Filmmaker Peter Jackson and Paul McCartney accentuate the positive as if to paper over the acrimonious history of lawsuits, the loss of the Lennon-McCartney publishing catalog and the solo careers that followed, writes Tim Riley.
By Tim Riley
Emerson College/ The Conversation
In 1970, Michael Lindsay-Hogg released “Let It Be,” a film documenting the band’s recording sessions for their eponymous album. The movie depicted George Harrison arguing with Paul McCartney – and it hit theaters shortly after news of the band’s breakup emerged. Many filmgoers at the time assumed this depicted the days and weeks during which everything fell apart.
By the time it hit theaters, nearly 16 months after filming, this rehearsal footage got mistaken for a completely different time frame.
In 2016, Jackson gained access to Lindsay-Hogg’s original footage. Over the course of four years, he edited it into an eight-hour, three-part series, thanks to a streaming deal with Disney+.
In their press rounds, both Jackson and McCartney have been eager to recast the legacy of this period.
“I kept waiting for all the nasty stuff to start happening, waiting for the arguments and the rows and the fights, but I never saw that,” Jackson told The Guardian and others. “It was the opposite. It was really funny.”
“I’ll tell you what is really fabulous about it, it shows the four of us having a ball,” McCartney told The Sunday Times after seeing the film. “It was so reaffirming for me.”
It seems to be working: A recent New York Times headline proclaimed, “Know How the Beatles Ended? Peter Jackson May Change Your Mind.”
A lot of these sessions contain the irrepressible gags that made the Beatles famous. (Lennon and McCartney singing “Two of Us” in grandiose Scottish brogue almost steals Part Three.) But in their interviews, Jackson and McCartney accentuate the positive as if to paper over the acrimonious history of lawsuits, the loss of the Lennon-McCartney publishing catalog and the lurching solo careers that followed.
A Muddled Chronology
The timing of the theater release of the “Let It Be” sessions seeded confusion over how the group unraveled.
“Let it Be” was shot in January 1969, just weeks after the “White Album” hit stores.
The band then put these tapes aside to work on the larger project they intuited from this material, “Abbey Road,” which they completed seven months later.
The split actually came at a September 1969 meeting, when Lennon told the others he wanted a “divorce.” They persuaded him to keep his departure quiet until the band completed some contract negotiations. Then, in March 1970, McCartney publicly proclaimed he was “leaving the Beatles” to release his first solo album.
Only in May 1970 did the “Let It Be” album and film come out, with the band’s messy divorce as the backdrop.
After the initial theater run, “Let it Be” fell from view. For decades, the only way you could get a glance of it was through a black market copy. The Andy Warhol-esque, so-real-it’s-boring verité style – the non-narrative approach then in vogue – flummoxed even 1970 audiences.
But because the “Let It Be” album and film came out after “Abbey Road” – which was released in September 1969 – it quickly got mistaken for telegraphing their breakup, a belief that the Beatles themselves seemed to internalize.
The Beatles’ own traumatic memories of this period kept the raw footage from this project in the vaults for over 50 years. In the meantime, bootleggers published nearly all of its audio.
Now at significant remove, the remaining Beatles – McCartney and Ringo Starr – seem to have hired Jackson for a rescue operation, disingenuously dubbing the film a “documentary” when they, in fact, served as executive producers alongside their Apple Records directors, Jeff Jones and Ken Kamins.
In response to Jackson’s three-part series, which coincided with the release of a book of transcripts from the “Let it Be” sessions and McCartney’s songwriting memoir, “Lyrics,” media outlets around the world appear to have embraced this new version of history: that these sessions actually scanned as lighthearted, that – poof! – the scars had vanished.
But the strange and beguiling thing about Jackson’s edit rises from how it displays an unstable mixture of groove and conflict.
The trailer for ‘The Beatles: Get Back.’
Despite the walkout from Harrison and continuous disagreements about what the project was – first a TV show, then a feature film and album, which needed a rooftop concert for a “payoff” – the band ultimately rallied to write the now-classic tracks “Something,” “Oh! Darling,” “Octopus’s Garden,” “She Came in Through the Bathroom Window,” and “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer,” along with Lennon’s “Polythene Pam” and “I Want You.”
So Jackson’s “Get Back” clarifies the Beatles’ resolve to resume work and put their extra-musical squabbles aside. The music pulls them inexorably forward, and they trust these early song fragments enough to carry them. They have had bust-ups and walkouts and uncertainties and failures, and always found their way through. For Lindsay-Hogg and 1970 audiences, this all seemed bewildering and tense – the band kept a tight lid on internal rows. To the Beatles themselves, and to anyone who’s ever worked to keep a band together, it felt about par.
Telling the average person to watch eight hours of freighted doubt and raw, undeveloped material is a big ask. As The Onion joked, “New Beatles Doc Gives Man Greater Appreciation For How Long 8 Hours Feels.”
But there is a moment in Part Two of Jackson’s series – the first day on the set when Harrison doesn’t show up – when the rest of the band sits around talking about the situation. McCartney suddenly goes quiet. The camera lingers on him, and you can see him drift into a thousand-yard stare as he contemplates the looming uncertainties. He doesn’t quite tear up, but he does look as unguarded as he ever does, and markedly tentative.
The moment catches hold because it’s so out of character – McCartney rarely displays himself unveiled, without pretense. The shot lingers and takes the measure of the man and the project, how much they have to overcome and how precarious everything suddenly feels.
In retrospect, the miracle is not that they finished “Let It Be,” but how these sessions served as the warmup for their final lap, “Abbey Road.” After upending expectations with the contrasting breakthroughs of “Sgt. Pepper” and the “White Album,” figuring out what to do next would have confounded lesser souls.
That five-decade gap where fans waited for a refurbished “Let It Be” tells you a lot about how fraught January 1969 seemed to its four principals – and how deep those scars went.