Which version is right?
Over the five decades since the Beatles decided to record an album live in the studio with a camera crew filming the sessions, the story has settled into pop history as a xgrim fable of eroding male bonds, erupting egos, and dissipating creative chemistry. As veteran Beatles chronicler Mark Lewisohn described the events in his book The Beatles Recording Sessions, they represented “the most confusing and frustrating period in the Beatles’ entire career.” Longtime Beatles engineer Geoff Emerick, in his memoir Here, There and Everywhere, described the time as “torturous and fraught with tension.” Among the Beatles themselves, George Harrison, in an interview, cast the 1969 recording sessions as “the low of all time,” and John Lennon remembered them as “the most miserable sessions on Earth.”
The documentary that director Michael Lindsay-Hogg made from the footage, released in 1970 as Let It Be, seemed to validate those views and, in fact, planted them in the minds of countless Beatles fans who weren’t in the studio with the band to see things for themselves. Edited down to 80 minutes from the some 60 hours of 16mm film, Let It Be opens with a scene of Paul McCartney at a grand piano, approximating a keyboard rendition of Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings, and goes on to show him scolding George Harrison for resisting his efforts to “help” him by lecturing him on how to play the guitar and, in another scene, explaining to John how the Beatles “are Stravinsky.” In between, the film captures Yoko Ono, an eerily motionless, affectless presence never far from John, along with a good number of scenes of collegial music-making and spontaneous fun, concluding with the renowned five-song concert on the roof of the Apple building, the Beatles’ last public performance as a band.
The two surviving Beatles, Paul and Ringo, have taken to advancing an alternative conception of those 21 days of rehearsals, recording, and live performance. As evidence for a far cheerier way of seeing that time, they have provided, as coproducers, a new edit of the material by director Peter Jackson, the first filmmaker to be given access to the 60 hours of footage—as well as some 150 hours of audio recorded in that period—since Lindsay-Hogg. Titled The Beatles: Get Back, in reference to the name of the project as it was originally planned in 1969, the Jackson documentary has been streaming on Disney Plus since Thanksgiving in three parts, adding up to nearly eight hours. As Ringo explained in a statement issued when the Jackson project was announced, “There was hours and hours of us just laughing and playing music, not at all like the Let It Be film that came out. There was a lot of joy, and I think Peter will show that. I think this version will be a lot more peace and loving, like we really were.”
Paul, after seeing the results of Jackson’s work, took comfort in finding that it had, in part, a lightness of spirit. “I’ll tell you what is really fabulous about it,” McCartney told The Sunday Times. “It shows the four of us having a ball. It was so reaffirming for me. That was one of the important things about the Beatles, we could make each other laugh.”
One of the great surprises of The Beatles: Get Back is that it verifies the disparate, largely conflicting points of view about the period of the Let It Be/Get Back sessions. George and John were right about how putrid the time was, but Ringo’s and Paul’s rosier memories are given credence, too. At times—especially in the first part of this period, when the Beatles were struggling vainly to work in the chilly and chilling setting of the cavernous Twickenham Studios soundstage—the misery is palpable. They were rusty, having not played together in months, and cranky about early-morning call times, on a film production schedule, instead of the late-night rock-music hours they usually kept.
Seven days into this, George quit the band—an event wholly absent from the Let It Be film—and we can’t blame him. Since the death of their manager, Brian Epstein, in 1967, McCartney had unofficially taken over leadership of the group, prodding the others to stay productive, acting as de facto musical director. In a run-through of John’s song “Don’t Let Me Down,” he air-plays the drum fill he wants Ringo to perform and speaks for the group to Lindsay-Hogg and Glyn Johns, the record producer brought in to work on this project for his expertise at recording live rock bands. As he announces at one point in what is essentially the McCartney Doctrine of musical labor value, “To wander aimlessly is very unswinging.”
Jackson shows George quietly stewing as McCartney lords over the sessions and both John and Paul appear to ignore him. When he leaves abruptly after lunch one day, saying, “See you ’round the clubs,” John jokes about calling in Eric Clapton to replace him if he doesn’t come back. Harrison does indeed return in a few days, after the other three Beatles reach out to him, make nice, and agree to give up on Twickenham and work in the Beatles’ own headquarters on Savile Row.
For all his lordliness, the overall impression one gets of McCartney in Get Back is not one of the pretentious dilettante Let It Be shows in scenes not included this time. Rather, one finds a taskmaster gifted with a creative imagination to match his unyielding work ethic—a combination that’s difficult for any musician, no matter how skilled, to manage. For me, the most indelible moment of The Beatles: Get Back is a scene showing the band in an almost desperate need of new material. McCartney starts to strum a G chord on his bass and keeps strumming. It’s hard to tell whether he is noodling aimlessly or in a state of sharp focus, and then we realize both are the case. The strumming begins to take on a pattern, as if on its own, turning into what we begin to recognize as “Get Back” before McCartney has any idea what it is or will become.
In his own way, Ringo Starr proves to be every bit as impressive. No matter what the other three throw at him—old rock ’n’ roll numbers from their Hamburg days, wacky riffs they hatch on the spot—and no matter how many times they make him do the same damn song, he plays flawlessly, beautifully, with precision and heart. Anyone who thinks Ringo Starr was a hapless jobber who lucked into a spot in a great band needs to watch The Beatles: Get Back to see the greatness he brought to the Beatles.
The laughs and fun Ringo remembers abound, though they sometimes feel a bit forced, like acts of will to break the tedium of running through “Let It Be” over and over all day. John comes up with lots of witty quips and makes funny teasing faces at Yoko while she whispers something into Linda Eastman’s ear. (Neither John and Yoko nor Paul and Linda were married yet.) Spontaneously, John and Paul start singing “Two of Us” as if they were both ventriloquists, beaming toothy grins and doing a not-at-all-bad job of not moving their lips.
The famous concert on the roof, shown here in full with gorgeous image clarity and crisp sound, is thrilling, of course, an effect enhanced considerably by one’s having to watch seven hours of rehearsals and studio recording first. As interested as I am in pop song construction, recording technique, and the dynamics of creative collaboration, not to mention the Beatles in particular, I can’t help but feel that Peter Jackson could have trimmed an hour or so from the series. At the same time, I can’t think of a scene I wish I hadn’t seen: You need the hours to fully convey this peculiar stage in the Beatles late history in its full complexity—torturous and fraught with tension, peace, and loving.