It’s been real hard to escape the promos. Award-winning movie director Peter Jackson, famed for the Lord of the Rings films and other fare, got the go-ahead to edit the unused footage for that dreadful 1970 Beatles documentary film, Let It Be. Featuring the Fab Four attempting to record a new album and stage their first live concert in three years, the original was dreary and depressing. Yes, I saw it — once!
Now I remember how it all seemed at the time. I was working as the head of the news department of a local radio station in the Philadelphia suburbs. Before my hourly newscasts, I’d run over to the wire service teletype machine — just as you see chugging away in the movies — to check on the the state and national stories.
As most of you know, I’ve been a fan of The Beatles since 1965, when I came to realize their talents were awesome, far beyond the image conveyed in “I Want to Hold Your Hand.” So I wasn’t terribly pleased to see the story, quoting a press release from Paul McCartney.
In announcing the debut of his first solo album, McCartney, Paul said the band had broken up. It was greeted by mixed feelings, not just because of what happened, but whether he might have been the cause. Hint: He wasn’t, and suffered emotionally as a result, and he often spoke of trying to wash away his sorrow with alcohol and other substances.
The album was mostly recorded on his home four-track, where he played all the instruments by himself. To those who followed the Fab Four, this wasn’t anything unusual. He had demonstrated those abilities on various songs over the years. So when Ringo wasn’t available to pound his kit for the recording of John Lennon’s “Dear Prudence,” Paul handled the drums, as he did on “Back in the U.S.S.R.” He wasn’t Ringo, but he was good enough to keep the beat with minimal fuss.
Now on his solo effort, it seemed as if he wanted to demonstrate that, yes, he could do pretty much all of the Beatles stuff all by himself. One of the best songs, “Maybe I’m Amazed,” was a particular example, since it had much of the schtick he’d learned during his tenure with the band. Indeed had they all recorded the song, it probably wouldn’t sound much different since Paul was, well, a control freak who wanted things to sound just so.
So you see that, despite the band breaking up over half a century ago, we can’t stop talking about them.
Maybe it wasn’t just Paul, but John Lennon’s wife, Yoko Ono, who almost always sat next to him during those legendary or infamous recording sessions. You had to feel his bandmates resented her seemingly clinging to him, and were thus encouraged to end the partnership. There were also lawsuits between Paul and the rest of the group over their decision to hire shady recording executive Allen Klein as their manager. Paul wanted them to select his then future father-in-law, Lee Eastman, a respected show business attorney.
If they only knew.
So history shows that Klein was a sham, and tried to rip off the band, resulting in years of wrangling and fractured nerves and egos.
It wasn’t surprising that the memories of Paul and Ringo, the surviving members, were especially unhappy about all of it over the years. The depressing Let It Be documentary probably only cemented their impressions. While the legal wrangling continued, each Beatle managed to carve out a successful solo career.
John and Paul made up, and some feel they might have gotten together to do songs had an assassin’s bullet not intervened in 1980, which left Paul alone. To this day, he says he often imagines what John would say as he works over a new song.
That was then this is now.
In visiting The Beatles holding company, Apple Corp, which made the bandmates and the heirs of Lennon and Harrison millionaires many times over with new releases and rereleases, streaming content and even a 24/7 Beatles channel on SiriusXM satellite radio in the U.S. and Canada, Jackson had a chance to examine the leftover footage from that documentary.
With nearly 60 hours of film and over 150 hours of audio, Jackson clearly had his work cut out for him. After watching a lot of it, he came to the conclusion that this treasure trove of unseen material painted a very different picture of The Beatles’ recording sessions in January, 1969. Yes, there were indications of tension. In fact, George Harrison quit the band for a few days after he got sick of Paul’s domineering ways. Or perhaps that he wasn’t given the chance to present his own ideas, and get more of his songs recorded.
A brief almost hostile interplay between Paul and George over the latter’s annoyance with being asked to play some chords in a specific way has been used as proof that you could see the band breaking up on the screen in Let It Be. It became a pivotal scene. But aside from the few spats, the picture the unseen footage conveyed was that of a band of brothers having fun, joking, jamming and writing classic songs.
Thus began a four-year project during which Jackson used AI to separate voices from instruments in mono recordings to paint what he felt was a more accurate picture of what went on way back when. Film footage was refined, audio quality was improved. It’s hard to believe all that material is so old. On a 4K TV, you’d almost think it was all recorded this year.
The conventional wisdom that John’s relationship with Yoko Ono, a constant presence, was the last straw is very much demolished in the finished three-part documentary. Yes, she is almost always there, but mostly remains quiet, knitting, reading mail, reading the newspaper and occasionally speaking softly with John. Yes they dance, and she does her classic moaning and screaming routines a couple of times with The Beatles accompanying her. Ringo plays drums, Paul plays drums, and there is one scene where he moves his guitar around in front of the sound system to produce the proper amount of feedback. In other words, they not only accepted Yoko, but helped her do her thing.
There’s a scene in which Paul jokes that, 50 years from then, people would say the band broke up because Yoko sat on an amp.
Forgetting the personality conflicts, the very best part of The Beatles: Get Back is observing them creating some of their masterpieces from nothing. An incredible scene depicts Paul noodling around with his bass, playing the instrument as a guitar, and producing the fundamentals of “Get Back.”
John often admitted he worked hard to write songs. Paul just spits them out. Amazing!
Understand that it may well be that Jackson is doing some control himself, perhaps withholding other footage depicting the band arguing or sniping at one another. But he also included the scene of George quitting, something you’ve never seen before. So I’d like to believe he was fair.
Since Barbara and I have spent time in recording studios, we found the nearly eight-hour run time of the documentary seemed to pass by really quick. Yes, we took four nights to see it all, but still.
If you are into classic rock, yes it’s a classic. If hearing such tunes “Get Back” or “Don’t Let Me Down” maybe 50 times and more apiece in various forms of development doesn’t do it for you, maybe you’ll enjoy hearing the beginnings of songs that later turned up in “Abbey Road” or a solo album or two. Or maybe not. Maybe it’ll be too much for you, and don’t forget Jackson has an 18-hour version out there, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see it posted someday as a “Director’s Cut.”
For me, it makes the $1.99 I spent a real bargain. The real question is whether I’ll keep up my Disney+ subscription. That depends on whether I want to watch a surfeit of Marvel Comics and Star Wars stuff. Right now, I think that’s more than a bit much, way beyond the Star Trek excesses at Paramount+. Besides, my budget for streaming content has already been exceeded.
THE FINAL WORD
Gene Steinberg’s Mac Radio Newsletter is a weekly information service of Making The Impossible.
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