‘A festering wound’: The true story of the Beatles break-up

Peter Jackson’s unflinching film shows the tensions weighing on the band by the late 1960s

Get Back: Ringo Starr, Paul McCartney, John Lennon and George Harrison play on the roof of their London building. Photograph: Disney+/Apple Corps

Get Back: Ringo Starr, Paul McCartney, John Lennon and George Harrison play on the roof of their London building. Photograph: Disney+/Apple Corps

 

It is a cold January morning in 1969, and three of the four Beatles are assembled in a cavernous film studio in London, with cameras rolling and microphones everywhere. “Lennon’s late again,” Paul McCartney says matter-of-factly as he plugs in his bass guitar.

With Ringo Starr and George Harrison sitting groggily before him, a tray of toast and jam by their side, McCartney starts to strum and sing, searching for inspiration. Within minutes, a midtempo groove takes shape, and a familiar vocal melody emerges. “Get back,” he sings in a faint howl. “Get back to where you once belonged.” Almost like magic, a Beatles classic begins to form out of nothing.

Later that same day, after John Lennon arrives, the four rock deities gather in a circle and bicker. They have loose plans for a concert TV special featuring brand-new songs, but most of the men appear to be dreading it – and may be dreading one another, too. Lennon, who seems to space out for much of the meeting, declares vaguely that “communication” with an audience is his only aim, while an impatient McCartney challenges his bandmates to show some enthusiasm for the project or abandon it. Harrison blurts out what they may all be thinking: “Maybe we should have a divorce.”

The band’s journey in January 1969 began with intense pressure to put on a high-concept live show and ended with something wonderfully low-concept: an impromptu lunchtime performance on a London rooftop

These back-to-back scenes in Peter Jackson’s documentary series The Beatles: Get Back, a seven-hour-plus project that will land on the Disney+ streaming service next week, encapsulate the twin sides of the most contested period in Beatles history – the glory of artistic creation by the world’s most beloved and influential rock band, and the gruelling conflicts that led to its breakup, announced a year later.

For Beatles fans or any student of 20th-century pop culture, these are astonishing glimpses into the band’s working life and the tensions that surrounded them. “It’s sort of that one impossible fan dream,” Jackson says from Wellington, in New Zealand, where he has spent much of the past four years in a darkened editing suite surrounded by Beatles memorabilia. “‘I wish I could go in a time machine and sit in the corner of the stage while they were working,’” he says, describing a lifelong dream like a child praying for the ultimate Christmas present. “‘Just for one day, just watch them, and I’ll be really quiet and sit there.’ Well, guess what,” he continues. “The time machine’s here now.”

Jackson’s film is also a volley in one of the longest-running debates in Beatles scholarship. The band’s journey in January 1969 began with intense pressure to put on a high-concept live show and ended with something wonderfully low-concept: an impromptu lunchtime performance on a London rooftop that reminded the world of the band’s majesty, spontaneity and wit. “I hope we passed the audition,” Lennon quips at the show’s end.

Get Back: Paul McCartney, George Harrison, Ringo Starr and John Lennon. Photograph: Disney+/Linda McCartney/Apple Corps
Get Back: Paul McCartney, George Harrison, Ringo Starr and John Lennon. Photograph: Disney+/Linda McCartney/Apple Corps

That period was already the subject of Let It Be, a 1970 verite film by Michael Lindsay-Hogg; its soundtrack was the Beatles’ final studio LP. In time that film took on a reputation as a joyless document of the band’s collapse, and later testimony from members of the Beatles seemed to buttress that view. Lennon described the sessions as hell, and Harrison called them the group’s winter of discontent.

Yet that narrative has long been challenged by some Beatles aficionados. Lindsay-Hogg’s film, they argue, was selectively edited for maximum dreariness, perhaps to retroactively explain the breakup – Abbey Road, the Beatles’ true swansong, was made after Let It Be but released first – while evidence from bootlegged tapes suggests a mixture of pleasure and frustration familiar to any musician struggling through Take 24 on a deadline.

The mere existence of Get Back is a sign that, more than a half-century after the Beatles disbanded, their history is still unsettled and remains endlessly ripe for deep-dive research and partisan counternarratives. Jackson’s film, arriving with the authority of a lightning bolt hurled from a mountaintop in Middle-earth, may become the final word in the argument over this period, although the story it tells is far from simple.

