In the 50 years since the Beatles split, seemingly every known scrap of their history has been scrutinized and curated for public consumption — every minute of studio tape, every radio broadcast, home and concert recording; every photo and interview and document and snippet of film footage — with one huge exception: the “Let It Be” film.
There are several reasons for this, but only one matters: “Let It Be” is a downer. We see our beloved Beatles breaking up before our eyes.
Originally intended as a spontaneous, “as live as live can be, in this electronic age” documentary of rock as it happens, instead we see the group, who had finished recording the 30-song “White Album” just six weeks earlier, miserably trying to have a jolly ol’ time working up even more tunes for the cameras — in the morning, in a dark and cavernous film studio, during a typically gloomy English winter. We see Paul and George arguing, John and Yoko wafting in from a heroin haze, and Paul trying to liven the tepid sessions by taking the helm — instead he comes off dictatorial — while Ringo looks on dejectedly.
Amid the nearly 60 hours of film and even more hours of music spawned by the Beatles in January of 1969, there is indeed some magic — a bounty of great new songs in various stages of completion were debuted — and the famous film-closing “roof jam” creates some sparks. But even as a Beatles-obsessed seven-year-old, I noticed a change in vibe from the joyously cheeky “Hard Days Night” that went deeper than the haircuts. It’s like watching a couple during the weeks leading up to their divorce — and sure enough, within eight months the Fab Four would record their last notes together. “Let It Be” was not intended to be an epitaph, but as the group broke up while the film was being completed, that became the after-the-fact narrative.
Thus, it’s understandable that “Let It Be” has been something the bandmembers and their heirs seemed reluctant to revisit. All of the Beatles’ other official films have received lavish reissues, countless documentaries (authorized and not) have been produced, yet “Let It Be” has been quietly out of circulation for many years; the DVD is “currently unavailable” on Amazon. As the 50th anniversary of its release approached — following splashy, archive-plumbing anniversary boxed sets of the Beatles’ three previous albums — many wondered how the group would approach what is essentially their deathiversary.
In a brilliant move, the Beatles hired a man who knows how to create a climactic finale: “Lord of the Rings” maestro Peter Jackson, whose most recent project was “They Shall Not Grow Old,” a fascinating World War I documentary built around meticulously restored 100-year-old footage. They set him to work on the 56 hours of 50-year-old “Let It Be” tapes, and judging by the five-minute preview he dropped yesterday — “not a trailer or a sequence from the [forthcoming] film, it’s more like a montage of moments” that “give you a sense of the spirit of the film that we’re making,” he says at the beginning — the results are astonishing. It’s been a long time since we’ve been totally, jaw-droppingly surprised by any “new” Beatles anything, but judging by the preview released on Monday, “Get Back” is the final frontier.
Naturally, the sound and visuals are approximately three times as bright as the original film — the audio is cleaner, and it’s much lighter and more pastel-colored than the murky browns and blacks of “Let It Be.” But most remarkably, the mood is three times brighter as well. “Get Back” is a counter-narrative to the glum “Let It Be,” an alternate history that makes you question what you thought about the original.
The not-a-trailer shows the Beatles in the same 1969 setting, but as our beloved Moptops: clowning around, dancing, doing impersonations, embracing, laughing — John reads a newspaper article about George’s recent run-in with a photographer in a hilarious newscaster’s voice — and almost never not smiling.
“Good morning, camera!” Ringo grins at the beginning, followed by John and Paul jokingly singing “Two of Us” through gritted teeth, then by the pair mock-scolding engineer/co-producer Glyn Johns, “We’re bloody stahs, y’know!” We see John introducing the group to the camera as “The Bottles”; George in a lurid pink pin-striped suit with a vivid magenta shirt and heaven knows what kind of shoes. We watch as they pull together the song “Get Back” — “A bit fast-ah, y’think?,” Paul says — and fulfilling the original film’s watch-as-it-happens promise.
There’s a lively supporting cast — longtime producer George Martin, less-familiar figures such as Johns, keyboardist Billy Preston, longtime assistant Mal Evans, Ringo’s first wife Maureen — and even a moment where we see the purported wife-rivals Yoko Ono and Linda McCartney laughing together. We see Paul cuddling with his step-daughter Heather, John and Ringo walking with their arms around each other — a family.
It’s like finding a box of old photographs, or hearing a story that shows how much your aunt and uncle really did love each other, or how cool your mom was. Or, more accurately, it’s an alternate ending to a movie — a “Casablanca” where Bogey gets on the plane.
So how did all of this incredible footage not go into the original film? Maybe the original “Let It Be” was a narrative of its own, and “Get Back” is the counter-narrative. And as in life, they’re both true.
Can this giddy energy sustain an entire film? We’ll see on August, 27, 2021, when it’s finally released, but probably not — Jackson knows that there’s no story without good and bad. For the generation that grew up with the Beatles as virtual family members, this not-a-trailer might feel like reinterpretation-bordering-on-revisionism, with a bit too much of Paul’s eternal sunshine. But so what? Let us have some happiness in our old age.