By Madeline Bocaro
© Madeline Bocaro, 2021. No part of this site may be reproduced or re-blogged in whole or in part, in any manner without permission of the copyright owner.
Wow! I was just on a rooftop with the Beatles in swinging London, 1969!
I really wanted to stay there, but the only reason that I have returned to miserable 2021 is to tell you all about it!
This wonderful three-part Beatles documentary series streaming on Disney+ on Thanksgiving weekend is the ultimate rock doc! The film is a deep dive – a dream come true for Beatles superfans. The incredible sights and sounds sent our pituitary glands firing on all cylinders, displaying all the colors and memories of our favorite place and time, like beautiful fireworks! And we are there! For nearly a whole day, we are transported to idyllic 1969 London – with the clarity of hyper-reality. We revel in the many nuanced revelations – presented here in multitudes.
We are steeped in the nostalgia of four beautiful guys whom we have known intimately and have loved dearly for most of our lives. In many ways, we have grown with them. Their extraordinary music captures a magical time gone by, which permeates our lives.
The Beatles are terribly missed – especially the two who are no longer with us. The poignance of the film is in the tragic things we now know to be true, of which they were blissfully unaware. We mourn the unsung joys that were robbed from us all. The wonder is in the extent of what these four young men in their twenties had achieved in less than seven years. Here, they are frozen in time, in their prime.
It is the miracle of undeniable truth being told – unearthing a time capsule or unfolding a secret scroll. Seeing through the mythology makes it no less of a myth. The story is complex, and at once intimate and grand. With the benefit of hindsight and documentation, many misconceptions are now undoubtedly corrected.
This is a story of fond memories, of friendship and brotherly love. It is also about moving on and letting go. It answers decades old questions. It is also the story of the most beloved band in the world, growing and changing, while one member tries desperately to hold it all together. Now, we are eavesdropping on intimate conversations, feeling their pain, laughing at their extremely witty humor, and enjoying the depth of their sometimes telepathic connection.
As our heroes ride off into a prolonged and difficult sunset, it is nonetheless beautiful to watch. Through pain and anger, joy and sorrow, the breakdown of the Beatles is summed up in the immortal words of a song by George Harrison, which is rehearsed during the Let It Be album sessions (with John on keyboards). First known as ‘Sunrise,’ the song doesn’t make it onto the album, but later becomes a Harrison classic.
Sunrise doesn’t last all evening
A cloudburst doesn’t last all day…
It’s not always gonna be this grey
All things must pass
All things must pass away.
At almost eight hours long, this epic three-part series (compiled by Peter Jackson) is the earliest day-by-day reality show. It happens to be about our favorite band. Bits of this, initially released in 1970 (as the film Let It Be) by Michael Lindsay-Hogg shows extreme tension, disagreements, bickering and rivalry amongst the Beatles. Let It Be is about the band’s unravelling, and not much else. (Lindsay-Hogg is now a character in Jackson’s film). His edit was so heartbreaking that it was shelved after its cinematic release, and never reissued in any other visual format since an early 1980s VHS and laser disc.
In Apple’s vaults, Jackson unearthed nearly 60 hours of film (and double the amount of audio) which was shelved for 50 years. It could be edited to illustrate how tense the sessions were, or alternately how much love and fun these lifelong friends shared – or both! Jackson’s edit tells the complete story. Ironically, this is what Beatles did not want us to see, yet it is riveting and exhilarating. Jackson reveals the truth and highlights the positive, showing the band’s entire creative process.
The historic footage was shot in January 1969, only weeks after The Beatles (double white album) was released. They spend three weeks writing and recording. They begin in the cold and cavernous Twickenham film studios, which makes these legendary musical giants look small. The Beatles return to their roots as a basic four-piece band, leaving behind all the studio enhancements, which they could not pull off live.
After some written disclaimers, including “Explicit language” and “Lots of smoking,” part one covers days 1 through 7. It starts with a fifteen-minute history of the band, from the Quarrymen to Beatlemania.
