I am enough of a fanatic to have been anticipating with great interest the Peter Jackson project regarding the Beatles’ January 1969 Get Back / Let It Be sessions. The 3-part, 6-hour movie is due out late next month on Disney+ channel (for which I will need to get a month’s subscription). But earlier this month the accompanying book came out, as did the expanded box set CD reissue. I’ve now read the former, and listened to the latter on Spotify.
Some thoughts about the project so far:
1) Although 6 hours sounds like a lot, and Peter Jackson has earned some mistrust by blowing up The Hobbit into three bloated, pompous, and tone-deaf movies, I think there’s likely to be enough good material here for the thing to be of great interest, at least to fans. One of the virtues is that, as Jackson has been saying, there is a built-in dramatic structure. Part 1, the Beatles gather for the project in Twickenham Film Studios, blows up when George Harrison suddenly quits the band. But it has been hampered by their difficulty in figuring out, much less agreeing, just what sort of end product they are after. Then in Part 2, the Beatles in Apple Studios, they rebuild the project and their focus with the help of Billy Preston. Finally, in Part 3, they triumphantly take to the rooftop (and also fill out the set of finished album tracks the next day).
2) The box set CD is a bit of a disappointment because it’s overly focused on the end product, i.e., the album they ended up with (plus tracks that appeared on later Beatles or solo albums). It thus misses out on the various byways that they engagingly fooled around with during the sessions – e.g., some very enjoyable versions of oldies (both their own and others’), some of the early tracks they wrote but never seriously recorded, etc. There’s a couple of hours of really fun, if informal and a bit ragged, stuff that has been bootlegged but not will not be getting any official and sonically cleaned-up release.
3) The box set does perform a service by finally releasing the long-bootlegged Glyn Johns proposed Get Back album, which the Beatles rejected at the time. This torpedoed version of the project often has great charm, and is true in some ways to the spirit of the sessions. But it appears to have repeatedly missed out on including the best takes of various original songs.
4) The book with its pages of dialogue is often pretty interesting – some online reviewer compared it to an off-Broadway play. It helps that John, Paul, and George are often articulate and witty.
5) Even in Twickenham, when they are going around in circles a bit, you can see how strong the chemistry between Lennon and McCartney remained. But the tensions do appear to a degree. For example, when John is not around Paul says how odd it might seem in 50 years to learn that the group broke up because someone got mad about Yoko sitting on a speaker. And he discusses John’s turning away and that there’s nothing they can do about it. Meanwhile, John waits until Paul is not in the room to tell George that he should really meet with Allen Klein.
6) George is a very active and often skeptical participant in discussing the plans for the sessions. And he’s a bit of a bystander when John and Paul are goofing around. But, apart from the famous (and here somewhat expanded) “I’ll play whatever you want me to play” spat with Paul, he doesn’t voice his frustrations, so his quitting seems to come out of nowhere.
7) It’s been much-noticed that the original Let It Be movie focused on dysfunction, while the Peter Jackson version is expected to focus on how joyful the sessions often were. It seems from the book as if both versions have some validity. They’re still great friends and collaborators, and the tensions are palpable at times yet usually subterranean.
8) The audacity of the project still in some ways amazes. Here’s a group that had just finished a 5-month slog through recording a 90-minute double album, at which they had experienced both the joy of playing live together again (as they had not really done in the Sgt Pepper era) and the first emergence of irreconcilable differences. The White Album had come out less than 6 weeks ago when they first showed up in Twickenham, and of course was #1 on all the charts, when they start working every day in the midwinter to accomplish at warp speed a new project that they haven’t figured out for themselves (nor do they have songs ready when it starts). So they put all this extraordinary pressure and strain on themselves, partly at Paul’s behest but seemingly with some buy-in from the others, because they … Well, this part isn’t 100 percent clear. As good an explanation as any is that they are mourning their lost youth, much of it spent playing together, and are trying to see if they can, yes, get it back, right here and right now.