Exhaustive, sometimes repetitive, and occasionally brilliant, Peter Jackson takes us inside the last days of the Beatles – and highlights even as their professional relationship began to show signs of cracking, just how good they were.
It is a story that’s been told many times. The Beatles – after taking some time apart – gather to work on a new album in 1969. They have a deadline – their newly formed media and production company, Apple, is producing a film with Ringo that is due to start filming three weeks after they start rehearsals. What follows is at once one of the most productive but also difficult periods in the band’s history. Having spent the better part of 15 years together establishing themselves as one of the best bands in the world, their creative and personal relationships are showing signs of fracture.
The books have long been in accord – this period was, without exception, a painful and difficult one for the Fab Four. While Jackson’s documentary certainly shows us elements of that version of events, it also questions it, by showing us four people with a deep understanding of each other. At their best, they are smiling, comfortably at ease with one another, and it is in these moments where one of them will seemingly pluck something out of the air that will lead to one of the iconic tracks from the band’s last studio album, Let it Be. Ultimately, Jackson sets out to challenge our existing narrative around the final days of the band, by taking a deeper and more thorough dive into the footage captured than the previous existing attempt, Michael Lindsay-Hogg’s film Let it Be.
A Fly on the Wall
Jackson’s approach is to simply occupy this space where the band rehearse, making the audience not a part of events but an observer. This has mixed results. There is definitely a touch of magic in the air, but the commitment to showing a more warts and all approach can be a bit wearing. Anyone who’s ever been involved with anything creative will be familiar with the phrase “hurry up and wait,” but here it almost seems to be the logline of the whole piece. It tends to feel a little aimless. Watching the band tune up, talk shit, and endlessly repeat the building blocks of songs (if you don’t like Don’t Let Me Down, you may struggle with it) will at times have you glancing at your phone/watch and wondering if the time could be better spent. But then – almost, it seems, as a deliberate device by Jackson as an editor – a shining moment of brilliance comes to break up the monotony.
A great example is when Paul comes up with the riff for Get Back. He seems to almost pull it out of thin air. John is late one morning, and the rest of the band are tinkering about trying out different ideas for new songs. At one stage during this jam Paul just says “well what about this?” and seemingly without effort starts to play an early version of the riff from the iconic track. And it is these moments that elevate proceedings and make it feel like the last hour or so was worthwhile. Jackson is not a filmmaker known for his brevity, especially in the latter half of his career. And it is important if you are planning to watch it to keep this in mind. In a lot of ways, the film feels like Jackson’s own attempt to try and spend as much time as possible with the band, for better or worse.
Justice for Yoko
Although Jackson never addresses it directly, any revisiting of this period of the band will reignite a debate rock fans have been having for 50 years: what, really, broke up the Beatles? The film doesn’t offer a definitive answer, but perhaps through a broader exploration of the existing footage does present a theory or two.
First, to address the elephant in the room, I have never been a believer in the notion that Yoko was responsible for breaking the band up. I feel like she was an unfortunate victim of circumstance, where the commonly more racist and misogynistic attitudes of the day were instrumental in forming that version of events. Watching Jackson’s documentary, there is very little to suggest Yoko as doing anything to harm the band. Firstly, unless she’s screaming into a microphone during one of the band’s “freak outs”, she barely talks for the entire 7+ hours. I’ve also heard the argument that her constant presence was a distraction. But to make that argument, one most also include the random Hare Krishnas George would invite to the sessions, or Linda and Heather (Paul’s partner and eventual adopted daughter, respectively) also being present. In fact in terms of causing distraction, Heather (as a precocious six-year-old) appears to be far more of a distraction than Yoko ever is.
The Writing on the Wall
I think the documentary presents the idea that ultimately, the four of them were a bit tired of one another. It’s easy to forget, but they formed the band as teenagers (John at 15, Paul 14, and George just 13 respectively) and proceeded to spend the better part of the next 15 years together. Like most of us tend to do in our late 20s, by 1969 the Beatles were drifting apart – which is natural at that time in life. All four of them were in serious relationships, and that also tends to lead to the breakdown of friendships we form as children and teenagers.
Another major factor is the fact that George was constantly ignored as a songwriter by John and Paul. One of the standout moments is when George pitches All Things Must Pass (arguably right up there with Imagine or Live and Let Die as the finest tracks produced by the Beatles on their own) and is rejected out of hand by the other two. In fact, their treatment of him is so bad that after the first week of rehearsals, he looks up during a session and in a classic instance of Liverpudlian understatement, simply utters “I think I might leave the band now.”
This bombshell ends the first part, and he is eventually – not without considerable effort – coaxed back for the rest of the sessions. Even then, he appears morose and contemplates both a “divorce” from the band and at one stage tells John that he wants to do his own album. Harrison does noticeably perk up during the sessions at Apple Studios, especially when Billy Preston shows up. But I think more than the other members, George saw the writing on the wall, and that perhaps their creative relationship was coming to its end.
Ultimately, the third part is dedicated to them nailing down the half-dozen or so numbers they’re planning to play live at the end of the week. This is where after a fair bit of time, everything (forgive the pun) comes together. The rooftop concert is part of rock and roll folklore. And while some disparate footage has been available to fans over the years, Jackson lovingly restores all 43-ish minutes of it.
Footage of the band’s performance is humorously intercut with interviews with those on street level, and the reactions are a near 50-50 split – noticeably along generational lines. The young people appreciate the stunt and the music, whereas the older people have a laundry list of complaints. There’s also the three cops who have received noise complaints and have been sent to shut it down. And the (obviously premeditated) runaround they’re given by various members of Apple’s staff is also pretty funny.
Jackson’s three-part documentary is comprehensive, interesting, at times a bit of a slog, but the insight it provides into the last days of one of the most iconic bands in history is going to set the bar for all future documentaries of this kind. You may struggle if you’re not a fan, but this film is an invaluable look into the creative process of four men who changed the face of music forever.
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