Morning after cold morning, John, Paul, George and Ringo wake up at an ungodly hour for work at Twickenham, each of them rubbing their hazy eyes. Paul begins to sing ‘I’m So Tired.’ John falls asleep at the piano. The disheveled, unwashed foursome get through the recording sessions for what would be released as their final album (although they would make one more, Abbey Road). John is sometimes wearing same clothes as the previous day. He jokes that they are “continuity clothes.”
They subsist on bread rolls, toast and marmalade. Even Spinal Tap had better catering! We would all be cranky too, on such a diet. George says, “We’ve been in the doldrums for at least a year. Ringo remarks, “We’ve been grumpy for the past 18 months. Since (manager) Mr. Epstein passed away it’s not been the same.” This is no longer their dream job.
On several occasions, John begins singing the pleading lyrics to his song ‘Help!’ John is subdued and passive in part one (allegedly zoned out on drugs), with Yoko Ono always by his side. (He becomes more animated in part two, when the sessions are moved to the cozier basement studio of Apple Records offices, which they all prefer.
At this time, John was extremely possessive, and brought Yoko everywhere with him. Yoko put aside her multi-media art career to be with John. She is very quiet, and obviously bored yet respectful during the sessions. She is reading magazines, knitting, and doing calligraphy. Sometimes she is seen grooving to the music. Throughout the film, there is an occasional impromptu John and Yoko waltz, exemplifying the pure joy in their togetherness. She is seen talking with Linda, and jamming with the band, while Paul rocks feedback on guitar. Paul later comments to John, “After this is over, you’ll be off somewhere in a black bag.” (Bagism). John replies, “Yeah.”
(John and Yoko had recently suffered the miscarriage of their child, and an unfairly arranged arrest for drugs, which would affect their lives for many years. They were verbally attacked by the press as well).
George cited the time as “the winter of discontent.” John later referred to the sessions as “hell.” Although John and George were disgruntled, Paul was striving to make it fun. Ringo is the happiest, most balanced and steady presence in the film. As always, he keeps the perfect beat in many ways, without needing much direction. Thank God for Ringo!
Long-time producer (and father figure) George Martin is present at the sessions. He seems uncomfortable and heartbroken.
Though John was once the band’s leader, Paul is now the most dedicated, begrudgingly taking the lead role. Paul holds on for dear life, trying to keep his closest friends and his favorite band together. He would be devastated if they split. However, in his utmost desperation, he pushes them away. We must sympathize. He becomes extremely emotional, on the verge of tears. He is trying so hard. When he gets pushback, Paul explains, “I never get any support… I’m scared of me being the boss, which I have been for years.” (He would resort to drinking once it all broke down 14 months later).
This situation is relatable. It is the story of every band, but the Beatles situation was at an extremely concentrated and accelerated pace. They had only played at The Cavern just over six years ago. Sgt. Pepper’s… was released eighteen months prior, and The Beatles (white album) two months ago. They are all in still their twenties.
We watch Paul compose ‘The Long and Winding Road’ while only Ringo is paying attention. Friend, roadie and assistant Mal Evans writes down the lyrics. It’s lovely to see Mal’s involvement (especially in light of his horrific death), specifically his anvil expertise during ‘Maxwell’s Silver Hammer’ which would later appear on Abbey Road.
As Paul plays the chords to ‘Let It Be’ on the piano, Ringo, while dreamily watching, says,
“I’d watch an hour of him just playing the piano. So great.”
Despite having no manager (Brian Epstein died in 1967), the band members are also planning the logistics of a live televised concert in an exotic location TBD (which would have been the first Beatles gig in three years, and knowingly their final one. They want to go out with a big bang. The songs, the time and the place are unwritten and undetermined. Several wild ideas range from an outdoor amphitheater (an ancient ruin) in Libya, to a cruise ship, to an orphanage, or (in a flippant suggestion by Paul, which might have been the best idea) at The Cavern in Liverpool. Jokingly, Manila is suggested (recalling their debacle there in 1966)! Glyn and Linda suggest Brighton. Paul jokes, “Stay out of this Yoko!” (Yoko bashing is already a pre-internet meme). Elsewhere Paul presciently jokes how silly it would be in 50 years’ time if the cause of the Beatles breakup was because Yoko sat on an amp. Memes do come true!
