Peter Jackson's new 8-hour opus on the Beatles is a revelation — but not one for the faint of heart
As a lifelong fan of the Beatles I opt for the former interpretation, but I can relate to those left numb and flummoxed by this mammoth project, which essentially boils down to a microscopic examination of the Beatles’ creative process. Your attention to this sprawling, repetitive and comprehensive exploration depends on how much you have invested in the Beatles themselves as personalities. When we talk about how much we disdain the unpolished and labyrinthine process of “how the sausage is made” in a piece of legislation, for example, that’s in part because the sausage-makers themselves aren’t the most mesmerizing of people. Charles Schumer, Dick Durbin, Nancy Pelosi and Steny Hoyer — however enthralled we are of their various accomplishments — aren’t imbued with quite the charisma of John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Ringo Starr. Nor have they (at least to date) left such a broad and deep cultural legacy for the human race to ponder. Consequently practically no one — at least no one I know — really craves a front row seat to the mind-numbing complexity of creating a budget reconciliation bill before its passed into law; what we really care about is the finished product.
But in the world of art and music, sometimes you can learn something that isn’t revealed in that final product, something that gives you a better insight into the mind of the artist that helps you put that creation into context. That’s what Jackson’s epic effort here strives for, and whether he succeeds in the end ultimately depends upon all of us, as audience and arbiter, who take on the task of watching it.
Those familiar with the 1969 “Let it Be” film remember it as a tense portrait of the Beatles’ seemingly desperate effort to recapture their former glory. We remember scenes of Paul McCartney hectoring his fellow band members, the omnipresence of Yoko Ono sitting at John’s side and the moody presence of Harrison and pained expressions of Ringo Starr as they gamely play through what seems like a fraught experience for all of them. At this point in time they’ve each discovered their individual personalities and interests don’t always mesh with the collective the way they did in, say, 1964. Each has developed a wholly distinct set of interests and are intent on following their own muses.
But while reaffirming parts of this narrative, what Jackson’s portrayal — culled from the 60 or so hours of film shot by Michael Lindsay-Hogg for the 1969 documentary, plus 150 hours of audio — does is far more than providing an “extended cut” of Let it Be. What it succeeds in doing — remarkably and originally, in my view — is to reveal the extraordinary capacity of these four disparate personalities to create some of the most enduring musical art of all time. And while you do have to be a Beatles fan to appreciate most of the nuances in what Jackson portrays here, you don’t need to know everything about the context to be rather awestruck by the act of creation itself.
For those not quite so enamored or obsessed with the Beatles, then, the significance of Paul McCartney singing “I’m So Tired,” a quintessential Lennon tune off the White Album, from behind a drum set; or Lennon and McCartney practicing “Gimme Some Truth,” a Lennon song appearing much later on his solo album, Imagine; or Harrison arriving one morning to play a demo of a song he wrote “last night” called “I Me Mine” (another night produces “For You Blue,” which also appears on the Let it Be album) may not evoke a sense of wonder at the vast trove of raw talent percolating in each band member’s mind at this time. But for those who know the history, all of these moments are little revelations to be savored.
There are telling moments from the very start. As the film shows, the band first come together in a large, imposing, Twickenham film studio set, accompanied by the often-present but never obtrusive George Martin, the Beatles’ sound engineer Glyn Johns, assistant and road manager Mal Evans, a film crew and a few onlookers. They are put in this place, we understand, to come up rather quickly (within two-three weeks) with material for an album that all appear to acknowledge may be their swan song, punctuated by a TV special and live concert (the latter which they haven’t done in three years). The discussions about where the concert is to be performed occupy some of their time (for a brief time an ancient amphitheater in Libya is considered, but someone points out that they’ll need an audience to be brought in by boat to accomplish this, and as George laconically observes, “Who’ll foot the bill for that?”). Paul gamely introduces new material (the first strains of the song “Get Back”) but Lennon is strangely absent from the creative process, at least initially. Not his usual gregarious self (he appears to be quietly stoned for some length of Part 1), we soon realize that he’s completely smitten with Yoko and his mind is elsewhere. Paul asks his if he’s written new material, and Lennon responds with joking banter that Paul accepts, but we see that he’s a little worried.
