What really happened to The Beatles in 1969
AS departures go, the moment that George Harrison decides to leave The Beatles is anything but dramatic. In fact, it’s so prosaic you almost find yourself laughing. Halfway through the eighth day of filming for Michael Lindsay-Hogg’s 1970 Beatles documentary Let It Be, The Quiet One quietly makes it clear that he’s had enough. “I think I’ll be… I’m leaving,” he says. As he walks off, his eventual return by no means guaranteed, he adds, “I’ll see you in the clubs.” Watching this moment anew on Peter Jackson’s Get Back, his extraordinary three-part re-telling of the story of the group’s rehearsing and recording of the album Let It Be — painstakingly assembled using Lindsay-Hogg’s original footage — it’s hard not to sympathise. If anything, you wonder why it took so long for one of them to do it. At times, it seems that Lindsay-Hogg himself isn’t altogether sure of what he’s chronicling. “There’s a lot of good stuff, but there’s no story,” he sighs, as though that were someone else’s job. In fact, it takes this new eight-hour edit by Jackson, who rewrote the rules of documentary by using painstakingly colourised original footage to throw fresh light on the First World War in his stunning They Shall Not Grow Old, to reveal that the real issue with The Beatles’ Let It Be film project was its original director’s vision for it. On paper, you can see why Lindsay-Hogg — who had an impressive track record, having worked on Top of the Pops precursor Ready Steady Go and arrived fresh from directing The Rolling Stones’ big top extravaganza Rock ‘n’ Roll Circus — thought it might work. There was some logic in his suggestion that the group let him film them for two weeks as they recorded an album’s worth of new songs before performing them at a suitably grand location. Whilst Paul McCartney in particular seems to recognise that something is needed to recapture the spirit of their early days, it becomes apparent watching Get Back that the interests of film-making and music-making are at painful odds with each other. Decamping from the security of Abbey Road for Twickenham Studios is a terrible mistake. Perhaps because of what you already know, the warning bells start to sound at the very beginning. From afar, in a strange grey hangar on a January morning, The Beatles look like they’re on a raft out to sea, equipped with nothing but their instruments. Also in these opening shots are the beginnings of an unfolding tale that radically deviates from the narrative of Lindsay-Hogg’s film. Yes, it’s odd to see ever-present Yoko there variously staring at John or her knitting — but it swiftly becomes apparent that she isn’t anything like the disrupter that fans and biographers have sought to portray. Addressing her closeness to John, he says: “She really is alright. They just wanna be near each other.” Whether or not he did it consciously, casting John and Yoko’s inseparability as the elephant in the room allowed Lindsay-Hogg to distract from the fact that the real (metaphorical) elephant might in fact be his film and the strain it places upon its subjects. What really doesn’t help matters is his perplexing conviction that boarding a boat full of fans bound for Tripoli where they’ll play a gig is the shared objective that will bring everyone together. Suffice to say their irritation at the idea is a far more unifying force than the idea itself. The most famous section in the original Let It Be film also makes it into Get Back — where Paul is trying to teach George the guitar part for Two Of Us, much to George’s rising exasperation. “I’ll play whatever you want,” says George, “Or I won’t play at all if you don’t want me to... Whatever it is that will please you, I’ll do it.” So why is Get Back being touted as such an uplifting corrective to the film whose creation it effectively chronicles? Well, firstly it’s instructive to note just how suddenly the atmosphere changes when, as per George’s stipulation, The Beatles decamp to Apple Studios, whose Savile Row rooftop will finally provide Lindsay-Hogg with the finale he needs. From here on in, Lindsay-Hogg is barely a presence. Back in familiar territory, The Beatles effectively take over the project. A visiting George Martin excitably exclaims: “You’re working so well together — you’re looking at each other...you’re… just happening.” What often makes Jackson’s edit so touching is the love that underpins both their tense exchanges and their tender ones. I don’t think I’ll ever tire of watching Paul’s reaction to John’s inspired punchline to a surreal free-association about the Boy Scouts Association’s apparent ban on masturbation. The engine of the group’s bond hasn’t changed since the formative apprenticeship in Hamburg to which they so frequently refer. Throughout Get Back, when they play music together, any sense that this experiment might get the better of them disappears. It’s their collective superpower, and you see it repeatedly: the day that Paul brings the basic idea for his song Get Back into the room, and from the half-formed melodic murk rises the song you’ve known your whole life; George asking John and Paul to help him on the second line of a new song which starts, “Something in the way she moves…” If they could only keep playing together, everything would surely be ok, but life isn’t like that. In the end, a band is really just an interim family for the years between the one you grow up with and the one you go on to make for yourself. The arrival of keyboard whizz Billy Preston in the sessions offers a brief distraction from the fact that love may not be enough to keep The Beatles together. In a way, he unwittingly has far more success achieving what Lindsay-Hogg fails to do. He’s the impartial witness, the all-seeingeye that ensures everyone presents their best side. And perhaps better than that, his Fender-Rhodes handiwork brings a thrilling new dimension to songs like Don’t Let Me Down and I’ve Got A Feeling. Lindsay-Hogg gets his big ending. But the story he planned isn’t the real story of what happened to The Beatles in January 1969. While we ought to be grateful for his footage, it’s taken 50 years of hindsight, miles of newly-unearthed footage and Peter Jackson to do that. Always wise for his years, the first to call it was Harrison. In the third episode, he ponders: “The things that have worked out best ever for us haven’t really been planned any more than this has. It’s just… like, you go into something and it does it [by] itself. Whatever it’s gonna be, [it] becomes that.” He’s right. None of us get to decide our story. We might think we’re the authors of our own narrative but we’re merely characters in it; whatever happens, happens. Hey, someone should write a song about that. Perhaps call it Let It Be.