The director thinks that the concert might make things better, as John and Paul been bickering. John says, “That’s what I was thinking.” John is agreeable to an outdoor location, “So the sun comes up just on the middle eight.” He wants it to be all about communication. George nixes the live show. Ringo does not want to leave the country (his one-time substitute Jimmie Nicol is jokingly suggested), but the concert talks continue throughout the film. John pushes for a transparent plastic stage set (prefacing Plastic Ono Band), “And I’ll have the plastic when you’re finished with it.” The concert would not happen on the large scale that they had imagined.
In part one, George is obviously pissed off. His creativity has been stifled for years. When Paul gives him one too many directions, George famously replies, “I’ll play what you want me to play. Whatever it is will that please you I will do it.” Here, we finally see George quit on day 10 of the sessions with some quiet words. “I think I’ll be leaving the band now. Call NME and get a replacement.” Ironically Georges departure occurs during the togetherness of Lennon and McCartney rehearsing ‘Two of Us,’ after which Paul tells John to stop playing, so that he can discuss an arrangement. The rehearsals continue without him. Everyone pretends that nothing has happened. The band play some of their favorite oldies. John jokingly says, “OK George, take it!”
(George was also having marital problems at the time).
Part one ends with everyone going wild on a Yoko jam. Then, a poignant scene… three Beatles huddle, hugging each other in despair and in shock, missing George and planning their next move. The soundtrack is George’s own song (first written in 1966), yet another of his which did not make it onto the album and would later appear on his album All Things Must Pass. A Beatles rehearsal of the song plays over part one’s final tear-jerking scene…
Isn’t It a pity
Isn’t it a shame
How we break each other’s hearts
And cause each other pain…
And because of all their tears
Their eyes can’t hope to see the beauty that surrounds them
Isn’t it a pity?
The final caption tells us that they all meet at Ringo’s house the next day. The meeting does not go well.
At the start of part two, Ringo indicates that the meeting with George “fell apart.”
With George still gone,
John is not answering his phone.
Paul is visibly shaken, on the verge of tears.
He utters the eerily prophetic words – considering the future scheme of things,
“And then there were two.”
Paul now realizes that John prefers Yoko over the Beatles, and makes statements that are understanding of their love. He is prepared to compromise. Paul: “She’s great. She really is all right. They just want to be near each other.”
A microphone hidden in a flower bouquet in the cafeteria captures Paul and John discussing their failed meeting with George. We hear John say, “It’s a festering wound, and yesterday we allowed it to go even deeper, and we didn’t give him any bandages.” There is never an unkind word, but Paul is effectively and politely reprimanded by John. Paul’s conclusion is, “Probably, when we’re all very old, we’ll all agree with each other and we’ll all sing together.” They plan to visit George again that day, but he’s gone off to Liverpool.
Everyone hopes that George will be convinced to return. He does come back, and we also get the surprise return and re-awakening of John, who comes alive in the second episode. It’s great to have him back!
(Paul never sang with John again after the break-up, and John did not get to grow old at all).
A move is made from Twickenham, into Apple’s basement studio. George thinks that Apple’s quickly set up studio is the nicest place they have ever played. He feels that he’s “getting loose” especially after he brings in Billy Preston who breaks the ice and gives them wings. There are intermittent deliveries of new instruments; an electric piano (for Billy), a Hawaiian slide guitar (immediately mastered by both John and by George) and a Stylophone!
The live TV concert is abandoned. There are rehearsals of John’s songs. He wrote ‘One After 909’ at age 15. Both ‘Gimme Some Truth’ and ‘Road to Marrakesh’ / ‘Child of Nature’ which later morphed into ‘Jealous Guy’ ended up on Imagine (1971). Paul also debuts songs which would later appear on his solo album; ‘Another Day,’ ‘Teddy Boy’ and ‘Back Seat of my Car.’ We also catch audio glimpses of unfinished songs, the most interesting being ‘Madman’ and ‘Castle of the King of the Birds.’ Throughout the film, they jam on some favorite oldies, including a few by their first band, the Quarrymen.
