The announcement that Peter Jackson’s latest project is a Beatles documentary is proof the decorated director has finally gone too far, writes Duncan Greive.
It seems scarcely credible to suggest at this point, but Peter Jackson used to be cool. He made silly, weird movies about New Zealand – its monsters and its murderers – and generally seemed like he understood this country in quite a profound way.
We know what happened next. He created a juggernaut movie franchise in Lord of the Rings and swiftly became one of the most powerful people in entertainment anywhere. His films made billions and he acquired the singular ability to greenlight almost any project he wanted, along with enough personal wealth to fund a mega budget film out of his own walking around money, should he wish.
He convinced three successive governments to create law which meant some of the biggest films in history were made in the lower North Island at the arse end of the world – even as it made the film industry an island from the rest of our employment law. In Weta he has overseen the rise of a visual effects powerhouse which has shaped the way blockbuster film looks and feels.
On balance, the trade of cultish cool for near infinite power was probably a good one for him and for New Zealand. Yet it’s what you do with that power which defines you. And Peter Jackson, once a prodigiously gifted chronicler of New Zealand’s shaggy edges, has revealed that he is, at heart, an outrageously basic anglophile.
First he fucked Tolkein’s epics to death over six films totalling over three weeks in duration and ruined Wellington’s airport seemingly forever. Subsequently he’s helmed multiple World War I projects, valourising the endless scurvy and mud of an increasingly ancient war.
To this point you could almost justify his actions. He can’t have known going in to LOTR just how vast it would become, and while it stole the best creative years of his life, those kind of money-spewing creative projects are near-impossible to stop rolling once they’re in motion.
World War I – also forgivable. It definitely happened and the world would doubtless be a different and far shittier place had not millions of terrified youngsters bravely marched to their doom so we all might live freer lives. The west’s huge world wars fetish means it’s unlikely many of us were unaware of the nature of that war, but it seems very mean-spirited to criticise someone’s honouring of the noble dead, so I’ll stop now.
But this new Beatles thing? Absolutely not. No way. If you missed it, his latest announcement is a fossick through some unseen footage of the band recording Let it Be, to create a new documentary, 50 years later.
This is not acceptable. There is no entity in popular culture which needs reexamination less than The Beatles, whose every fart and fringe has been subjected to PhD theses and ten disc rarities sets. In particular their breakup and final days and how they somehow made a nice album while being a little peevish with one another is extremely well understood.
This is not a comment on the merit of the band or their music – it’s not for me, but some of my best friends are Beatles fans and they seem basically OK. It’s more that this world is boiling over with magnificent stories barely known at all, so to once again head down an extremely tapped well feels gratuitous.
Truly, it’s as if Mark from Peep Show was Jackson’s agent – every project seemingly birthed to please the kind of sad English boomer Nick Hornby dad who on the balance of probabilities made Brexit happen.
The worst part is that Jackson remains a prodigiously talented stylist. Few can conjure a world like him, can make a screen boil with imagery which feels so intricately crafted and boldly rendered. And he’s obviously done much more than just the projects I emphasise, and had an immense impact on New Zealand. He’s loathed by many in unions, while many others believe that the laws he pushed through are the only reason Avatar and The Hobbit happened here. He made King Kong which was quite lovely and The Lovely Bones which was not. Weta and Park Road Post and dozens of other businesses and films and theatres and museums exist because he and Fran Walsh willed them into being. It’s a lot, and a lot to admire.
And yet – the goddamn Beatles? This very specific nostalgia, it has to stop. Imagine if he, as well as making things from here, made the occasional project about here? Or, frankly anything but England and its culture in a fairly narrow era.
It doesn’t have to be cool. It doesn’t have to be a splatter movie even. It just has to be a story we don’t already know inside out.
So for the love of the beautiful little battler nation where you grew up and live, Sir Peter, please let it actually be after you’re done with this one.