By Christopher Sharrett.
Peter Jackson’s new documentary, The Beatles: Get Back, culled from fifty hours of film left over from the 1970 film Let It Be…tends to make [their breakup] rosier than it was, with the band in a mostly kindly mood but for a couple of nasty scrapes.”
The Beatles presided over the Sixties in a manner difficult to grasp, I think, for those not of that generation, even with the steady chronicling of the era. This made the Beatles’ breakup all the more sad, with John Lennon announcing (via his staggering first solo album John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band) that “the dream is over,” knowing that they symbolized the aspirations of the youth counterculture of the day: the end to war, the liberation of humanity from all repression and oppression, as naïve as the feelings were. The breakup brought tears to many, tears made more deeply-felt a decade later when Lennon was shot dead in his adopted home of New York (imagine—he wanted to live with us) by a typical American lunatic, refuting all we believed in, as Ronald Reagan became head of state, rejecting once and for all the dream of pacifism and mutual support. The first phase, the Beatles’ breakup, was accompanied by great bitterness, especially on the part of the Beatles themselves. Peter Jackson’s new documentary, The Beatles: Get Back, culled from fifty hours of film left over from the 1970 film Let It Be, by Michael Lindsay-Hogg (who, for unknown reasons, placed himself in the center of the film), tends to make that moment rosier than it was, with the band in a mostly kindly mood but for a couple of nasty scrapes (although the size of the film might make one drift off, as if entranced by the whole thing). This is all well and good, unless we think of Paul McCartney and associates looking forward to another windfall from yet another Beatles revival of past product, as records by almost every musician who can claim an anniversary issues new old product. Before I speak to this, we might also recall the Beatles phenomenon when it happened, at least in the USA of 1964.
A company called Seltaeb (Beatles spelled backward) marketed a ton of merchandise, from dolls to lunch boxes to bottles of perfume to T-shirts – an endless list of junk. I confess to owning the four little Beatle dolls with their remarkable likenesses, packed away somewhere. The Beatles saw almost nothing from this, such was manager Brian Epstein’s ineptitude, not that the band went hurting for money. The point is that the arrival of the Beatles was accompanied by what The Clash called (on their album London Calling) “phony Beatlemania.” The merchandising preceding (WABC radio commented on every move of the group, with the off-putting disc jockey “Cousin Brucie” acting as another agent) and accompanying the Beatles’ landing in America was a sustained wave of publicity and marketing. This is not to say that the Beatles were without talent – they embodied something beyond talent, not only in their musicianship but their uncanny connection to the zeitgeist. As time passed, they wanted to comment on the Vietnam War, drugs, and the world in front of them, usually stopped by management. But Peter Jackson attempts a perspective that restores the comforting “myth” that Lennon and the more thoughtful members of the Sixties generation viewed skeptically.
The sheer size of the new film, however, gives it an epic aspect, conveying the idea that a sad fate awaited the Beatles rather than their own mistakes and short-sightedness.”
I should say first that the older Let It Be isn’t a doom-and-gloom assessment of the Beatles in their final hour, nor is the eight-hour The Beatles: Get Back a flat-out reassessment that removes the imminent collapse of the band. The sheer size of the new film, however, gives it an epic aspect, conveying the idea that a sad fate awaited the Beatles rather than their own mistakes and short-sightedness, including their failure (and ours) simply to perceive that, at the time, they had outgrown what they had been doing. Eventually, this stood in stark relief for them, as the acrimony became cruel
Jackson’s film is noticeably bright of aspect, his medium making use of the computer technology applied to extraordinary effect in They Shall Not Grow Old, his 2018 restoration of World War I newsreel footage of men in the trenches, on the verge of annihilation. “Restoration” isn’t the right word; Jackson accomplishes a bizarre simulation here out of a Baudrillardian nightmare. They Shall Not Grow Old is a new color film, the human subjects slightly animated and given dialogue, as if the damaged black-and-white reels had life breathed into them by a god of technic. There is something ghoulish here. Jackson’s title points to the obvious – these men indeed do not grow old: they died by the millions for the interests of the few. But the title also suggests that Jackson has power over life and death, or that this wondrous new moving image finally gives all of us such power. And now the dreams of the Sixties, invested in the Beatles, can be given new life.