‘Two of Us’ is beautiful, with John and Paul on acoustic guitars (no bass). New light shines on the lyric as John and Paul sing to each other, “You and I have memories longer than the road that stretches out ahead…” and the nostalgic line “we’re going home.” John plays a Hawaiian slide guitar on George’s song ‘For You Blue’ and we see the actual take!
‘Get Back’ is the song that is worked on the most in the film. The lyrics were at one time in protest against U.K. immigration restrictions.
Time is running out, and final plans are still undecided about the live concert and the album. At this point in the film, we hear the young director say, “I don’t know what story I’m telling anymore.” Ringo replies, “You’re telling the autobiography of the Beatles!”
Here we see Ringo composing ‘Octopus’s Garden at the piano, with George on guitar and John on drums.
On day 14, Linda McCartney is taking more of her masterfully beautiful photos as her young daughter Heather playfully interacts with the band members, who joke with her about eating kittens. Heather playfully mimics Yoko’s scream-fest. Somehow, it is OK when she does it. John is delighted! When George arrives and is told that he missed it, he says, “I felt it as I left the 2nd floor!” Yoko whispers to John the news that her divorce has been finalized.
George reveals his song ‘Something,’ which he’s been working on for six months. It would later appear on Abbey Road. It is amazing that the others do not recognize this as the greatest song of the 20th century! Without George’s return, we wouldn’t have this masterpiece, nor ‘Here Comes the Sun.’
January 25th is day 16 of the proceedings. Paul speaks about film of their 1967 visit to India to meditate with Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, and the color films are shown. Paul tells John, “You’re walking (with Maharishi) but it’s just not you.” About trying to find themselves, George mystically comments, “The biggest joke is to be yourselves. If you really were yourself, you wouldn’t be any of who we are now.”
Now we can watch the actual take of ‘The Long and Winding Road.’ Paul considers it to be “in the style of Ray Charles.” George Martin suggests adding strings. The band gather around the piano to read and laugh at newspaper headlines about themselves, especially those about John and Yoko. From their bubble of isolation, the papers are the band’s only news source.
Nearing their deadline (Ringo is leaving to fulfill his film commitment in the film The Magic Christian) Paul asks how many good songs did they have so far? John answers “None.”
(Actually, not only did they have enough songs for a new album, but for two – some of the future Abbey Road songs had already been formulated during these sessions).
Paul declares his feeling that this is all a bit aimless, and “only about us doing another album” which has no payoff. He is trying to produce, but it’s hopeless. John says that he’s tired. Glyn Johns suggests that they focus on a couple of songs instead of several at a time.
With Paul out of the room, George tells John that he has enough songs for the next ten years. He suggests doing his own album – and that they could each do the same “and preserve the Beatles bit too.” This was the best unheeded advice ever! (The director says that Paul’s reaction to this viewing this scene 50 years on, is that he wished he would have known. George would soon release his triple solo album, All Things Must Pass).
John and Billy play a stunning version of ‘I Want You (She’s So Heavy)’ while singing “I had a dream” and other lyrics about equal rights.
John tells George about a potential new manager, Allen Klein whom he is meeting with the next day. Glyn Johns sort of warns against it. Another unheeded warning.
Although the grand-scale live concert never materialized, there was the one on a rooftop…
Up on the Roof!
Paul is again visibly nervous about the project when director (and sound man Glyn Johns) suggest that they play live on THE ROOFTOP of Apple. Paul’s smile widens, and off we go. They visit the roof to check out the complicated logistics. They decide not to request a permit, and deny the fact that the roof might not withstand their weight. The ensuing chaos will give their plot the edge that it needs!
George is opposed to a performance on the roof of 3 Savile Row, but the other three are not. John suggests that one of George’s songs be played. When they complete their set list, they realize, “We’ve got an album!”
The concert footage is gorgeous! Every detail is shimmering in utmost clarity.
The Beatles look beautiful, and WE ARE THERE!
We are also presented with multiple camera angles.
From above, we see a dreamlike snapshot of long-gone magical era in 1969 London – before all innocence was lost. From below, stunned and joyful pedestrians gaze upwards, straining to see the most beloved band in the world – not knowing that this would be the last time. The fans are more mature now – there is none of the hysteria of Beatlemania, which regrettably suggests that maybe the band could have done live shows again.