Harrison, meanwhile, is bursting with new material, much of it extraordinary, but the group’s internal hierarchy doesn’t allow him quite the freedom or rapport that exists between Lennon and McCartney. Ringo does what he does best, which is being warmly Ringo, and in so doing emphasizes his importance as the focus of everyone’s affection. Marijuana use is alluded to as the band steps away for “tea time,” but its involvement is muted (even though some of the band members appear clearly high on camera at various intervals).
The band’s own origins and influences are seen peppering through the early going, with Lennon doing a version of Hank Williams’ “You Win Again,” and the band running through Chuck Berry’s “Rock and Roll Music,” as they try to decide whether they should opt for all new material or look back to old classics for the live concert. But the real show-stopping moments come when, for example, over a clip of Harrison and Lennon talking you hear McCartney practicing the chords to what everyone watching the film knows will become the anthemic “Let It Be.” Gradually we see raw, tentative snippets of music becoming what we all know is the ultimate, finished product, as the songs develop, propelled forward by a seemingly unconscious flow of creative genius, however casually and randomly articulated by all four of the band.
Along the way we see the outlines appear for what eventually became Abbey Road (the final album the group recorded but released before “‘Let It Be”), as McCartney pounds out early versions of “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer,” “Golden Slumbers,” and “Carry that Weight” (with a completely alternative verse intermixed), “She Came in Through the Bathroom Window” (McCartney drily observing that this is something that has happened to him quite frequently) and a seemingly impromptu tune mocking anti-immigrant sentiment called “Commonwealth” culled from a newspaper article about race-baiting M.P. Enoch Powell, but never making its way into a final Beatles track.
The band really begins to gel and enjoy themselves by the end of Part 1 of Jackson’s opus, with McCartney clearly motivated by the presence of his future wife, Linda, who snaps photographs of the band as they rehearse, and Lennon seemingly out of his funk (When McCartney suggests they do some covers of other bands’ songs, Lennon quips back, “I can barely stand doing [y?]ours.”). While Yoko and Linda engage in animated conversation (about what, we have no idea), the band turns out a giggling-filled performance of “Let it Be,” with Lennon hilariously miming the words for the camera in mock seriousness. It’s at this point when we begin to understand how important their sense of humor is to greasing their creativity. We also realize that contrary to what we’ve been led to believe, this was not the caricature of a band being torn apart by acrimony, but one fully capable of exercising an awesome degree of mutual creative prowess.
And then there’s a shock. Out of nowhere, with Lennon and McCartney gleefully rehearsing “Two of Us,” Harrison abruptly announces he’s leaving the band and walks out. Predictably the rest don’t take him seriously (which is really the problem from his point of view to begin with), but the next morning he’s not there. Lennon and McCartney trade quips exhorting his empty microphone: (“Come on George!”) (“If he doesn’t come back by Tuesday, we get Clapton.”). Meanwhile Yoko steps up to the microphone to take his place, vocalizing tunelessly while McCartney and Lennon play riffs frantically bouncing off one another. It’s a weird, weird moment. Comments are exchanged, illuminating the fact that while Lennon and McCartney have always been the band’s songwriting team, Harrison is “his own team,” and thus must have to put up with the constant presence of the other two overshadowing his own efforts.
Harrison’s departure ends Part I of Jackson’s opus, with the band not really knowing what to do with itself (Lindsay-Hogg hovers in the background as a somewhat awkward presence; it seems clear he belatedly realized he bit off more than he could chew here and views his directorial aspirations going nowhere fast) but Lennon, McCartney and Starr press on,with little to show for themselves until finally Harrison is cajoled back into the fold. The scene in Part II (which clocks in at nearly three hours) shifts from the Twickenham soundstage to the Beatles’ own hastily conceived studio at Apple Records, where the four pick up where they left off before Harrison’s hiatus. In one revealing scene McCartney mockingly reads a newspaper account of the band’s travails while Lennon sings in the background; what we learn from that vignette (and in fact the entire movie) is that all four of the Beatles were frankly aware of and honest about the forces that were splitting them up. Paul, for example, talks about Yoko’s continual presence at John’s side and acknowledges his own reaction to it (In a lengthy segment never revealed before, a hidden microphone captures both the symbiotic and competitive character of the Lennon-McCartney relationship as they privately discuss how to accommodate Harrison’s desire for more exposure). What I also found interesting is that Lennon, famed for his later political activism, doesn’t utter anything resembling a political opinion during the entire eight hours of Jackson’s film.
