One would think that, by the year 2021, we would have exhausted all the new material on the Beatles—probably the most thoroughly investigated band in history. I myself thought that, after listening repeatedly to every Beatles album, learning half their songs, performing some of them, and reading several books about them, I would have little left to learn. Yet this documentary shows that the Beatles are not done surprising us.
Here was the situation: It was 1969, and the Beatles were already under strain. They had stopped performing three years earlier—partly because the drowning wailing of screaming fans had made it pointless—and had devoted themselves to studio albums. Yet this shift had inadvertently weakened the group dynamic, as it allowed them to come into the studio and record their songs separately. Much of their previous album, The Beatles (otherwise known as the “White Album”) was recorded in just such a way.
McCartney, who was most eager to keep the group together, hit upon the idea of going back to their roots and doing a live album, hoping this would help to mend things. A film crew was brought in to document the process, directed by Michael Lindsey-Hogg. Sixty hours of film, and 150 hours of audio, were eventually recorded—but the vast majority of this sat unused and unseen, all these fifty years. Only little more than an hour of it was used in the Let It Be documentary, released in 1970.
Peter Jackson—of Lord of the Rings fame—was given access to this trove of material. And, true to his reputation for epic, in favor of doing a single feature-length film, he has edited this sixty hours of video into a (slightly) more manageable eight hours for this three-part documentary. Indeed, the sheer extent of this documentary has proven to be its most controversial aspect. Speaking as a rabid Beatles fan, I can attest that this film—as good as it is—is a slog. I have made my way through it twice now, and both times it took me weeks, and involved me fighting off sleep. If you are not a Beatles fan, or a masochist, I can virtually assure you that you will not enjoy this.
That being said, the footage is absolutely extraordinary. Lindsey-Hogg, a big Beatles fan himself, strove for a kind of fly-on-the-wall effect. He kept the cameras constantly rolling and even hid microphones all throughout the studio. Invasive, yes, but ultimately fascinating. Peter Jackson took this obsessive need to spy on their every action one step further, by developing digital tools to remove the sound of their instruments (which they would turn up when they did not want to be overheard), leaving only their isolated voices in conversation. Jackson also had the 1970s footage digitally cleaned up, so that everything looks as crisp as a modern television show. The result is a documentary that feels surprisingly intimate and authentic.
The documentary even has a kind of plot to it. Of course, you know, and I know, that the Beatles eventually performed their last concert (with a much-abbreviated setlist) on the roof of Apple Studios. But it was a long and winding road from the project’s inception to that impromptu finale.
The Beatles begin with a ludicrously optimistic plan to write and rehearse enough material to do an entire live album two weeks after filming starts. (Ringo is scheduled to act in The Magic Christian, which puts a constraint on their schedule.) This plan is shown to be foolhardy almost immediately, as the four Beatles jam aimlessly in an enormous movie studio at Twickenham (rented for the documentary), rather desperately searching for new material. Meanwhile, they just as aimlessly try to figure out where to have their culminating concert. Lindsey-Hogg pushes for an old Roman theater in Libya, at one point even contemplating renting an ocean liner to take the band and their audience to this exotic venue. While this heady talk is going on, the rehearsals break down completely. George quits after about a week at Tickenham, derailing the whole plan. The project only recovers its footing when they move to Apple Studios and recruit Billy Preston, a brilliant keyboardist, where they really do manage to get an entire album’s worth of material done. The final concert is only delayed by one week.
Though it may surprise you after reading this summary, the documentary’s main takeaway for Beatles fans was how happy and functional the group was during this time. Lindsey-Hogg’s original 1970 documentary of these sessions, Let It Be, portrayed this time as a joyless slog of constant bickering. There certainly was conflict—after all, George really did quit the band—but the final impression is of four great friends doing what they do best. Indeed, it often seems as if they are having too much fun for their own good: so much time is occupied with unfocused jams and horsing around that the viewer often wonders how they managed to get anything finished at all.
Yet the documentary does have a sad tinge to it, as it becomes clear why the breakup is inevitable. While it would be deeply unfair to blame Yoko for the breakup of the Beatles, her constant presence in the recording sessions is an indication that John’s creative center is shifting away from the group and towards her. Already he is not fully present as a creative force, bringing in only a couple original songs. He and Paul no longer write together.
