Well, like everybody else I’ve been watching Peter Jackson’s sprawling, eight hour fly-on-the-wall documentary about the Let it Be sessions, now streaming on Disney, and it seems, having conducted a very brief canvass of Google, that just about everybody who’s watching is also writing a review – so why should I be any different? There’s actually a lot to write about, too, since the new documentary is full of surprises, even for the sort of Beatles aficionado, like your faithful scribe, who’s put himself through the equivalent of six post-graduate degrees on the band and its music over the years, three of them PhDs.
First, to acknowledge some of the carping you’ll see out there in the commentariat: yes, it’s bloody long, and for anyone who doesn’t absolutely love the Beatles, a complete viewing will sometimes be a bit of a slog. Well, O.K., a lot of a slog. The grumpy reviewer for The Guardian complained that the thing is so drawn-out and aimless that it actually threatens the viewer’s sanity, and it’s certainly the case that Jackson, determined to document in full the hard work, false starts, refinements, and constant, endless rehearsals that form the creative process, doesn’t shy away from depicting those lengthy interludes when it just isn’t working, or the lads are, essentially, sitting around, staring at their feet, scratching the odd itch, and getting absolutely nothing done. At one point, with everybody splayed out in their chairs in a corner of the cavernous, drafty old Twickenham Studio, McCartney suggests that it might be better if they set some goals and tried to accomplish something every day – the idea, after all, was to take only two weeks to come up with a whole album’s worth of new songs, and have them polished to the point they could then play them to a live audience as part of a TV special – but nobody’s listening. For the first few hours (!) of the film, John seems not to be interested, really, Ringo is often seen dozing off, and George is sullen, marching out at one point proclaiming, matter of fact, that he’s quitting for good, which leaves everybody in a funk that drags on into the second instalment. Nothing much happens, then, until the rest can coax George back, the idea of a TV special is shelved, and they decide to decamp from Twickenham to the happier, warmer confines of their new Apple Corps digs on Savile Row. It’s not a lot of fun to watch.
Except when it is. Even when the whole affair seems mired in the doldrums, there’ll be sudden moments of pure magic. Best of these is when you get to watch what are now immortal songs being crafted literally out of nothing, emerging from the ether – there’s a heady, privileged, present at the creation feeling in getting to see it happen. One of my favourites shows Paul strumming his Hoffner bass like it’s a rhythm guitar, George and Ringo sitting about bleary-eyed and literally yawning in his direction, until, after less than a minute, what started off as an aimless exercise in rhythm is already, recognizably, Get Back. Just like that.
We also get to see unexpected songs being rehearsed, including key numbers like Golden Slumbers that won’t be finalized until Abbey Road, and songs from each that will appear publicly only years down the road, on various solo records. Lennon tries out an early version of Gimme Some Truth, Paul begins work on Back Seat of My Car, and George plays Isn’t It a Pity – a major composition that will one day anchor his epochal All Things Must Pass – to no particular fanfare, highlighting the basis of his growing frustration as the band’s under-appreciated junior member and de facto hired hand (and leaving me to reflect on how it really is a pity that this of all pieces wasn’t recorded under the discipline that George Martin and Messrs. Lennon and McCartney would have imposed at Abbey Road Studio 2, instead of being allowed to morph into a Phil-Spector-smothered, wall-of-sound extravaganza that drags on for far too long, dirge-like, in its final version, betraying George’s recurring difficulty in figuring out how to end a song). There’s also particular delight to be had in brief, essentially random musical outbursts, as when Paul, sitting at a keyboard, wonders aloud in conversation with some hovering junior staffer at how all the music in the world is present right there in those 88 keys, and says “look!” before launching into a snappy rendition of the incredibly clever piano opening to the White Album’s Martha My Dear – a perfect pop song that’s criminally overlooked – and seems amazed by how it’s possible to do so much with so few notes.
It’s also gratifying to be able to throw a number of ironclad preconceptions into the circular file, most of them, it now seems clear, fostered by the selective editing applied by then-director Michael Lindsay-Hogg to the original film version of Let it Be, which was, not to put too fine a point on it, the biggest celluloid downer that most any of us will ever have to endure. Among them:
Yoko is largely to blame for the break-up, and was roundly disliked by the other Beatles, especially Paul, jealous of being replaced as John’s most important relationship. Nope. Not a bit of it, actually. She’s there all the time, of course, because John wants her to be, but she keeps mostly to herself, causes no hassles or disruptions, and is treated at all times with cordial respect by the lads. At one point, with John late as usual, and Paul visibly worried that now Lennon’s decided to quit too, McCartney dismisses any notion that Yoko’s a problem. She’s great, he says, John needs her, and that’s nothing that anybody needs to get worked up about. He even jokes about how stupid it will be if in 50 years, people are claiming that “the Beatles broke up because Yoko sat on an amp”. Meanwhile, everybody else’s spouses and emotional support people likewise come and go, including, charmingly, Linda’s young daughter Heather, and nobody minds that either.
