The Beatles just can’t let it be
Getting back to a revised 1969
Not really true, according to Apple. In fact, there had been a lot of fun and laughter among John, Paul, George and Ringo and it was an extremely creative time – and there were more than 60 hours of film footage and more than 150 hours of audio recordings to prove it. New Zealand film director Peter Jackson, who had notably adapted J.R.R. Tolkien’s “The Lord of the Rings” and “The Hobbit” for the screen, was visiting the Apple office in London in 2016-17 to discuss another matter when the subject of opening the archive to make a more accurate film came up, and he was duly hired. Simply a case of being “the right man in the right place at the right time”, as he puts it.
For almost five decades Beatles fans had been presented with “Let It Be” director Michael Lindsay-Hogg’s dark portrayal of four youthful pals who had grown apart and were just plodding away working up new songs in the unappealing surrounds of Twickenham. In particular, the 1970 film showed a bit of a confrontation between a lordly Paul McCartney and a testy George Harrison, with the ever-presence of the crewmen and Yoko Ono adding to the disquiet.
That 80-minute film of the drama has now been eclipsed by Jackson, who went through all the original footage and recut it into an entirely different, painstakingly restored, three-part, almost-eight-hour version to “rewrite history” in a new documentary series, “The Beatles: Get Back”. These debuted on Disney+ on the US Thanksgiving weekend of November 25, 26 and 27, enthralling fans (and almost immediately finding their way to internet downloading sites).
A glossy coffee-table-type book of photos and transcripts with the same title has also been published. It is packed with hundreds of great images by Linda McCartney and on-set photographer Ethan Russell. There are also new CD and vinyl editions of the “Let It Be” album.
The book’s introduction is written by British playwright Hanif Kureishi, who describes the period as “a productive time for them, when they created some of their best work. And it is here that we have the privilege of witnessing their early drafts, the mistakes, the drift and digressions, the boredom, the excitement, joyous jamming and sudden breakthroughs that led to the work we now know and admire”.
Film one opens with a 10-minute potted history of the group’s start in Liverpool in 1956, from 16-year-old John Lennon’s group The Quarrymen, which was joined by 14-year-old Paul McCartney and 13-year-old George Harrison. There’s the “In Spite of All the Danger” amateur recording then The Cavern Club in Mathew Street, the Reeperbahn in Hamburg, Ringo joining, Beatlemania, the MBEs, the “bigger than Jesus” ruckus and the end of touring in 1966, “Yellow Submarine”, the Magical Mystery Tour, Epstein, Martin, the Maharishi and all the well-known, and well-loved, rest.
In September 1968 the group made a promotional film for the “Hey Jude” single at Twickenham, the first time they had performed for an audience, albeit a small select one, in more than two years, They enjoyed the experience and hatched a plan to make a TV special with a montage of behind-the-scenes vérité footage of rehearsals of songs for a new album. The songs would be “ back to basics” without overdubs or studio tricks.
The head of Apple Films, Dennis O’Dell, was producing “The Magic Christian” film and he had booked Twickenham from the beginning of January. He offered Stage One to The Beatles as a rehearsal space. Lindsay-Hogg was asked to film the rehearsals as part of the TV show. There was limited time because Ringo had to start shooting “The Magic Christian”, co-starring Peter Sellers, on January 24, 1969, and the crew would need the studio back then.
A dress rehearsal was set for January 18 and and two performances would be shot on January 19 and 20 in front of audiences and broadcast soon after. And so on the second day of January, 1969, the Beatles arrived at the cold, bleak and cavernous Twickenham Studios at earlier hours than they liked to work in front of the film crew. Work it was, and the acoustics were poor.
There was an urgent need for new material and the foursome was under pressure to deliver, so much pressure that they even reconsidered some of their earliest unrecorded unsophisticated efforts, such as ”Just Fun”, ”Because You Know I Love You So”, ”Thinking of Linking”, ”Won’t You Please Say Goodbye” and ”One After 909”.
They goofed around on their own earlier songs and old rockers, and rehearsed “Get Back”, “Two of Us”, “I Me Mine” and “The Long and Winding Road,” among others. McCartney is seen in a viral moment virtually composing the backbone of “Get Back” on the spot, strumming on his bass. And then, on day seven, Harrison walked out, fed up with the whole thing. “See you ‘round the clubs” was his parting shot. His departure threw into doubt not only the project but also the future of the group.
The conflict was a major pivot in the production. He only came back when they agreed to move to the new Apple studio in their office’s basement and scrap the plan for live performances. On a cruise boat? At an ancient theatre in the Libyan desert? No one could agree. McCartney pushed for it. Ringo wasn’t keen either. John was more into Yoko.
On George’s return the TV show idea was scrapped, and instead Beatles management decided to expand the project into a feature film to fulfil a three-picture contract that manager Brian Epstein had forged with United Artists before he died in 1967. The first two films were “A Hard Day’s Night” and “Help!” but “Yellow Submarine hadn’t counted. It was animated.
Jackson’s documentary is a 21-day diary of The Beatles in their intimate creative world, depicting the group jamming, writing, arranging, clowning, sparring, riffing, bickering, struggling and finally succeeding to make “Let It Be”. “It’s going to be such a comical thing, like, in 50 years’ time, they broke up because Yoko sat on an amp,” McCartney observes.
“The Beatles: Get Back” films are more revealing, more nuanced, than the original “Let It Be”, not less. The latter couldn’t show George leaving the group. Far from a period of disintegration, says Jackson, “these three weeks are about the most productive and constructive period in the Beatles’ entire career.” Apart from the tracks heard on “Let It Be”, the band also rehearsed three-quarters of the “Abbey Road” album, about half of Harrison’s “All Things Must Pass” solo album, a half-dozen songs that would later appear on McCartney’s albums, and a couple that would show up on Lennon’s.
Jackson avoided repeating footage from the original film. Even familiar scenes use alternative camera angles. “One of our mantras is that ‘Let It Be’ is one movie, and our movie is a different movie,” he says. The reprocessing is startlingly good. Where “Let It Be” showed McCartney’s hair as a single block of colour, for instance, now you can see every single strand.
Finally, McCartney again: “We should do the show in a place we’re not allowed to do it, getting forcibly ejected.” The Beatles go up to the roof of Apple and play an impromptu lunchtime concert, blasting out their music into central London without warning on a cold January day. All 42 minutes are seen in “The Beatles: Get Back”. It was a great way to go out. It’s part of British history now.