George, meanwhile, is understandably frustrated with his little-brother role in the group. He has written so many songs—many of them great—for which he has no outlet, as he is only allotted two songs per Beatles record. At one point, he even mentions to John the possibility of doing a solo album (John is supportive). George also comes across as temperamentally at odds with John, Paul, and Ringo—rather serious, somewhat dour, and even a tad joyless compared to the playful dynamic of the rest.
Ringo is revealed to be the rock of the group. He is always on time, always plays great (unlike the others, who can be sloppy), and always game for the next plan. Everyone loves him.
Paul, on the other hand, is starting to get on people’s nerves. After the 1967 death of the Beatles’ manager, Brian Epstein, Paul increasingly stepped into the role of unofficial band leader and taskmaster. Yet this is an awkward role for him. He often seems conflicted between his desire to push the group to be more professional, and his wish not to step on anybody’s toes and just to be one of the boys. Perhaps as a result of this tension, he often contradicts himself in the very same sentence—as if afraid to voice his own opinion—and is constantly heard bemoaning their bad work ethic while himself larking around. Yet it is easy to see why he might feel frustrated. Virtually every time he comes into the studio, he brings at least one new song—and a good one. In one of the documentary’s most amazing moments, we witness Paul sit down and come up with “Get Back,” finishing most of the song before John even shows up. With talent like that, he must have felt as if he was constantly either waiting for his bandmates to catch up or pushing them along.
Of course, this documentary is interesting beyond the light it sheds on the Beatles breakup. For example, you might think that the opportunity to spy on the Beatles as they create an album from scratch would have much to teach musicians and songwriters. Yet as a (very amateur) musician myself, I was surprised at how unenlightening it was to see these sessions. Paul McCartney does not have some special process for writing songs. He does what virtually every pop songwriter does, messing about with chords until something clicks, and then writing a melody over that. It just so happens that when Paul—or John, or George for that matter—follows this process, he writes hits; while when other people do that they mostly write crap. The Beatles rehearsal style also reminded me very much of my own band’s practice sessions—showing up late, jamming endlessly, playing sloppily, and only getting it together as the deadline approaches. Once again, the difference was not the process but the result—not a very encouraging moral for the aspiring musician, but there it is.
One thing that impressed me as I watched this documentary is the oddly everyman quality the four of them have. By that I mean that it is effortless to imagine myself in the room with them, even playing music with them; indeed, it is even possible to imagine being them. Of course, this is a trick of the mind. Many tens of thousands of people have tried to be the Beatles and only four have ever succeeded. Still, though each of them is quite charismatic, I would say (with the possible exception of Lennon, perhaps) their personalities fall within the range of the ordinary. I cannot, for example, imagine myself as Mick Jagger or Keith Richards, or helping to write “Paint it Black.” Those two figures—like many rockers—have personalities so outsized that I cannot even imagine being close friends with them. But Paul McCartney and George Harrison? No problem. And I think this ease in identifying with them is one reason why they are so beloved.
Yet, for me, this documentary, joyous as it is, strikes a strangely sad emotional chord. Probably I am just projecting. Being now at roughly the same age as the Beatles were when they broke up, I saw these recording sessions—the self-conscious attempt to get back to their beginnings—as a last stab at carefree youth. For the Beatles to really work, the four of them had to be absolutely committed to one another—to put the group above everything. Yet this kind of dedication to a group of friends may only be psychologically possible when one is young, without any other serious emotional pulls in one’s life. As the four of them got older, fell in love, got married, had kids—they could not always put the group first anymore. This is quite apparent in the documentary, as girlfriends and wives (and even one child, from Linda’s first marriage) are constantly going through the studio. I do not mean to say that getting hitched is a sad thing. But I cannot help but find it bittersweet that, as we get older, friendship is just not enough.
Be that as it may, friendship is a beautiful thing, as we can see in the best moments of this documentary. The four of them took obvious delight in playing with one another. In spite of everything—the paparazzi, the fame, the deadlines, the pressure of performing, the emotional baggage of the passing years, their evolving personal lives—the four of them were able to be silly, have fun, and make some incredible music. Fifty years later, it still sounds fresh.