There are lots of ways to measure success in life. But I like to think that one of them is raising children that share your cultural preferences. Two recent events filled me with pride, though credit should probably go less to me than the geniuses behind the work.
The first of those was “Get Back,” the new three-part, 468-minute documentary about the writing and recording of the Beatles’ 1970 album “Let It Be”. Spending eight hours sitting in front of a TV or a laptop is a commitment that not everybody is prepared to make. But my daughters were, no pressure required. I didn’t have to persuade, beg or bribe them. They did it because they were raised right and love the Beatles.
I sometimes fear that I’m turning into my parents, as a child me wanting to go out and play while they’re encouraging me to join them in the living room to listen to the Broadway cast album of “Annie Get Your Gun” or “Kiss Me Kate” on their scratchy record player while wearing rapturous expressions.
That didn’t happen too often. They frankly had little interest in my musical tastes and they certainly didn’t share the cultural repertoire the way we do with our kids. Don’t get me wrong. Our children aren’t total losers. They have a life and friends. They also listen to their own generation’s music. It’s just that they acknowledge that Sixties rock and roll constituted a golden age equivalent to what the Constitutional Convention was to democracy or late 18th and early 19th century Vienna to classical music.
“Get Back” was a bit of a slog. It was as much about the creative process and the chemistry that occurs, not just among talented musicians, but also within the confines of one’s own brain – in this case primarily Paul McCartney’s – and that’s required to invent something worthwhile, something that ambushes the creator as much as it does anybody else. It starts with showing up. Nothing can happen until you do. And this documentary is filled with a lot of showing up, getting coffee, getting confortable, getting into a zone where hard work and inspiration fuse to create something amazing that never existed before.
One thing my children noticed, wistfully, that had escaped me is that none of the Beatles or any of their producers, directors, camera operators, not even their gofers, spent a moment on their cellphones; because, obviously, cellphones didn’t exist back them. Nobody was staring down numbly at his or her, but mostly his, device. Social interaction was unavoidable. Life was richer in certain ways than it is today.
My wife had her own equivalent moment with our daughters. I don’t recall it and can’t say for certain whether I was present or not. But it certainly sounds familiar. They were in our car when a Joni Mitchell song came on the radio – nobody seems able to recall the song but that doesn’t matter; there are lots of great ones – and everybody started singing at the top of her lungs.
The subject came up Tuesday at a family gathering – fully boostered and tested, of course – and it turned out that this generation’s young men, at least a lot of them represented at this event, don’t like Joni Mitchell. I bit my tongue, but as far as I’m concerned real men love the singer/songwriter. I admit that her voice can occasionally stray so high and ethereal that it invites parody. But the songs hold up.
My other achievement this holiday season was getting my daughters to watch the movie “The Graduate” with me after I spotted it on Amazon Prime. Both had seen it previously but our younger daughter Gracie didn’t remember it very well. I wasn’t obnoxious about it. I didn’t insist they sit through the whole thing. They could leave whenever they wanted and I assume they probably would after a few minutes. But they never departed and when the movie was over one said and the other agreed, unsolicited, “That’s a great movie.”
Of course, there’s one thing our children will never be able to experience. That’s the milieu in which the music and movies were made. It’s the rush of their parents’ youth, the awareness – more fully and richly in retrospect than it ever was in the day – that we were still embryonic even though we prided ourselves on our knowingness, dazzled by the prospect of an open-ended future. 1960’s art and music advertised a new generation’s spirit and self-confidence despite the reality of wars, assassinations and racial inequality.
But that optimism isn’t the province of any particular era. No generation has a monopoly on hope and progress. The pleasure of a marathon Beatles documentary or a movie that starts out with a confused college grad and ends in love and rebellion is that it taps into something honest and eternal.
One question I had after I watched “The Graduate” the last time, in particular the final scene where Benjamin Braddock, played by Dustin Hoffman, crashes his girlfriend Elaine’s church wedding and flees with her on a public bus, is whether he was finally happy and satisfied or remained as aimless and discontent as he was at the start of the movie. As the credits rolled Gracie raised the same question about his state of mind. Recognizing the disappointment in getting what you want apparently transcends generations.
Ralph Gardner, Jr. is a journalist who divides his time between New York City and Columbia County. More of his work can be found at ralphgardner.com
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