I have no memory of Beatlemania. The movement, which erupted in the early 1960s and was accompanied in the following years by an outpouring of teenage hysteria not seen since, is history to me, recalled only in books and films.
The Beatles released “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” in 1967, the year I was born. I turned 3 shortly after the group dropped its last album, “Let It Be,” the making of which was artfully documented recently in director and producer Peter Jackson’s “The Beatles: Get Back,” an eight-hour, three-part, semi-voyeuristic look at the Beatles’ final days as they crafted some of rock’s most anthemic tunes, including “Get Back” and “Let It Be.”
I have loved the Beatles’ music since I was a child, so I had to watch this Disney+ film, despite the sometimes gnawing tedium of sitting and waiting for John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Ringo Starr to transform ostensibly everyday material into stardust.
The Beatles are enshrined in my earliest memories, their songs played on the radio long after the group’s demise. For reasons that aren’t entirely explainable, their music became part and parcel of our collective psyche, melodies and harmonies that repeat in a continuous loop in our subconscious, readily retrievable at a moment’s notice.
My Hofstra students know the Beatles, which is remarkable, given that a half-century has passed since the group famously broke up, and yet their music and mystique remain embedded in our culture, passed down from one generation to the next in films like “The Beatles: Get Back.”
The problem with the Fab Four, to my mind, is this: John, Paul, George and Ringo are so often thought of not as human beings, but as icons, symbols of a bygone era that is often romanticized by those who came of age during one of the world’s most tumultuous periods.
Gen X — which immediately followed the baby-boom generation that gave birth to the Beatles — grew up hearing stories from those 10 and 20 years older about cutting school to throng Kennedy Airport when the four invaded New York on Feb. 7, 1964, two days before they appeared on “The Ed Sullivan Show,” a moment seared into American music history. For many baby boomers, there can be no greater rock group.
“The Beatles: Get Back” brought the Fab Four down to earth, at least for me. That’s why, in part, I loved this film. Finally, I got the chance to see the quartet not as media-ready perfection, but rather as people — frazzled, even troubled, full of foibles, bad habits and insecurities.
The film’s first part, documenting the Beatles’ first seven of 21 days rehearsing for the “Let It Be” album, is dark and unruly, showing a side of the group that I had never seen before — a more disinterested, unseemly side. The Beatles, whom I had long thought of as the best of friends, were plagued, it appeared, by strife. Indeed, Yoko Ono is assigned far too much blame for the group’s breakup. It was clear, based on this film, that the Beatles were in disarray without her, though it was bizarre, and I’m sure distracting for the band, the way she just hung around during these early, chaotic jam sessions — and throughout the project.
McCartney was, it seemed, the only glue at this point holding the group together, and the only one capable of managing day-to-day operations and committed to producing exceptional music. Lennon appeared aloof and erratic, likely high. Harrison acted like a petulant teenager, storming off over creative differences with Lennon and McCartney, whom he reportedly thought of as controlling and suffocating because they often dismissed the “quiet Beatle’s” songwriting. Starr was just there, at times playing the role of the smiling court jester to lighten the sullen mood.
In the second two parts, the Beatles moved out of the cavernous, shadowy Twickenham Studios into their intimate and bright Apple Studio in downtown London, where they met up with the ingenious electric pianist Billy Preston to complete “Let It Be.” The mood changed overnight. The Beatles were mates once again, and the four resumed the productive work that had, the story goes, characterized their earlier, cheerier collaborations.
Though “Let It Be” was not the Beatles’ best album, it was nevertheless an extraordinary body of work, producing three of my favorite Fab Four tunes — “Two of Us,” “Let It Be” and “The Long and Winding Road” — despite the collegial challenges that they faced in the beginning.
The Beatles’ fabled unannounced concert atop Apple Corps headquarters, filmed on a typically overcast English day on Jan. 30, 1969, was not so much a concert, I learned, as a somewhat impromptu recording session that London police shut down after a handful of numbers because of noise complaints.
Thank you, Peter Jackson, for showing us the Beatles behind the veil of their otherwise impenetrable popularity.
Scott Brinton is the Herald Community Newspapers’ executive editor and an adjunct professor at the Hofstra University Herbert School of Communication. Comments about this column? SBrinton@liherald.com.