Everybody hated each other, and John had withering contempt for Paul and his “granny music”. Nope. In later years, John, suddenly twisted and bitter, might say things like that, and write unconscionable attack songs like How Do You Sleep, in which he described Paul’s stuff as “Muzak to my ears”, but there’s none of that going on here. In fact, Lennon may remain the group’s leader, but it’s clear John recognizes Paul as the band’s most essential creative asset, and the two of them are obviously ardently committed to improving each other’s songs. They cooperate on everything. They make each other howl with laughter. They compose, play, and harmonize “eyeball to eyeball”, just as Lennon once put it. That these guys love each other to death is always obvious, and John even says so: “It’s like you and I are lovers”. “Yeah”, agrees Paul (no wonder George felt left out). The acrimony would come, sure enough, due to business problems and the malignant influence of scumbag manager Allen Klein, who’s just off screen, about to make his appearance, as the film concludes (producer Glynn Johns tries to warn Lennon that Klein can’t be trusted, and oh, if only John had listened). Not yet, though. At the same time, George’s mood visibly improves back at Savile Row (as does everybody’s after the irrepressible Billy Preston is recruited to fill in on keyboards), and Ringo is, well, back to being Ringo, betraying no trace of the anger that not long before prompted him to storm off in a huff during the White Album sessions. Clearly, these young men, having been for all practical purposes sequestered in a submarine together for years and years, ever since they were teenagers, are quite capable of getting on each other’s nerves and becoming royally ticked off with each other. But this isn’t the fractious, mutual loathing society of Lindsay-Hogg’s film.
Paul was a bossy overbearing dick and insufferable egomaniac. He’s a perfectionist, sure, and conscious that somebody has to be the adult in the room sometimes, and it looks like that’s going to have to be him, but he’s clearly reluctant playing daddy, and tries to be as sensitive and diplomatic as he knows how to be. I can’t write it better than Chris Willman does in Variety:
In the Beatles circa 1969, Paul McCartney is the negotiator-in-chief, and he’s aware of every eggshell he has to walk around or smash to achieve greatness or just to get shit done. Perhaps not hyper-aware, at all times, or else George Harrison wouldn’t have quit the band for a few days, setting up “Get Back’s” Act-1-ending cliffhanger. But contrary to the prissy picture that’s sometimes been painted of him during the Beatles’ latter days, he comes off as surprisingly aware of the minefield of sensitivities around him, if sometimes a beat or two after the fact… and he’s certainly beyond aware that he’s paying a cost to be the boss. He’s a domineering older brother to George and rival/BFF/frenemy to John, and now he’s playing de facto manager to everyone — not necessarily because he’s taken pole position in the band on merit alone, but because Lennon is suddenly more invested in a woman than he is in being in even the world’s greatest boy band. Seeing McCartney recognize and articulate all these shifts, and soldier on while he gets a little bit sad about them, is one of the pleasures of “Get Back.” If you don’t come away from this with just a little more admiration for Paul, you may just be too in the bag for John and Yoko…
In the hours filmed at Savile Row, the playing gets better, the band achieves focus, Billy Preston lifts everybody up, and the nascent album begins to gel. The slog is over. Maybe we get to hear I’ve Got a Feeling a little more often than we’d like, and John’s Don’t Let Me Down has never been a personal favourite, but you gotta be made of stone if you don’t respond to Paul’s twin masterpieces, Let it Be and the austere, unadorned version of Long and Winding Road, and we’re brought up a little short out here in TV land to realize that at that moment these weren’t old standards, but brand new, as yet unheard by anybody outside that little room. It barely seems possible – there once was a time when these songs didn’t exist.
The great payoff, of course, comes at the end, in what amounts to a glorious late-innings upset victory, as everything falls properly together and the boys take to the roof for an impromptu lunchtime concert that has ever since been one of popular music’s most legendary moments. Jackson presents the full 42 minutes of the set, and what he’s done to restore and enhance the pristine sound and imagery of the original film stock is amazing. There they are giving their last public performance, tight, joyous, briefly on top of the world once more, plainly the greatest band that ever was or will be, and the intervening 52 years seem to fade away to nothing.