On multiple occasions the four acknowledge the effect of the passing of Brian Epstein, their former manager who died of an accidental drug overdose in 1967. Epstein had exerted a commanding and fatherly presence during the band’s rise to stardom and they candidly attribute their lack of cohesiveness and squabbling largely to his absence. For the most part, the second three hour segment of Jackson’s film is free of the conflicts that churn through part 1. By the time the exhausting experience has ended, but before Part 3 begins, we’ve seen various cuts in final or near final form, intermixed with throwaways that never made it onto vinyl at any time (As the Guardian’s Alexis Petridis wryly puts it, “There is a point, about five hours in, when the prospect of hearing another ramshackle version of Don’t Let Me Down becomes an active threat to the viewer’s sanity”). The arrival of Billy Preston to play keyboards seems to solidify the serious nature of the project in the rest of the band’s mind; perhaps they felt his presence as a check on their impulse to nitpick with one another, but from that point on the group functions smoothly as a unit. The second segment ends with looming deadlines prompting the band to take it up a notch to make up for lost time, as well as the momentous decision (doubtlessly well-known to everyone who watches this film) to perform the long-planned live concert on the roof of Apple records, in heart of London’s Savile Row.
The third two-hour installment of Jackson’s film is one continuous joy for Beatles fans (it’s the segment fans uninterested in the drudgery of the creative process will want to watch). Linda Eastman’s six-year old daughter steals the show for a few minutes at the outset, emulating Yoko Ono’s vocalizing, but there are a number of heart-stopping sequences that follow such as George unveiling the first verses to “Something,” after helping Ringo find a bridge to “Octopus’ Garden.” Lennon is peppy and sardonic (He announces that Yoko’s divorce has been finalized about halfway into Part 3). There’s no longer even the hint of acrimony as the band run through final and close-to-final versions of songs most of us are familiar with from the Let It Be album. If Jackson’s sole intent were to rewrite established Beatles history he has succeeded; the film convincingly portrays the four as working as tightly and collaboratively as might be imagined, at least for the latter days leading up to the rooftop concert. They are able to produce in a brief period of time an album of quality songs that have by now withstood the critical test of multiple generations, though many may not rank among the group’s best. He has dispelled the myth of Yoko Ono as a baleful, destabilizing force intent on dragging her husband out of the band, while also softening history’s trenchant verdict on McCartney’s purported overbearing temperament, long blamed for antagonizing the others.
The final 40 minutes document the legendary rooftop concert, depicted partly in split-screen with cameras placed on the roof as well as in the street to capture the reaction of the townfolk. A hidden camera in the reception area at Apple captures the entry of two exasperated British police officers, attempting to shut down the concert due to noise complaints. They eventually make it to the rooftop but end up standing silently while the Beatles continue to perform, lording above London and the whole world for a brief moment in time (there’s a metaphor in that somewhere). As the four wind up their last public performance, it feels like an ending, although we know they go back into the studio to make Abbey Road.
Jackson’s tribute should and probably will be the definitive account for future generations when they pause to reflect on the last days of the Beatles. As for me, well I’m far older now, long past the days where I would focus my obsessive and undivided attention on the Beatles or any other musical group, Sitting through this film’s marathon scope, I admit I was among the ones who afterwards felt that I couldn’t possibly bear hearing “I Dig a Pony” or even “Let It Be” ever again. But that feeling lasted … only about an hour. I reminded myself that yes, it was a bit long, but these were the Beatles, the likes of which this world will never see again. As Lennon said about the turbulent decade that gave birth to his band, “The thing the sixties did was to show us the possibilities and the responsibility that we all had. It wasn't the answer. It just gave us a glimpse of the possibility.” Jackson’s film serves as a reminder of a fleeting period in time when everything was new, and anything seemed possible.
The trailer for Get Back is below:
The Beatles: Get Back | Official Trailer | Disney+ www.youtube.com
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