Bring a thimble and I’ll pour my thoughts out – Paul Westerberg, “How Can You Like Him?”
After all, I had not only seen the original “Let It Be” film but I’ve read pretty much every biography that’s ever been published regarding not only the Fab Four, but associates of the band. There’s also a few detailed books about the disaster that was Apple Records, the record label they formed in 1968.
None of these documents presented anything positive about these sessions outside of a few of the songs. The movie was dreary, and is mainly remembered for the scene where George Harrison “quit” the band. (More on that later.) By the time the film and album came out, The Beatles had indeed broken up, so this film was (falsely) considered the document of the end days, regardless of the fact that “Abbey Road” was actually the final album they recorded.
So one can see why I was skeptical. Would this be a whitewash with celebrity voice overs trying to tell us that “Let It Be” was their favorite album ever? Would there be the inevitable appearance by Dave Grohl attempting to tell us this was the record that made him want to be a musician?
Many of these fears melted away as news came out that Peter Jackson’s project was expanding. First it became a two-part film. Then came news that the entire rooftop concert would be included. Finally, the deal with Disney+ was announced, and that it was going to be a three-day event that would run close to nine hours.
Within five minutes of pressing play on Thanksgiving evening, I was hooked. There were no celebrity voice overs. In fact, the only sounds you hear in the entire documentary were the sounds created by The Beatles and others in the studio. Any other needed info was delivered via onscreen text.
Going this long, and presenting the footage as a day by day record, also allowed Jackson to include anything and everything. No music documentary has shown the entire process of creating an entire album, from the germ of a musical or lycial idea to the finished take. When the sessions became tedious, as they did quite often, we see how bored they were by going into “Don’t Let Me Down” for the 35th time. Anybody who has ever sat through a band rehearsal or a recording session is familiar with these moments.
Those lesser moments are more than offset by scenes that can only be described as magical. Take the creation of “Get Back”. Early on in the sessions a clearly bored Ringo Starr and George Harrison watch as Paul McCartney is bashing away on his bass. Suddenly this bashing turns into the main riff of “Get Back”, along with some rudimentary lyrics. Over the course of the next few days the entire band then works on the song, with John Lennon making suggestions to fit into the gibberish placeholders that McCartney utilizes while finalizing the lyrics. When the band generates an especially exuberant version in the studio, it’s actually Harrison who suggests immediately putting it out as a single.
There are many similar moments throughout all three parts of the series. Ringo and roadie Mal Evans throw out ideas when Paul is alone with them working on “The Long And Winding Road”. George makes suggestions when Ringo brings in “Octopus’ Garden”, one of his rare attempts at songwriting. John and Paul do the same for George when he shows them “Something”.
One really sees how even as the individual members are growing apart there is still a lot of love there. As many other writers have pointed out, manager Brian Epstein was their father figure, and after his 1967 death the children are now forced to grow up and leave the nest. You can quite often see the joy of “family” members enjoying their time together, especially the grins when they spontaneously jump into old cover tunes, and just like many families that are growing apart you can also see them biting their tongues to avoid saying what they really think.
Which obviously brings us to the Yoko Ono issue. We have been told for decades that it’s her presence in the studio that led to their breakup. It’s simply not true. Yoko didn’t break up The Beatles. Linda McCartney didn’t break up The Beatles. It was going to happen anyway, and if there was any real cause beyond the inevitable growing apart it was the business issues that created most of the contention.
Yet it was rude of John and Yoko to insist that she not only be present at all times, but never be more than a few inches away from him. To be fair, she is harmless throughout the film, mainly knitting or reading tabloids, and there’s no tension between her and the other three. Paul even seems to enjoy the couple of times she does find herself caterwauling into a microphone, but he did also admit on a day that the duo didn’t show up that “there’s like, always only two answers: one is to fight it and fight her and try and get The Beatles back to four people without Yoko…or else the other thing is just to realize she’s there, you know, and he’s not going to sort of split with her just for our sakes”. After all, “it’s going to be such an incredible sort of comical thing like, in fifty years’ time…they broke up because Yoko sat on an amp or something like that”.
But, of course, there were moments of tension, and the walk out of George Harrison is the primary example. The original movie erroneously presented the situation as George storming out after telling Paul “I’ll play, you know, whatever you want me to play, or I won’t play at all.” This actually happened three or four days before the incident happened.
To be fair, it was a similar situation that set George off. While working on “Get Back”, Paul was a bit condescending as he attempted to get George to play something simpler during the verses. He quietly goes through the motions the rest of the morning until they decide to break for lunch. “I think…I’m leaving the band now”, he says as he walks towards the door. Nobody stops him, outside of Mal to talk about residuals, and off camera he reportedly added “I’ll see you at the clubs” as he walked out the door. A bit stunned, the other three immediately talk about possibly bringing in Eric Clapton to fill in for him.
This is the dramatic conclusion of part one. George still has not returned in the beginning of the second part. A couple of meetings with him have gone nowhere, and a hidden microphone secretly tapes John advising Paul to stop treating him like a younger brother. The advice must have worked, as after another off-camera meeting George is back. The Twickenham rehearsal space is (thankfully) discarded, and George has also brought in keyboardist Billy Preston to help fill out the sound.
At this point, everything runs much smoother. They’ve all later said that Preston’s presence led to better behavior from all four of them, but moving into their own studio probably had as much to do with it as anything. The only downer over those last few days are the discussions on how to conclude the documentary. A performance of some type was always the plan, and director Michael Lindsay-Hogg (the real villain of the film) has continued to press for elaborate ideas that none of the band members want to entertain. Despite the fact that he was told on day one that playing in North Africa was not going to happen, he was still pushing this idea as the sessions were coming to an end.
Obviously, they ended up setting up a stage on the Apple Record roof, and the forty minute concert was the exciting finale. In fact, they played so well that three of these performances ended up on the album. But it wasn’t quite the end, however. The band actually came in again the next day and filmed the quieter tunes (“Let It Be”, “The Long and Winding Road”, “Two Of Us”) that would not have worked on the roof.
While the band did walk away relatively (and temporarily) happy with the results, there are moments in the film that may seem like minor moments to those that aren’t Beatles fanatics but are actually precursors to the major issues they would face in their last year together. At one point in the first part, the head of their publishing company, Dick James, visits Twickenham to brag about the various new Beatles covers that had recently been released. A few months later he would sell his shares in this company, which set in motion the band losing the ownership of their own songs.
A few days later, John remarks that he’s leaving to meet with Allen Klein, and the results of that meeting leads him to later tell George how much he was impressed by him. This would ultimately end up being their most contentious disagreement, as McCartney was the lone holdout when the others wanted to hire Klein as their manager.
This film so exceeded expectations, and it’s a testament to the charisma of The Beatles, both individually and collectively. The fact that a stunning film like this can be created documenting their least revered album is truly hard to believe. Now let’s get a soundtrack box set, as the recent “Let It Be” box set reissue definitely missed a ton of great musical moments we saw in this film.
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