The Long Unwinding Road
I became aware of the Beatles in 1965, when I regularly heard “Ticket to Ride” on the radio and sat on the floor of our den while my mom’s friend spoke excitedly of her daughter’s impending trip to Shea Stadium to see them in concert. I was too young to appreciate what a singular phenomenon the Beatles were, but over the next four years, as they stretched beyond rock and roll (the White Album is a tour-de-force of genre-hopping, from baroque to heavy metal), I stretched with them, following each track of their songs and delighting in the complexities beneath their beguiling melodies. Essentially, they taught me how to listen to classical music, a gift I grew increasingly grateful for as the popular music scene devolved into glam, disco, and punk.
You can imagine my anticipation, then, when Peter Jackson released Get Back, an eight-hour documentary about the Beatles’ January 1969 rehearsals for the Let It Be album. Jackson is the right person to tell the story, first told in Michael Lindsay-Hogg’s 1970 film Let It Be, an eighty-minute mess. Jackson can navigate a long narrative, having directed the Lord of the Rings trilogy. He has the time and resources to edit and enhance the sixty hours of film and 150 hours of audio Lindsay-Hogg left behind. And he loves the Beatles. Indeed, one of the lessons of Get Back is to choose your collaborators carefully. The soddish Lindsay-Hogg persistently pushes the Beatles toward his own needs, including a grandiose live performance at a Roman ruin in Libya. By contrast, sound engineer Glyn Johns puts the Beatles first, telling them honestly which take sounds best and warning John Lennon against hiring Allen Klein as their new manager (which they do anyway, to their later regret).
The Beatles are rudderless without their old manager, Brian Epstein, who died from a sedative overdose in August 1967. Paul McCartney, the twentieth century’s answer to Mozart, fills the managerial void as best he can, fitfully negotiating with Lindsay-Hogg and others wanting something from the band before retreating to a piano to tease out the first few notes of songs destined to become classics. Lennon — brilliant, funny, but mercurial — arrives late, goofs off, then invents the licks that hold each song together. George Harrison, bristling at his bandmates’ mockery of their pilgrimage to India and tired of McCartney telling him how to play, quits for several days. Only Ringo Starr, friend to everyone, shows up on time and doesn’t complain (except to put his foot down about performing abroad).
They had hoped eschewing the studio tricks that enabled them to record separately would rekindle their relationship. But every new song is a struggle (one reason, I suspect, they kill a lot of time playing oldies). For me, Get Back’s biggest surprise is that the Beatles’ creative process is every bit as slow and painful as my own. They’re miserable as they go back and forth about lyrics, tempi, chords — chasing the perfect manifestation of their vision.
After seemingly endless diddling, the songs start to take shape and the Beatles’ moods slightly improve. They abandon a drafty TV sound stage for their cozy studio on Savile Row, Billy Preston serendipitously arrives to add his lively electric piano to their mix, and their moods improve further. As they perfect each song, they break out in smiles. And after they perform their legendary January 30, 1969 rooftop concert, they’re ecstatic.
But that artistic high — and their abiding affection for each other — failed to keep them together. Why? Conventional wisdom has it that Yoko Ono, Lennon’s girlfriend, drove them apart. Jackson’s Get Back shows that Ono, an artist in her own right, did not interfere in the Beatles’ creative process, even when it might have helped. Rather, the pitfalls of wealth and fame, the pressure to make every song a masterpiece, and poor advice — not to mention the entropy of time, which tears everything down — caused their dissolution.
Did the Beatles let us down when they broke up? It’s hard to feel otherwise. But they’d already taught my generation how much music — and, by extension, serious art — can do. What more could they have given us?