard to say.”
Ball enlists a reluctant Frawley: “Why is this hard to understand?,” she insists, “The dinner table isn’t working and we need it to. Those are the building blocks of drama.” Soon thereafter Lucy declares, “I’m gonna re-stage the dinner scene, two people who are fighting have to share a seat…,” and summons Vance and Frawley to the studio in the middle of the night to work the scene out.
As he does in a couple other instances, Sorkin shows us, in simulated vintage black and white footage, how well the scene ultimately plays to the roaring studio audience. Point taken.
“The Beatles: Get Back”
The third two-hour chapter of Jackson’s wandering but compelling look at the seminal two-week period of the often-torturous Beatles sessions unnerves us even though we know that the transcendent, socko, 40-minute open-air concert will indeed take place on Apple Corp’s Savile Row rooftop the next day.
As it plays out onscreen:
Paul McCartney: (weary of the squabbles, stung by George’s brief walk-out days before, now a bit passive-aggressive): “The only trouble is, we really have to want to do a show at the end of it…”
John Lennon: (who during the George crisis had quietly taken up the burden of saying, “Do we want to carry on with The Beatles? I do.”) “What’s your sort of, you know, practical answer to the problem now regarding tomorrow? I think we’d be daft just to not do it…”
What comes next from George is surprisingly resolved, as at some earlier point in the sessions (in the sidelined producer George Martin’s recollection, though not included in the Jackson film): “They actually came to blows. You’d think it would have been with Paul, but it was John. It was all hushed up afterwards.”
George Harrison: “Record it, you know…get it done, is the main thing.”
Paul McCartney (perturbed): “The only trouble is that the only people who need to agree on what it is we’re doing is the four of us, and we’re the only ones who haven’t talked about it…”
Apple Corps Ltd.
In fact, the concrete decision to actually mount the steps at Apple and do the show came only moments before they actually plugged in, per director Michael Lindsay-Hogg’s memory of a moment that was for whatever reason not recorded. Generally, he said, “They didn’t care what I filmed because they were producers and could cut anything they didn’t like.” Thus the painful days before, he would recall, “began to feel like Sartre’s play ‘No Exit,’ characters trapped together in a room.”
As he recalled to Beatles biographer Philip Norman, the report of foggy skies kiboshed a helicopter-shot sequence, and in a meeting ten minutes prior to go time, in a small room just below the set, “George didn’t want to, and Ringo started saying he really didn’t see the point, then John said, ‘Oh, fuck it — let’s do it.'”
Amidst the six-hour sprawl, the doc presents an almost unparalleled deep take on a process that might be making pop music, but was unforgettable and consequential pop. It is after all, The Beatles, and when Harrison is edgily querying McCartney, “Am I annoying you? Because I don’t want to be annoying you…” we half-forget the happy ending to come. We hold our breath lest the chafing chains of working friendship break, and the classic songs so many of us grew up with are snuffed before they can be made.
Lindsay-Hogg’s dank and generally unhelpful suggestions make him increasingly marginal to the effort, but music producer Glyn Johns, having been recruited by McCartney to supplant Martin, becomes the gently offbeat disciplinarian. “Should we,” he’ll ask, at points when Lennon is not going giddy nor Harrison going sulky, “do a take?”
Surprisingly often, the moment proves to be right. Even as Lennon sometimes seems to be pushing the sessions towards anarchy, that most obstreperous Beatle is capable of bringing the process up short and insisting to the room, “I’m trying to get us to do one of George’s of the first batch.”
And even amidst the rippling alienation the foursome displays, Harrison recruits producer Johns to rather privately cut a demo of his perhaps most masterful of tracks, “Something.” Random brilliance abounds, and moments of fond connection and recollection rise up. One moment Lennon is tossing in nonsense lyrics — “You can syndicate any boat you row” — and then McCartney, almost plaintively, seeks to steel them against the shared pressure: “That’s the best bit of us, is when we had our backs against the wall.”
Though the Gyn Johns version of the resultant song collection would be scrapped for an over-the-top Phil Spector iteration, the tracks are somehow built solidly. “You’re working so well together,” says Martin, after observing a session. “You’re seeing each other.”
It was an ironic tribute given that Lennon had instructed Martin before Johns came on the scene: “I don’t want any of your production shit. We want this to be an honest album.” Johns saw it as well: “What we’ve got is you all playing in one room….and it’s really working extremely well. That in itself is a fresh thing for the Beatles. It just seems like the last two days, everything’s gone so ridiculously well.”
Part of the solution had been Harrison’s acceptance of a limited role, playing guitar according to the spontaneous prescription — delivered with amiable team spirit — of the Lennon-McCartney pair. “You need Eric Clapton playing on top of it,” Harrison says at one point as they work up “Get Back,” and McCartney fires back: “No, you don’t. You need, like a…”
Apple Corps Ltd.
John Lennon: “George Harrison.”
Though it would be Lennon who became bewitched with obsequious American accountant Allen Klein, and soon quit even as McCartney found his own lawyer, Harrison already had one foot out the door and the songs to generate his own album: “I really I don’t want to do any of my songs on the show, ’cause I know they’ll turn out shitty … a compromise … I suddenly realized, ‘Fuck all that. I’m just going to do me for a bit.'”
The actual moments of peace and bonhomie between Lennon and McCartney are poignant, given the hard outcome we know is just around the corner. These are the once-giddy Liverpool lads who were inseparable in the days when the Quarrymen were becoming the Beatles (and we hear snatches of those primordial, shared efforts).
Richard Lester recalled in a history of his work of “A Hard Day’s Night” that the band was often too stoned on pot to remember their lines, but when a title song was suddenly needed for “Help!” in February 1965 (“Eight Arms to Hold You” having been scrapped as a title), the boys were driven home from set, “and by the time they reached St John’s Wood forty five minutes later, John and Paul had the song written.”
The surlier side of the Beatles that Lester later came to know (“I’m one of the seventeen people who was the fifth Beatle,” he told Steven Soderbergh in their book-length convo, “Getting Away with It”) would leave him missing the “surrealism” of their acting and skylarking vibe as they and their twenty-something cohort finally “had money to justify being themselves.”
A striking moment in Jackson’s documentary comes after McCartney’s lecture to his bandmates that they had deployed “the best bits of us when our backs are against the wall.” John tossed it back to him days later with theatrical sarcasm: “When I’m up against the wall, Paul, you’ll find I’m at my best.”
McCartney’s response is all but shouted: “Yeah, I know, John, I know, but I just wish you’d come up with the goods!” It’s at this stage that Lindsay-Hogg, the dank boarding-school boy who has repeatedly been the master of the mauvais mot, comes up with an insight that encapsulates the reasons why we’re still fascinated by the “Get Back” footage today: “It’s got to be the best, because the hearts of millions are with you, you know what I mean?”
Or, as Lucille Ball says when a group of suits from the show sponsor and the network and various law firms are arrogantly hounding her (“How much pregnant are you?”), “Someone should point a goddamn camera at this.”
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