A few of the spontaneous rooftop performances during the full 42-minutes appear on the album, some of which were performed twice. Despite the many studio attempts, the best takes were the ones with freezing fingers and an audience!
There are interviews with staunch, gruff businessmen in bowler hats, annoyed at the loud disturbance of their lunch break. The cops are angry, yet ridiculously polite, nervously expecting the situation to get out of hand as bigger crowds gather.
Between songs, each Beatle takes a turn peering over the rooftop edge at the crowd below – elated in their successful act of mischief. Especially Paul. This is exactly what he had envisioned. From a hidden camera in the reception area at Apple, we witness the hilarity of two squirming, overly-polite police officers (and their Sergeant) attempting to shut down the concert citing ‘disturbance of the peace.’ The Apple receptionist Debbie (in tandem with Mal) does a great job of feigning ignorance and stalling the policemen, who gradually get to the rooftop, standing helplessly in silence while the music continues. The Beatles are loving every minute of this. Now they have their film’s ending!
On the rooftop, in the afternoon of January 30, 1969 we also see Yoko Ono and Maureen Starkey. (Pattie and Linda are absent). It was such a cold and windy day (especially high up on the roof of Apple Corps.) that everyone’s hands are freezing. They wear fur coats. Ringo wears his wife Maureen’s red plastic raincoat. George wears a thick wooly black coat. Instead of being prepared for the weather, Paul endures, wearing only a suit blazer!
Mal switches off a couple of amps to appease the angry policemen. Rebel George (the only Beatle who did not want to play on the roof) defiantly turns his amp back on, as the others keep right on playing without missing a beat! This turns out to be the Beatles’ final public appearance.
Everyone is elated during the playback. Paul holds Linda’s hand, as Ringo sweetly puts his hand atop theirs.
The rest of the recordings are quickly finished the next day, January 31st with smiles all around. We see the actual take of ‘Two of Us.’
(Eva Majlath, the actress in John and Yoko’s film Rape, looks on. Eva was brutally murdered in 1998).
The film ends with the album take of ‘Let It Be’ with Paul’s gorgeous vocal (as John silently mocks him, pulling silly faces). Knowing that is going on will make me laugh whenever I listen to it now.
I’m so happy to still be alive and able to witness this gift of awakened memories. If we don’t have much time left in this world, we might as well spend it with the Beatles! I couldn’t help thinking of all the Apple scruffs (it was lovely to see Sue and Eileen in the film) and superfans Lizzie Bravo and Gayleen Pease, who left us not too long ago, just short of seeing this miracle unfold. Many thanks to Peter Jackson for this precious gift.
Mal Evans was shot to death by four bullets in 1976.
John Lennon met exactly the same fate in 1980.
We lost George Harrison twenty years ago, on November 29, 2001.
Billy Preston died in 2006.
And, in the end…
Worldwide devastation ensued upon the official announcement of the Beatles’ split on April 10, 1970. The ‘Let It Be’ single was No.1 at the time.
It’s amazing that after this raw and disorganized debacle, the band went on to make their final classic, more polished album Abbey Road, which was released prior to Let It Be (because of the wait to coincide the release of the album with the completed film). At least ten Abbey Road tracks were rehearsed during the Let It Be sessions.
Paul and Ringo were pleasantly pleased by the film, and sadly John and George never got to see it. But their children were present at the previews, falling in love with their iconic parents all over again.
It is undeniably clear that the breakup of these four friends (despite a strong brotherly connection and all they had been through together) was due to managerial, legal and competitive tensions. But through the magic of film and in the fact that their timelessness has carried them through history, our intimate friends John, Paul, George and Ringo are forever with us, eternally young and always in our hearts. This film has brought them to life more than ever before. It reveals the depth of their life-long bond. This is what makes these four beautiful guys so endearing.
When the Let It Be album was released in May, some tracks were embellished with strings by producer Phil Spector, which Paul did not care for, as the album was about getting back to basics. In 2003, McCartney released a stripped-down version, calling it Let It Be Naked. Ironically in the film, George Martin tells Glyn Johns that he and Paul had discussed adding an orchestra.
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