‘Everyone sort of thinks it’s a whitewash,’ because the Beatles have authorised the film, ‘but actually it’s almost the exact opposite. It shows everything Michael Lindsay-Hogg could not show in 1970. It’s a very unflinching look at what goes on’

Jackson, the Oscar-winning director of the Lord of the Rings trilogy – and an avowed Beatles nut – was given access to nearly 60 hours of previously unseen footage by Apple Corps, the Beatles’ company, with no brief, Jackson says, but to restore the film and tell the full story.

The Beatles, or at least their corporate surrogates, have embraced Jackson’s retelling, and a preview of the film highlights moments of brotherly silliness, like the band dancing and clowning in the studio. At a music industry event last year Jeff Jones, Apple Corps’ chief executive, promised that the new film would “bust the myth” that these sessions were “the final nail in the Beatles’ coffin”. Yet Jackson says the band have had no influence over his work.

“Everyone sort of thinks it’s a whitewash,” because the Beatles have authorised the film, Jackson says with a laugh. “But actually it’s almost the exact opposite. It shows everything that Michael Lindsay-Hogg could not show in 1970. It’s a very unflinching look at what goes on.”

Get Back: the Beatles in the studio. Photograph: Disney+/Apple Corps
Get Back: the Beatles in the studio. Photograph: Disney+/Apple Corps

For fans who remember Lindsay-Hogg’s film or have read dismal anecdotes in any of dozens of Beatles books, Jackson’s scenes of lighthearted antics and creative breakthroughs jump off the screen. We see the Beatles cracking each other up at the mic, mimicking posh accents and performing absurdist slapstick as if in a Monty Python skit.

“You see these four great friends, great musicians, who just lock in and develop these songs, and you see it all on screen,” Jackson says.

Day after day, new material takes shape. Polishing the lyrics to the song Get Back, McCartney and Lennon test out names for a character who departs his Arizona home: Jojo Jackson, Jojo Carter, Jojo Daphne. Shaving off the last name gives McCartney enough syllables for some more specificity in the story: “Jojo left his home in Tucson, Arizona...” Lennon, chewing gum, glances up to ask, “Is Tucson in Arizona?”

The original Let It Be was shot on 16mm film and blown up to grainy 35mm. Generations of fans, if they have seen it at all, have had access to the movie only in crummy bootlegs transferred from videotape. It has never been officially released on DVD or in online formats.

Misery is never far away. At one point George Harrison briefly quits, apparently fed up with his second-fiddle status. In the studio cafeteria Lennon tells McCartney that the band’s rift with their lead guitarist has been ‘a festering wound’

I tell Jackson that when I finally saw Let It Be, 20-odd years ago, my local video-rental shop required a $100 cash deposit. Jackson grabs a vintage VHS copy and says he had long regretted not buying it when visiting the United States in the early 1980s, but the format was unplayable on his machine in New Zealand. While making Get Back he tracked down an original on eBay for $200. “I don’t have a VHS machine,” he says, “so I still can’t play it.”

Jackson’s restored images in Get Back are strikingly clear and help flesh out a story of creative anxiety and creature comforts inside Fortress Beatle. Attendants pour glasses of wine as the musicians rehearse; Yoko Ono paints Japanese calligraphy while Lennon and McCartney, a metre or two away, yuk their way through Two of Us in goofy accents.

But the misery is never far away, and as the arguments grind on it starts to seem miraculous that the Beatles can still come together at all. At one point Harrison briefly quits the band, apparently fed up with his second-fiddle status. In the studio cafeteria Lennon tells McCartney that the band’s rift with their lead guitarist has been “a festering wound”.

The Beatles: Yoko One with John Lennon and George Harrison at the band’s London offices in 1969. Photograph: RB/Redferns via Getty
The Beatles: Yoko One with John Lennon and George Harrison at the band’s London offices in 1969. Photograph: RB/Redferns via Getty

After Harrison walks out the remaining Beatles jam loudly and angrily. Starr tears through the drums. Ono, dressed all in black, stands at a microphone and wails to a wild climax – perhaps the most violent sound the Beatles ever created. A recurring theme is the band’s discomfort over the role of Ono, who sits by Lennon’s side constantly during the sessions and will come to be vilified by fans for her supposed role in the Beatles’ breakup. A companion book to the film, with further transcripts from the tapes, quotes Lennon telling McCartney, “I would sacrifice you all for her.”

