The Beatles: Myth vs. Magic

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When I heard that Peter Jackson, the Oscar-winning director of the Lord of the Rings trilogy, was going to be making a Beatles documentary, my first thought was, “I hope there aren’t too many hobbits!” Three years later, I’ve just finished watching the resulting epic three-part documentary, The Beatles: Get Back, on Disney+, and I’ll set your mind at ease: although the overall runtime is damn near as long as the Lord of the Rings trilogy, there are no hobbits, wizards, dragons, or other fantasy elements anywhere to be seen.

There is, however, a great deal of real, honest-to-goodness magic.

A little background is in order here. This documentary is culled from 60 hours of film footage and 150 hours of audio originally intended for what became director Michael Lindsay-Hogg’s 1970 film Let it Be. That film, along with multiple interviews from the former Beatles over the years, led to the myth that the Let it Be sessions were a largely miserable affair. I say “myth,” because the Jackson documentary proves that both the former Beatles’ memories and the decades of historical discourse are largely mistaken, perhaps colored by the film itself and the breakup that happened around the same time as the film’s release. Lindsay-Hogg’s choices for what to include (and not to include) in his film left out a ton of joy, friendship, and love, all of which were still very much present during this period, as we discover through Peter Jackson’s new documentary. To be sure, there are arguments, dour faces at times, and one member quits for a few days (which isn’t shown in the original film). But the good moments far outweigh the bad. In many ways, Jackson’s doc restores the original intent of the project, which was to film the writing of an entire album of 14 songs during 21 days in January 1969 and then perform and record it live in front of an audience — in less than a month, start to finish.

There is a ton of messing around during the sessions, but little by little you can hear the songs coming together. It’s interesting to observe that Paul clearly had the most arrangement talent and vision, and was the most dominant member of the band at this point. However, he’s also clearly uncomfortable in that role, and very self-conscious about it. Yet without his assuming that role and pushing things forward, you can tell nothing would have happened. The others may have resented him for it at times, but clearly it was needed.

Lindsay-Hogg’s choices for what to include (and not to include) in Let It Be left out a ton of joy, friendship, and love, all of which were still very much present.

 

George is probably the second most engaged and assertive after Paul, which I found quite surprising considering that he’s often portrayed as pretty uninterested in The Beatles at this point and not really engaged in what they were doing. He has his down moments, but when he’s there, he’s very much there and involved in the ideas, offering his own opinions, and caring about it all.

John, on the other hand, comes across as surprisingly deferential. He even seems intimidated by Paul at times. I wouldn’t describe him as uninterested (which, like George, is often how he’s portrayed historically), but he’s definitely not the leader of the group at this point. You can also see that Yoko is becoming (if she hasn’t already become) the most important thing in his life. As for Yoko herself, she is annoying at times when they give her the mic, but outside of that, while she’s omnipresent, she says almost nothing and stays out of the way. She’s really not intrusive at all, and the other members don’t seem to mind her presence. This is also pretty counter to how it’s always portrayed historically. Paul says at one point, “If it comes to a choice between us and her, he’s going with her,” but that’s pretty much the extent of it. Paul does make a very prescient statement when he half-jokingly says, “It’s silly that in 50 years they’ll be saying ‘They broke up because Yoko sat on an amp.’”

Note that I haven’t said much about Ringo. That’s partly because, well, Ringo doesn’t have much to say himself. He was as much of a “silent partner” as someone can be, at least in these sessions. Hell, he barely said anything through the entire eight hours, outside of “I farted.” Seriously. He says that. And even the fart was silent! He also looks largely bored and the least engaged in general. He is, however, very punctual! Paul, a capable drummer himself (Ringo’s brief resignation from the band during the White Album sessions in 1968 led to Paul playing drums on the recordings for “Back in the U.S.S.R.” and “Dear Prudence,” for example), voices some of the beats and fills for him as he’s composing on the fly, and Ringo does his best to emulate and incorporate Paul’s suggestions.

Oh, one thing before I continue: fuck the “smoking” warning (and virtually every other warning) that comes at the beginning of this documentary and on pretty much every TV show and movie I watch anymore. What the hell is wrong with people? We seriously have to be warned that we may see people . . . gasp . . . smoking? Horrors! Yes, we’re all well aware at this point that smoking is bad for you and can give you cancer. But, so far as I’m aware, no one’s ever gotten cancer from watching someone smoke on TV.

It’s interesting to observe that Paul clearly was the most dominant member of the band at this point. However, he’s also clearly uncomfortable in that role, and very self-conscious about it.

 

Now where was I? OK, right. Not long after the documentary begins, the Fab Four start to realize that the large sound stage at Twickenham Studios, where they attempt to begin this venture, is not exactly hospitable to the musical creative process. They complain a number of times that the acoustics are terrible, it’s cold, and they’re clearly uncomfortable. How uncomfortable do things get, you ask? (Hey, you’ve read this far, so I’m assuming you want to know.) Well, one day, just before lunch, George literally quits the band! Just gets up and dryly says, to no one in particular, “I think I’ll be . . . I’m leaving the band now.” It’s so off-the-cuff and nondramatic that he might as well have been saying, “I have to go take a leak.” In fact, Lennon seems to think he’s joking as he replies, “When?” to which George shoots back “Now.” And he does!

The next day (I think it’s the next day) John also fails to show. This results in some pretty sad and uncomfortable footage of Paul and Ringo just sitting and stewing. Eventually, someone gets John on the phone, Paul goes to talk to him, and John ends up coming in. Paul is visibly furious. He, John, and Ringo (minus George) are sitting in chairs giving interviews to the camera, and Paul won’t even look at John, even when addressing him. He looks clearly hurt. John doesn’t directly apologize, but he looks embarrassed and seems to feel bad that he hurt Paul. His contrition becomes obvious when he states he’ll be on time the next day. He tries to joke a lot, and by the end of it Paul finally laughs a bit more and loosens up. It’s all pretty uncomfortable and, quite frankly, pretty humanizing. We’ve all had moments like this with people we love.

