A really big show

I was 16 years old the last time the Beatles invaded the United States to the degree that the release of Harmonix Music Systems' new interactive video game, The Beatles: Rock Band, has. It was 1995 and The Beatles Anthology documentary and subsequent box set tie-in of rarities transformed my curiosity about the group into an obsession. The prior point of maximum impact before that was when I was 2 and John Lennon took a bullet in the lung, ending his life.

Otherwise, my entire personal experience of the Beatles is born from no other place than musical sense memory and cold post-mortem research. A day with The Beatles: Rock Band hasn't changed that fact, either. (Reports of a new physicality with which to experience the music are greatly exaggerated by the people selling that experience.) But it did offer brief glimpses into something like transcendence of appreciation, connection and a sly pseudo-camaraderie. I imagine this was what it was like to bring home a new Beatles record.

To get the obvious out of the way, this iteration of Rock Band is an extension of the current gaming trend: saddling up to a plastic instrument and "strumming" when you're told. The result, at least in the traditional Guitar Hero format, is that you feel like you're in front of a crowd actually playing popular songs … in a way. With the Beatles game (overseen by the surviving members and widows), the "playing a crowd" aspect is, initially at least, an understatement. While you begin at their Liverpool haunt, the Cavern, you're quickly whisked off to The Ed Sullivan Show, then to Shea Stadium.

In the blink of an eye, however, it's all over. Echoing the band's evolution, there's a quick withdrawal from the "rock god" experience into a quiet, dreamy studio-rat heaven. Players can plow through the albums, re-enacting George's sitars, Ringo's nonsensical fills and Paul and John's early rock chord changes (progressions so deceptively tough that critic William Mann compared them to Romantic composer Gustav Mahler). But only silence awaits you at the end, along with the occasional call for "more tea."

Where The Beatles: Rock Band distinguishes itself most is in its visuals. Performing the albums could have been tediously dull, but just when that possible boredom presents itself, your Beatles are walking through a garden grown out of the studio floor or climbing trees. The most interactive part of the game is, in fact, these acid trips, and they can be distractingly gorgeous, a fusion of Japanime and motion capture. This is especially effective on the track "I Want You (She's So Heavy)." The mere fact that you have to pound away at a hunk of plastic for eight minutes, hitting the same chords over and over, lends itself to an exhaustion that the visuals take and run with. Sonic swirls devolve into blurry aerial views of the Apple Corps rooftop until it's all a nightmare of sound and hand-cramps, but it's a wonderful, reckless and (most surprisingly) seemingly improvised moment for the player, much as the song itself is.

Instances like this come rarely. In the end, enjoyment of the game will depend on the player's devotion to the band. Like reading a book (Steve Turner's A Hard Day's Write is fantastic) or watching a movie (the Lennon biopic Nowhere Boy is currently filming) about the group, playing The Beatles: Rock Band is still a form of distant admiration, and a tame one at that. I struggled with the Cavern songs more than with expected tough ones like "While My Guitar Gently Weeps," only because the early rhythms and cues are not nearly as much a part of our collective memory. As a new milestone of nostalgia in the lifetime of this '90s kid, it falls short of "Real Love" and far exceeds "Free as a Bird."

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