While still fresh in my mind I wanted to give some thoughts on the wonderful documentary The Beatles: Get Back. I first watched Let It Be, likely on Betamax, in 1979 or 1980 with my good friend (and still professional musician) Michael. We were nuts about The Beatles. Or, more precisely, Michael was nuts about The Beatles and subsequently I became a super fan. Even at the age of 12 or so Michael knew little bits of trivia about the sessions. I specifically remember him talking about Billy Preston and posing the question “maybe he was the fifth Beatle?”
If you are a long time Beatles fan you probably have some strong feelings and positions about their breakup in 1970. The naive view is that Yoko Ono was responsible! Or that John and Paul were at odds on song writing and production and there was no reconciling. The original Let It Be contributes, I think, to these oversimplified perspectives. I say that not having watched the original documentary in quite a long time; it hasn’t been easy to watch and stream. I was excited to watch this new set of footage, understanding that Peter Jackson is going to bring his own biased perspective to the direction (and possibly Paul and Ringo theirs as producers). Still, more footage along with a more understandable chronology of that January in 1969 should help paint a more complete picture.
One piece of chronology that casual fans may not realize is that the Abbey Road sessions happened not long after the Let If Be (aka Get Back) sessions happened, but the Abbey Road album came out well in advance of the Let It Be album. It makes the Abbey Road medley closing track “The End” all the more poignant knowing it really was the end of their recording material.
Another piece of personal bias to share: I’m very much in the Paul McCartney camp in the Paul vs. John debate.
OK, my takes on the documentary:
- Paul takes a lot of heat for being a perfectionist and alpha in the recording sessions. But come on! Look at John’s behavior during most of it! It was likely the heroine or pot at the root of it, but the guy could hardly finish a song without breaking off into tangential riffs or dialog. He never really gets serious until the actual deadlines are looming at the end of the month. Paul was a model of patience navigating the playfulness (childishness?) of John while trying to keep progress moving.
- It is easy to forget how young they all still were. I want to criticize George for not being able to advocate for himself more effectively, but he’s only 25 years old and he’s up against arguably the two most important song writers of the 20th century. His hero worship of Eric Clapton was notable and telling.
- Ringo is so chill through it all but genuinely looks like he was still having fun when not bored.
- Hearing Paul sing in so many different styles, always with perfection, reminded me of Don Henley when he took over the lead on “Victim of Love” in the Hotel California sessions. There’s just no question he had become the lead singer of the band by this point.
- I loved hearing early versions of so many of the Abbey Road tracks.
- Billy Preston added so much value to Let It Be, and it starts to show immediately as he adds to Get Back.
- If you hate “The Long and Winding Road”, don’t forget that Paul hated the original Phil Spector production too. Go listen to the 1969 Glyn Johns version on your favorite streaming service.
- My last take: rather than wallow in self pity about the demise of The Beatles while watching this, I felt a warm glow of companionship emanating from the four of them even knowing what the next year would hold for them. They clearly still loved to collaborate, and I’m sure that was joy they all felt on the rooftop for their last concert. Let It Be didn’t give me those feelings; I needed to see more of the banter and eye contact (particularly between John and Paul) to feel this way. Again, this probably the story that Peter Jackson wanted to tell, but that’s fine with me.