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The Beatles: Rock Band's brilliant mini-movie

This 'cinematic,' a crucial part of a video game's advertising campaign, is a pocket masterpiece in its surrealistic bravura.

June 23, 2009|DAN NEIL

Trodding heavily toward you like a 300-foot blue elephant in a band uniform, The Beatles: Rock Band video game will consume much of the industry's advertising bandwidth this summer ahead of its Sept. 9 release. A collaboration between MTV Games' Harmonix and the Beatles' Apple Corps Ltd., TBRB -- which had its press debut at the E3 gaming convention in Los Angeles this month -- lets players stand in the Beatles' pointy Italian boots, singing and playing along on peripherals fashioned to look like Paul McCartney's Hofner bass and Ringo Starr's Ludwig drum kit. That's coolness measured in Kelvins.

From the electronic entertainment industry's perspective, TBRB is a monster, arguably the biggest game of the year -- sure, all you need is love, but would it hurt to buy a few shares of Viacom, the owner of MTV? From a cultural perspective, TBRB is yet another occasion, like the Las Vegas Cirque de Soleil revue "Love," to ponder how lightly commercialism has settled on the Beatles legacy.

Video gaming might not seem all that sitars-and-gurus to those of us who lived the Beatles experience in real time; on the other hand, if TBRB means a few million young gamers get to hear this music on their own terms, that seems like a net positive. Here comes the sun again.

Summing up the Beatles' story is no easy task, and yet -- as per the conventions of video game design -- a summing up of the story, a reprise of the narrative world, must be built into the game itself. These mini-movies are called "cinematics," and they usually appear when the game is booted up. They are also crucial parts of a game's advertising campaign, amounting to online commercials that air endlessly and freely on YouTube and Hulu. These films are a rare instance of meritocracy in advertising art; the better they are, the more they get watched.

For TBRB, Harmonix called on London's Passion Pictures and director Pete Candeland, who have created one of the most beautiful and compelling animated sequences I have ever seen, a pocket masterpiece that in its surrealistic bravura is worthy of "Sgt. Pepper" and "Yellow Submarine." It's also startling in its economy, telling the Beatles' saga in 2:45 minutes. Not bad for a video game.

The sequence begins in Liverpool as the camera's eye descends past sea gulls, rooftops and city streets. Pasted on the brick walls are faded handbills with references to famous songs like "Rocky Raccoon" and "Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite." The camera arrives at the Cavern Club (this is after Starr replaced drummer Pete Best, by the way) just as the lads from Liverpool, not quite yet the Fab Four, skinny and preternaturally cool, are finishing up "Twist and Shout." They dash offstage and begin a madcap scamper through the streets of London. It's been "A Hard Day's Night." They sprint past Maxwell's Silver Sundries. At one point they run past older and more poignant versions of themselves in the crosswalk at Abbey Road.

They hop a Boeing 707 and touch down at JFK Airport -- the mighty guitar hook of "Paperback Writer" knocks you back -- and then they are on stage at the Ed Sullivan Theater.

Now it gets interesting. The Beatles, as everyone knows, stopped playing live concerts in the mid-'60s. Among other things, they couldn't hear themselves play over the shrieking; also, the band's increasingly complicated music was hard to reproduce live. This turning point is rendered in the film by a close-up of a screaming fan and the Beatles turning tail, getting on an escalator that is rising toward a bright light: their higher artistic ambitions?

Now transformed into the Sgt. Pepper's Beatles, the studio Beatles, the characters leap off the end of the escalator into space, umbrellas in hand, drifting through a dreamy, druggy, surrealistic sequence that can't easily be described. In the end the four are just hanging on atop an enormous blue elephant/rhinoceros creature that is marching across a field toward a cliff to "I Am the Walrus."

The Beatles are now mere passengers on a fateful passage bigger and weirder than they could have ever imagined. The blue elephant rhino is fame itself. At the cliff edge it stops, on the song's penultimate chord, and the boys from Liverpool, endlessly good-humored, stretch their arms out to say, in effect, "ta-da!" Brilliant.

I don't have a trophy to hand out and I'm not exactly keeping score, but so far, this is my favorite bit of advertising this year. Or is it content? That's the beauty of this piece of cinema. I don't really care what it is. I just want to watch it again.

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dan.neil@latimes.com

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