The Beatles are the ideal husbands for documentaries: irreverent, incandescent talents, masters of the music that still manages to dominate the shrinking collective unconscious of the 1960’s, decades after they did so much to invent it.
Theirs is the origin story that still comforts and astonishes everyone old enough to have grown up with it. Sixty years ago they led a musical blitzkrieg, lit up with a kind of lightening most Britons had never seen in dreary postwar Britain. Their vertical trajectory from underground Liverpool phenoms to the top of the world looked like predestination: that was part of the wizardry.
In just eleven months of 1963–the coda of JFK’s presidency–these lower-middle class charm boys upended the British class system, even briefly making Liverpool more celebrated than London. Melding Marx brothers moves with addicting melodies and insurrectionists’ haircuts, they captured the hearts and minds of every remotely hip human under twenty-five, a feat acknowledged by Time magazine with its 1967 Man of the Year: “Twenty-five and Under.”
In John Lennon’s forensic recollection, his happy band had used white magic (built on black rhythms) to “come out of the fuckin’ sticks to take over the world, it seemed to me.” The essential catalysts were Brian Epstein, a twenty-seven year-old gay, Jewish department store heir, who fell in love with them as soon as he saw them perform at the Cavern, and George Martin, the EMI producer whose only hits had been comedy albums until Epstein convinced him to sign the Beatles to Parlophone.
Epstein was dubious about their leather-clad presentation, “but amongst all that something tremendous came over.” He was also bowled over by their “personal charm” as soon as he met them. George Martin had the same reaction: “They had tremendous charisma. I knew that that alone would sell them.”
The great rock critic Greil Marcus identified contributions to the Beatles oeuvre from the Everly Brothers, Buddy Holly, Elvis, Little Richard, and Eddie Cocharan. In a landmark essay Marcus wrote that the boys delivered their songs with “the grace of the Miracles, the physicality of ‘Louie Louie’ and the absurd enthusiasm of Gary U.S. Bonds…Rock became, in the shape of the Beatles, a way of life.”
This oft-told tale of competitive collaboration gets its latest treatment from Get Back, Peter Jackson’s sprawling three-part documentary, which devours seven hours and 48-minutes of your time to tell a tiny sliver of the story: the single month of reversals preceeding the Beatles’ climactic final public performance on the Savile Row roof of Apple headquarters in 1969. Later, these sessions (massaged by Phil Spector) became the album and then the documentary, Let It Be.
The bottomless nostalgia of Jackson’s target audience was manipulated by a completely dishonest promotional campaign. Assuming, correctly, that nearly everyone had never seen or no longer remembered Michael Lindsay-Hogg’s 1970 Let It Be documentary, now hidden away in a Vimeo corner on the web, Disney flaks pretended that Jackson’s work made up for an unfairly gloomy portrait of the earlier work.
The original film does show snippets of the sniping which had started months earlier, during the recording of the White Album. But most of the Lindsay-Hogg effort is a straightforward concert film, featuring intoxicating full-length versions of the great songs on the album of the same name.
Jackson’s work repeats some of the best moments of the original film, then adds hours from the out takes discarded fifty years ago. The new documentary is actually much more depressing (and five times longer)than the original. But this PR drivel about Jackson’s film recapturing all the joy that had supposedly been left on the cutting-room floor quickly became the received gospel on Twitter, Facebook and elsewhere. The result has been a remarkably warm reception for Jackson’s very long and winding road. (One exception: The Guardian called it “eight hours of TV so aimless it threatens your sanity.”)
Jackson’s version does offer new details about just how badly John and Paul treated George–really badly, even though he was their equal. Almost from the beginning, John, Paul and George were an unhappy three-way–with George always playing odd man out. The new shots of Yoko’s brooding presence during every recording session have rekindled the debate about whether Yoko played a pivotal role in the breakup. Jackson’s film is agnostic on this question. I always thought she did, because she was the kind of woman who began her courtship by detaching John from his closest male friend, to make sure she could control him as completely as possible.
That meant Paul, and hence the Beatles, had to go. There are a few rewarding new tidbits in Jackson’s work, but not nearly enough to justify almost eight hours of television. One of the better moments is this dream recounted by John. (It also appears in the companion Get Back picture book just published.)
John: Hey did you dream about me last night?
Paul: I don’t remember.
John: Very strong dream. We both dreamt about it…Amazing. Different dreams,
you know. I thought you must have been there. I mean, I was touching you.
George: Was it sexually oriented?
Paul: Oh you know John, don’t worry about it.
John: There’s nothing to worry about.
Paul also offers some pseudo-Freudian analysis of the meaning of the disappearance of their gay dad, Brian Epstein, lost to a probably-accidental drug overdose five months earlier: “You know your daddy goes away at a certain point in your life. You stand on your own feet. I mean that’s all we’ve been faced with–Daddy’s gone away now and we’re on our own at the holiday camp. ..I think we either go home or we do it.”
After a few more hours of banter, most of it much less scintillating than that, we finally get the promised “upbeat” part, as ancient magnetic fields reassert themselves, compelling four astonishing musicians to go back to making great music. The third episode opens with a rocking piano duet of George and Ringo playing Octopus’s Garden–a song which Ringo happened to have written when be became the first Beatle to walk out during the recording of the White Album the previous summer.
Things really take off after George discovers Billy Preston is in London and asks him to drop by the studio. The black gay keyboard player who had befriended the Beatles in Hamburg when he was playing in Little Richard’s band immediately transforms the atmosphere, and becomes a fifth Beatle for the rest of the month.
“Billy Preston was a very good fellow and he was a kind of emollient: he helped to lubricate the friction,” said George Martin.
He had the same effect as an outsider at a family dinner. “It’s interesting to see how people behave nicely when you bring a guest in,” said George Harrison. “They don’t really want everyone to know that they’re so bitchy. It happened when I brought Eric Clapton in to play on Still My Guitar Gently Weeps [on the White Album]. Suddenly everybody’s on their best behavior. [When Billy arrived] straight away it just became a 100 percent improvement in the vibe in the room.”
“We were working on a good track and that always excited us,” said Ringo. And Billy “was also part of it so suddenly when you’re working on something good, the bullshit went out the window, and we got back to doing what we did really well.”
None of those quotes is from “Get Back.” They are from part 8 of The Beatles Anthology a 1995 documentary which actually provides the definitive portrait of the Beatles’ 1969 sessions.
I bow to no one in my devotion to the Fab Four–or my conviction that George was the most beguiling Beatle–or, as his wife Patti Boyd put it, the most beautiful human in the world.
I was a young teenager living in London when the Beatles took over the world. Help! was the first rock album I bought from the record shop around the corner on Victoria Road in 1965. Thanks to Al Brodax, my aunt’s brother-in-law and the producer of Yellow Submarine, I brushed shoulders with the boys in the lobby of the London Pavillion in 1968 at the movie’s world premier in Piccadilly Circus.
So no one was more eager than me to spend four hundred and sixty eight minutes in the Beatles’ virtual company when Peter Jackson’s documentary was announced. And no one was more disappointed by how little this documentary actually contributed to our understanding of the band that did so much to shape the world I grew up in.
If you really want to recreate the finest moments of your youth–or learn the full origin story of the obsessions of your grandparents–watch The Beatles Anthology, or the equally good (and much shorter) Compleat Beatles of 1982. Read Greil Marcus’s stunning essay in The Rolling Stone Illustrated History of Rock & Roll (1976) or The Love You Make by Peter Brown and Steven Gaines, or Shout! by Philip Norman. Or watch Help! or the best time machine of all, A Hard Day’s Night.
But don’t waste your time on Disney+ this week.
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