Yet it is never clear whether the Beatles’ conflicts are caused by the events of the day or by the accumulated stress of years in the spotlight. Peter Brown, who was a top executive at Apple during this time, says that the troubles began with the success of Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, in 1967.

“They were doing things that they’d never done before, and they were very, very worried that it was going to take off,” Brown says. “And of course it took off like crazy. Then how do you follow that?”

Some of the drama, of course, may be typical band stuff. Neil Finn, of the New Zealand group Crowded House, says that Jackson showed his band about four hours of footage earlier this year. “We all wept,” Finn writes in an email. “So much of it struck a chord with me from my own rehearsals and recording experiences ... Paul asking John if he had any new songs, and John kind of blustering with his answer: Uh, maybe, not really. You can see the others staring in disbelief. I’ve seen that look before.”

If there is a true culprit in the breakup, it was the business conflicts during 1969, when the group tussled over its management, and Lennon and McCartney tried but failed to take control of the company that held their songwriting rights

But the stakes were incredibly high for the Beatles, and the prospect of the band’s dissolution hangs like a cloud over almost the entire film. Early on, McCartney floats an idea for the still-undefined TV special. Their performance, he proposes, would be interspersed with news reports about earthquakes and other “red hot” events around the world. “And at the end,” McCartney says, “the final bulletin is: ‘The Beatles have broken up.’”

To some extent Get Back and the original Let It Be are exhibits in a study of truth. Does the footage actually show the endgame of the Beatles, or has history got it wrong all these years? Does the weight of the evidence point to the band being joyful and creatively fecund or fed up with one another’s company? The answer may be all of the above.

In a note included with a new reissue of the album Let It Be, McCartney writes that the original film “was pretty sad as it dealt with the breakup of our band, but the new film shows the camaraderie and love the four of us had between us”.

Lindsay-Hogg believes that not only fans but likely also members of the Beatles themselves have been misreading Let It Be for years. “I think part of the rap that Let It Be has had is, no one has seen it for a very long time,” he says. “And it got very confused with the time it came out, which was just after they’d broken up.” Of course, the Beatles did not disband in January 1969. They went on to record Abbey Road later that year, with great care; most of the songs on that album – including Octopus’s Garden, Mean Mr Mustard, Carry That Weight and Something – are heard in early stages during Get Back.

Get Back: Beatles nut Peter Jackson. Photograph: James Brickwood/Fairfax via Getty
Get Back: Beatles nut Peter Jackson. Photograph: James Brickwood/Fairfax via Getty

But Jackson’s film makes clear that the end was nigh. If there is a true culprit in the breakup, it was the business conflicts that ensued during 1969, when the group tussled over its management, and Lennon and McCartney tried but failed to take control of the company that held their songwriting rights.

Those problems are foreshadowed in Get Back with the utterance of a single name: Allen Klein, the American business manager who arrives a few days before the rooftop show to pitch his services for the band. Shortly after the events shown in Get Back, Lennon, Harrison and Starr all signed on with Klein; McCartney declined, and the schism was never repaired. Klein died in 2009.

“Our movie doesn’t show the breaking up of the Beatles,” Jackson says, “but it shows the one singular moment in history that you could possibly say was the beginning of the end.”

If Beatles scholarship and fandom have proved anything, it is that even a contradictory summation of the band and its influence can still hold true. The Beatles were a pop boy band that ended up pushing the creative boundaries of rock music further than anyone else; nearly every day of their existence together has been documented exhaustively, although a full accounting of their motivations is impossible.

Get Back seems to contain all those multitudes: the delight, the tension, the fighting and the wonder of the Beatles simply playing music on the roof. “There’s no goodies in it. There’s no baddies,” Jackson says. “There’s no villains. There’s no heroes. It’s just a human story.” – This article originally appeared in The New York Times

The first episode of The Beatles: Get Back begins streaming on Disney+ on November 25th; the second and third episodes stream from November 26th and 27th

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