Let It Be wasn’t that damaged or antiquated, but there was a pall over it, especially given our notion of it in the context of the Beatles’ breakup – and the very mediocre album that was the consequence of the sessions documented, also called Let It Be (I might note that the Slovenian industrial band Laibach produced its own version of the Let It Be album, a growling, deliberate travesty that illuminates the record in Marxian fashion, as it approaches the Beatles as a commodity, the misplaced ambitions of the Beatles as they came to an end).
The Beatles: Get Back has a glow to it that makes pleasant most moments of the group’s last hours, especially those of Paul McCartney. Peter Jackson has been making the rounds of late-night TV, narrating the film for us, telling us what really went on in those recording sessions, including the odd rooftop concert at noon that seemed to be a desperate assertion that the band would go on, even in the face of manifest mutual dislike.
I have a small library of books on the Sixties, including on the Beatles and other bands (if push comes to shove, I’ll take the Rolling Stones, and their blues-based rock and roll, especially after, in 1964, an evil old nun called them “insolent” – they were for me, already adopted a few months earlier). A book I value highly is a set of interviews John Lennon gave to Jann Wenner of Rolling Stone magazine, published as a book entitled Lennon Remembers; this book is extraordinary. It is obviously the memoir of one man, and at an angry moment (Lennon and his wife were just out of “primal scream” therapy at the feet of dubious psychologist Arthur Janov). Few people are as candid in their remarks on life, the arts of their era, “show business” and the people who run it, the worth of one’s own art (or the lack thereof – Lennon is unafraid to call something he wrote “rubbish” or “garbage”). It is important that Lennon’s remarks tend to jibe well with the historical record, which is to say not just journalism, but the best scholarship on the Sixties and the Beatles.
On the subject of the Let It Be film, then fairly recent, Lennon told Wenner in 1970: “I felt sad. That film was set up by Paul, for Paul. That’s one of the main reasons the Beatles ended, cause. . .I can’t speak for George, but I pretty damn well know, we got fed up being sidemen for Paul. After Brian (Epstein, their manager) died, that’s what began to happen to us.”
I don’t wish to take part in the Yoko Ono debate, and I certainly don’t think she “broke up the Beatles.” I’ll say simply that I found her grating; I could never evaluate her worth to the New York and London avant garde.”
Lennon said that, by 1965, he was sick of being a Beatle. When he wrote the song “Help” for the movie of the same name, he was actually crying for help. He referred to this time as his “fat Elvis” period, since he was “fat as a pig and eating and drinking like a pig” (I refer the reader to photos of the 1965 Beatles). He was able to co-create two fine records, Rubber Soul and Revolver, which expanded the possibilities of a phonograph album. Suddenly Paul McCartney presented Lennon with an idea: an elaborate record to be called Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. The project was moving so quickly, Lennon was afraid he would miss it entirely. He didn’t, and contributed an apocalyptic piece that almost saved the record from dating badly: “A Day in the Life.” The album has typical (for the day) psychedelia, but more important is the evidence of McCartney’s sensibility, as he added pop tunes derived from the English music halls, easy for the masses to digest (“Lovely Rita,” “When I’m Sixty-Four,” music Lennon referred to as “Paul’s grannie music”). The conflict in temperament was laid bare fairly early in the Beatles’ story (Paul included “Till There Was You” on the 1963 album, With the Beatles), but very much so with the death of their manager, who could bandage sores on the souls of the four young men that were obvious mainly to him alone.
