The original film was shot almost 53 years ago, seven years before I was born. The Beatles were in their late twenties, nearing the end of their partnership. Covering the fraught 21 days of rehearsing, recording ending with a public performance in early 1969, this film was never released to the public. This documentary is cut from over 60 hours of it. You get to be there, to share the experience, see the band work together, see songs born and grow.
I was shaken by the murder of John Lennon in 1980 and grew up with the music of the ex-Beatles’ solo careers. As a teenager through the nineties, the Beatles took on a status of great bands of the time, their contribution was essential to everything since. I have written about John Lennon’s possible role in the Disability Rights movement in New York in 1972, but I’m not a Beatles aficionado. I know, like and love many of their songs.
In case you are under 40, watched ‘Squid Game’ instead or just haven’t seen this documentary, here is what I took away.
They really were that sharp. Whether from a shared background or the years they had spent together, the banter flowed effortlessly between the Beatles through all three films. This reminded me of their appearance on the Morecambe and Wise show recorded in 1963. The effortless, razor-sharp back-and-forth between Eric and John from 6:40 is brilliant.
ERIC: So, what’s it like being famous?
JOHN: Oh not like in your day.
(Audience laughs nervously and applauds)
ERIC: (to audience) No, don’t clap, that’s an insult that. (To John) What do you mean?
JOHN: (hand by his knee) Well, me Dad used to tell me about you…
ERIC: (interrupting) Only got a little Dad have you?
I have has always wondered if this beautiful exchange was scripted in advance, but when the band meet comedy legend Peter Sellers, it is clear that they really are that quick. Sellars just cannot keep up with knockabout humour, he just cannot get in, floundering on the edge of the conversation. I think the class divide between them is too great. Clearly embarrassed, he says a polite goodbye in his cut-glass accent and leaves a few minutes after arriving.
The Beatles had lost direction. Their Manager, Brian Epstein, had died of an accidental overdose 18 months before. It was he who really inspired and led them. Very early on John refers to him as “Our Daddy”. They were clearly lost without him. I was surprised at how the Beatles had to struggle to get the equipment they had requested, often having to use their own. George laments that Fender wont even give him a free amp. Surely the Beatles are a National Treasure in 1969? Apparently not. They’re told this is because they are not American. I wonder if it was really due to the absence of an effective manager.
Paul was a very gifted musician, but he just couldn’t hold the band together. Throughout the film, Paul can be seen playing everyone else’s instruments. There is no evidence that anyone in the band can read music, but he can see the music. He calls out chord changes and understands harmonies, but requires his colleagues to play as he directs. This dynamic is an interesting one, but it isn’t working. The band talk about breaking up throughout the films, it is more a case of when rather than if. Paul is frustrated, George is emerging as a gifted artist in his own right and John is beginning to move towards Yoko.
Yoko was supportive, not disruptive (in this film, anyway). Although by John’s side all through the films, she does not take any part in the band’s song writing process. The band hierarchy is quite clear and accepted by everyone. Paul explains that her and John just want to be together, and that’s fine by him. When Paul and John secretly recorded having a private conversation, Yoko isn’t there. She seems to be quietly detached from everything is going on around her only focusing on John. However, the filming takes place shortly after both had been through a miscarriage and were using Heroin. It was also a few months before their wedding – well before they started writing and recording together in earnest.
Get Back should have stayed a protest song. It begins life as a song about the race hate preached by politician Enoch Powell a year earlier. Through its development, this song loses this meaning. The Beatles were wary of antagonising the British establishment, but I like to think each member would have wanted to keep the original spirit of that song as solo artists.
Ringo deserves more credit. He is quiet and does not seek attention but is a perfect fit for the band. When someone asks about Ringo, John replies jokingly, “Oh, we don’t bother with ‘im!” He is consistent, and a very expressive drummer. Dave Grohl agrees and salutes Ringo as the ‘king of feel’. He always keeps time and never comes in early or late. Across the films, he receives little direction from the others.
Billy Preston saves the Beatles. The band struggle to polish their songs. They are aware they need to augment them, but still want to be able to perform them in the live show. George asks a friend and talented keyboard player from their Hamburg days join them and he instantly becomes the spark that enables them to record several songs in one afternoon. Amazed by the way that he can just pick up songs and jam along with them, John dubs him the ‘fifth Beatle’. I had assumed that the keyboards were played by Paul on the Let it Be album. Now I cannot hear them without thinking of Billy Preston’s infectious grin. Such was his talent, Billy went on to work with George and John as solo artists and played at George Harrison’s Memorial Concert in 2002.
Yes, it is of its time. The third part of the film focuses on the rooftop performance. It reveals some interesting insights into the culture of the time. Although five cameras are positioned on the rooftop, nearly every shot is of the four Beatles. Billy Preston is there playing the electric piano, but he’s tucked away out of sight and you only get occasional glimpses of him. Where the filmmakers of the time focusing on the four core members of the Beatles or were they filtering out the black man, perhaps for the American audience?
Gender roles are strongly defined too. The women in the film are secretaries, wives or shoppers while the smartly-dressed police constables, musicians, and studio technicians are all men.
I really enjoyed the films, and was fascinated by seeing how the story unfolded. ‘Don’t Let Me Down’ is one of my all-time favourite songs, I hadn’t heard others like ‘Two of us’, ‘One After 909’ or ‘I’ve Got a Feeling’ before, so hearing them several times as they were developed was really interesting. But they were drifting, each band member had so much promise, perhaps only the inevitable breakup could give them all clarity they needed.
Yoko Ono and Patricia Harrison are credited as producers – so we have to wonder if we are being led to make our conclusions. Peter Jackson claims to be a huge Beatles fan, and a disclaimer before each film promises that the events and people are accurately represented. I am very grateful for him bringing this footage to light, but as with any record of past events, it may add to our understanding, but we should always be critical of it.
Richard Brown MBE