CLEVELAND – Imagine discovering the Beatles for the first time.
You walk into a dark room and see the four of them blown up on a giant screen. They’re playing a blistering live set. It is a gig, in rock circles, that has been acknowledged as one of the most famous musical performances on film. But you never knew it existed. In that space, in that moment, you luxuriate in an experience that’s completely new.
Which is exactly why Anabel Martinez, 37, was smiling as she sat in a dark, circular-shaped gallery at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame on a recent Sunday morning.
She came to Cleveland for a business trip and paid $35 for a general admission ticket to the museum not knowing about the special Beatles exhibit, “Get Back to Let It Be.” Launched in March, it’s a show meant to complement the acclaimed, 468-minute documentary series directed by Peter Jackson and aired by Disney+ last November.
“It was like they were playing for me,” she said after watching Paul McCartney and John Lennon trade verses during the rooftop performance of “I’ve Got a Feeling.” “I could feel their passion and what they’re feeling, and it was definitely very emotional for me.”
Martinez, a huge Queen fan, even planned to build a Beatles playlist on Spotify for the trip home to Fort Wayne, Ind.
Then there was Colleen Mueller, 48, who wore a Fab Four T-shirt, a Beatles purse slung over her left shoulder and an Apple Watch loaded with multiple images of the mop tops. Did she expect this exhibit to be a little bit bigger than the corner of the museum’s lower level? Sure. Was she disappointed? Not at all.
Especially after her exchange with museum staffer Bill Curto near the exhibit’s entrance.
Curto’s jacket pocket was jingling with about two dozen collectible Beatles coins. They were minted in the early 1960s by a company in New Jersey for a promotion but kept from being distributed when the band found out they had been made without permission. For years, the coins were in a warehouse until somehow making their way to Yoko Ono. She, in turn, gave them to the Rock Hall around its 1995 opening and said they could be distributed any way the institution found fit.
On this Sunday morning, Curto looked at Mueller’s Beatles shirt.
“Is this just the today shirt, or do you really love the Beatles?” he asked her.
She professed her true love. That earned her a coin.
Martinez and Mueller are a perfect example of the challenge of doing anything Beatles. How do you cater to both the band’s die-hards, the folks who can break down every demo on the “White Album,” and the newcomers who wouldn’t know the difference between Lennon’s Rickenbacker and a Black & Decker weed whacker?
The museum does seem to acknowledge the limited scope of the exhibit – it takes up just 2,500 of the building’s 55,000 square feet of gallery space spread out over seven levels – by not charging a special fee above general admission.
“Our point at the outset was not to make this a retrospective exhibit,” said Craig Inciardi, the museum’s curator and director of acquisitions. “We did not want to dilute the story whatsoever.”
Inciardi understands how to bring rock into museum galleries. He and “Get Back” exhibit designer Daniel Kershaw teamed up for “Play It Loud: Instruments of Rock and Roll,” a show at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City that drew more than 600,000 people in 2019. The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame has worked with the individual Beatles and estates in the past, but this is the first time representatives of the entire group cooperated for a single show, he said.
The 18 objects selected are meant to cover the period in 1969 when the Beatles recorded the album “Let It Be” and performed live in front of an audience for the last time on the roof of the Apple Corps headquarters in London. On display are the red raincoat Ringo Starr borrowed from his then-wife, Maureen, for the rooftop show; two pages from producer Glyn Johns’s diaries; and Lennon’s Epiphone Casino guitar. Michael Schmauder, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame’s lead preparator, created a copy of Apple Corps’ front door.
The show also features the photography of Ethan Russell, who shot the cover image of both “Let It Be” and the Who’s “Who’s Next” album and was the official photographer for the Rolling Stones. Over the years, Russell has had a strained relationship with the Beatles, who blocked him from selling the images he took of them. But he’s pleased to have been included in Jackson’s film and also the hardcover book devoted to “Get Back.”
“I wasn’t consulted on anything, but having my name on the title of the book, that’s almost worth the price of admission,” he said. “Peter Jackson, Ethan Russell. That’s a nice billboard.”
The artifacts are special, but they aren’t what dominates the show. That would be the music – and the visual explosion on the screens. The sound hits as soon as you near the entrance. There are three cylindrical rooms showing different sections of the “Get Back” footage, and in those darkened chambers, visitors tend to gather. Each room plays footage from a different location covered in the “Get Back” docuseries. The loops get longer as you go, from three to five and finally 10 minutes for the final space, which features the rooftop concert.
Having multiple closely packed spaces wired for sound posed a challenge for the designers. Johns solved some of that when he visited and walked through “Get Back” before it opened to the public.
“There wasn’t really any isolation between the individual rooms, and they had sound going in more than one,” he said. “So, I went and looked, and they had speakers up very, very high, and the walls of the rooms didn’t go all the way up to the ceiling. We moved those speakers to the floor so it wouldn’t bleed quite so much.”
Johns admits he didn’t feel a chill when he walked by Lennon’s glasses or Starr’s drum set on display in Cleveland. He has seen them before, in context, when he worked with the band. But he’s impressed by the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame’s Level 2 space, known as “The Garage.” There, visitors can pick up guitars or basses or sit behind a drum set and play to a prerecorded song. There is also a large room where museum staffers offer to pick up instruments and jam with anyone who asks.
“It’s brilliant that a child can go in there and play with other musicians or, on his own, try guitars without any interference and with a lot of encouragement,” Johns said. “Obviously, the release of the film has introduced and reignited a lot of people’s interest in the band, and that’s wonderful, but that area is the best thing they’ve ever done.”
“The Beatles: Get Back to Let It Be” is at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland through March 2023. For more information, go to rockhall.com.
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