The reader will notice how the overstuffed White Album, and the subsequent Abbey Road, both hailed today as masterpieces, suffered from the same problem as the earlier records. McCartney tended toward vacuous pop like “Honey Pie,” “Rocky Raccoon”, and “Martha My Dear.” The friction got so bad that the Beatles acted as sidemen for the one performing, according to Lennon. At one point George, who felt the slighted kid brother for years, walked out – a moment Get Back retains. Even the pliant Ringo momentarily left. Meanwhile, the serious-minded Lennon became a bit aesthetically lazy, and tended to record material that needed to be further thought through, like “Happiness is a Warm Gun,” “The Continuing Story of Bungalow Bill,” both needed swipes at American death culture that come off as obvious and a bit silly. And then there was the question of Lennon’s love, Yoko Ono, in the studio all the time, even taking part in the recordings.
I don’t wish to take part in the Yoko Ono debate, and I certainly don’t think she “broke up the Beatles.” I’ll say simply that I found her grating; I could never evaluate her worth to the New York and London avant garde. The basic argument, repeated many times in the books and magazines of the Beatles era and afterward, was that, for the Beatles, the recording studio was sacrosanct. Family members and good friends might drop by for a moment, but they were aware of where they were. Ono would not take her leave, and Lennon would not invite her out. George and Ringo stayed reasonably civil; Paul maintained his perpetual smile. Today, Jackson says there was no problem, and that what we see in the film is simply “two people in love.” But John saw the negativity, saying he hated the song “Get Back,” because every time he played it “he (Paul) was looking at Yoko.”
Lennon expressed his feelings in Lennon Remembers about his bandmates’ attitude toward his new bride:
What were the Beatles’ reactions when you first brought Yoko by?
They despised her.
From the very beginning?
They insulted her and they still do. Yeah, they don’t even know I can see it.
The collage of faces that is the cover of Sgt. Pepper suggests that people of complementary but very different sensibilities can work together, and Burroughs, Stockhausen, Marx, Dylan, and Marlon Brando indeed helped create The Beatles.”
But perhaps agonizing over all this isn’t worth the effort. In his new book Mister Know-it-All, filmmaker John Waters remarks, as he assesses the music of the Sixties, asks “why did the Beatles have to be so goddamn cheery?” Indeed, when I first heard “I Want to Hold Your Hand,” I scarcely recognized it as rock music. This was certainly not the blues-based rock made famous in the Fifties by Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Little Richard, Fats Domino and others. These men seemed to vanish at the end of the decade (Elvis in the army, Lewis outlawed for marrying his teen cousin, Little Richard in the pulpit), so what we had in the early Sixties was vapid pop, except for the occasional provocation like “Louie, Louie.”
But as I think of it, we owe The Beatles a great deal. They and the mostly-inferior British Invasion following after them can be seen not as merely cheery but utopian, a worldview informing much of their early and mature work—the collage of faces that is the cover of Sgt. Pepper suggests that people of complementary but very different sensibilities can work together, and Burroughs, Stockhausen, Marx, Dylan, and Marlon Brando indeed helped create The Beatles.
At the time of Elvis Presley’s death, the late rock critic Lester Bangs said “We never agreed about anything like we agreed about him. So I won’t bother saying goodbye to his corpse – I’ll say goodbye to you.” The quote applies to the Beatles. The thoughtful Lennon said their music was “Sixties music,” part of a time long gone, never to be repeated. The New Left argued that we were too much involved in pot and LSD and Beatles, too little in organizing. Probably so. We can also say that there are still too many hustles around the Beatles, putting aside the records. The Beatles: Get Back is offered to us on Disney+, one of the television streaming “services” to which you pay a fee to watch a program (you can cancel after watching, if you are on your toes), but, as I write this, the company has announced that in February the complete movie will be available on Blu-ray/DVD.
Money over the Beatles keeps changing hands, even though John Lennon and George Harrison have long been in their graves. That’s a great shame, especially because, while I see things through the eyes of a codger, there aren’t very many prospects – politically, aesthetically, philosophically – on the horizon.
Jann Wenner. Lennon Remembers. London: Verso. 1971; rpt. 1996. 23, 44, 100.
Christopher Sharrett is a Professor Emeritus at Seton Hall University. He is a Corresponding Editor at Film International. He has just listened, appalled at its bad ornamentation, to the recording of the Goldberg Variations by Lang Lang, and he will listen to Beatles for Sale.