However, even in this less-than-ideal setting, and despite all the resulting tension, something magical happens, and we get to witness it. One morning, sitting across from George and Ringo, Paul — noodling around on his bass — starts slowly forming the melody and rhythm for “Get Back.” It’s genius happening in real time. I don’t know that I’ve ever seen or heard of something like this being caught on video: the magical moment where one of the most famous and successful songwriters in history comes up with the first seeds of one of his most famous compositions. Through the rest of the film we watch it develop from that germ of an idea, essentially coming out of nowhere and from nothing, to the actual recorded version everyone knows today.

See? I told you there was magic!

Ironically, George’s leaving the band also leads to something beautiful that goes to the heart of who they were, even at the height of their fame and powers. When George quits, they don’t talk through lawyers or personal managers or assistants to persuade him to come back (and, spoiler alert, if you need it: he does come back). Instead, the other three go over to George’s house and talk with him directly. Twice. It’s just the four of them. They’re still relating to each other very directly as friends and brothers, as they often referred to one another. Despite the few arguments in the film, there is clearly a tremendous amount of love and respect among them.

So far as I’m aware, no one’s ever gotten cancer from watching someone smoke on TV.

 

Part of what lures George to return is an agreement to abandon the cavernous Twickenham Studios and go back to their own Apple Studio to finish working on the project. The move to Apple extinguishes another myth — that they were miserable and not getting along until keyboardist Billy Preston came in to join them, resulting in their acting on their best behavior. The former Beatles have engaged in this myth themselves for decades, but the tape doesn’t lie, and it’s pretty clear that they’re getting along much better and the air among them is a good deal lighter and easier for a couple of days before Preston hits the scene.

But when Preston does pop in for what is at first just a visit, and is subsequently invited to sit in with the band, it’s nothing short of amazing. He blends in with the group as though he’d been a member for years. No doubt this is a testament to both his enormous talent and his years spent cutting his teeth as a side musician.

George Martin, The Beatles’ producer and musical mentor for most of their career, is also around a lot, seemingly every day. He’s on very good terms with the band, given what we can see here. I’d always been led to believe, from various docs, books, and interviews, that they’d had a falling out with him before the making of Let it Be, and that he only came back to work with them on Abbey Road after being invited by Paul and after they agreed to let him produce it “like he used to.”

I don’t know that I’ve ever seen something like this being caught on video: the magical moment where one of the most famous and successful songwriters in history comes up with the first seeds of one of his most famous compositions.

 

As great as these sessions ended up being, it’s clear that George Martin added a lot to the success of The Beatles, not only in the difference you can hear in how Let it Be sounds versus the albums Martin produced so brilliantly, but also in terms of refereeing and problem solving. One scene illustrates this perfectly. The whole group is annoyed because the amps and mics in the room are set up differently than on the previous days, and it’s giving them a bunch of feedback and bumming them out. Martin comes in and immediately plays the daddy, asking what’s wrong and then starting to rectify the situation “Well, why is the piano closed, for a start . . .” They seem relieved to let him take control of the moment.

Eventually they decide to perform and record a selection of the songs on the roof in lieu of doing a standard performance in front of an audience. Iconic as it has become, the rooftop performance is shown here in its entirety for the first time ever. It is everything you’ve ever heard about it, and well worth the eight hours of viewing time in this documentary just to reach that moment. That rooftop concert is completely worthy of its place in history.

One of the really fascinating things about this doc is how much noodling and messing around there is in the studio. They mess around so much, you wonder, “How can these guys be considered the best rock n roll group ever? They can barely play a song!” But when they decide to pull it together and play the songs properly, it’s like turning on a switch and all the magic and chemistry that made them the greatest ever suddenly appear. It’s extraordinary.

The rooftop concert is well worth the eight hours of viewing time in this documentary just to reach that moment.

 

An interesting aspect of all this is how many of the official versions of these songs are taken either from that rooftop performance or from being played live in the studio, as is evidenced by how many times the words on the screen read, “This is the version that appears on Let it Be.” As much as they’d become a studio band over the previous three or four years, overdubbing songs in snippets and adding many layers of other instruments and overdubs and experimentation to the recordings, they clearly hadn’t lost the “it” factor as a band. The Beatles could still give a live performance that could pass muster as a studio recording.

It’s painful to think that they broke up a little over a year after this filming, despite each member becoming a successful solo artist. Fans have lamented the breakup like kids in a divorce settlement, and it’s hard not to think of “what could have been,” especially when the united Beatles try out songs that ended up on their solo albums after the break up, including Harrison’s “All Things Must Pass,” McCartney’s “Teddy Boy,” and Lennon’s “Road to Marrakesh” (which evolved into the gorgeous “Jealous Guy”). As great as these songs ended up being on their solo records, I can’t help wondering how they might have sounded sprinkled with a little of that Beatles magic. Somehow, within that final year, they managed not only to write and record the songs that ended up on Let it Be, but also to record one final, and arguably their greatest, record, Abbey Road. What other band has ever done that? None. Not one.

But The Beatles did. Because The Beatles were magic. Real, honest-to-goodness, magic.

One Comment

  1. Marlene Steger

    Cole, I really enjoyed reading your synopsis of the documentary Let it Be. I have always liked the Beatles but not that involved in their history, so I may never view this documentary, but I did understand the sense of it by your writing about it. You just might have another career besides musician, animator, etc. I really enjoyed reading this. Good job!!

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